Hype and scep­ti­cism pre­vails over China’s new ‘ Mother of all Bombs’

The Asian Age - - Oped - Bhopin­der Singh

The race to de­velop the most pow­er­ful non- nu­clear- bomb has es­ca­lated. Re­cently, the Chi­nese have joined the club with their own ver­sion of the Mother of all Bombs, weigh­ing sev­eral tons.

The psy­chol­ogy of sov­er­eign power fu­els the quest for de­vel­op­ing the “big-big­ger­biggest” phe­nom­e­non in weapons among the most pow­er­ful mil­i­taries in the world. Even though the op­er­a­tional nu­clear weapons and tech­nol­ogy have been around since the 1940s, the global non- pro­lif­er­a­tion treaties and non- use com­mit­ments have en­sured that the par­al­lel de­vel­op­ment of “con­ven­tional” weaponry that still skirts the var­i­ous pro­vi­sions, de­ter­rence and pro­to­cols on nu­clear weapons usage, con­tin­ues un­abated. While China and In­dia have pledged a “No- First- Use” ( NFU) stand on nu­clear weapons, the more bel­liger­ent states like Pak­istan, Is­rael and North Ko­rea have de­clined to com­mit to a “NFU” stand, as a means to pos­ture ag­gres­sive- de­ter­rence against per­ceived en­e­mies. The United States, Rus­sia and Nato re­tain a “pre- emp­tive first strike” stance, with var­i­ous caveats to jus­tify their “de­fen­sive in­tent”, and so far the first and last time such weapons were used were the “Lit­tle Boy” and “Fat Man”, by the US in Au­gust 1945 against Ja­pan in Hiroshima and Na­gasaki re­spec­tively.

All global con­flicts since the Sec­ond World War have ne­ces­si­tated the ex­clu­sive de­ploy­ment of “con­ven­tional” weapons. The ob­vi­ous race to de­velop the most pow­er­ful non- nu­clear- bomb had led to the fa­mous “Daisy Cut­ter”, or the BLU- 82, in the United States. This 6.8ton high- in­ten­sity mon­stros­ity was ex­ten­sively air­dropped in the con­flict zones of Viet­nam, the Gulf War and Afghanistan to in­ti­mate with “shock- and- awe” tac­tics, flat­ten ar­tillery em­place­ments or clear he­li­copter land­ing points in en­emy ter­ri­tory. Bri­tain’s Spe­cial Air Ser­vice ( SAS) unit in the Gulf War had mis­tak­enly re­ported back to its head­quar­ters that the US had “nuked Kuwait”, after see­ing the im­pact of these BLU- 82s! Later, these BLU82s were re­placed by the GBU- 43/ B Mas­sive Ord­nance Air Blast ( or MOAB, which earned a more pop­u­lar moniker “Mother of all Bombs”). This 10- ton ex­treme weapon of in­tim­i­da­tion was first used in com­bat on an ISISKho­rasan cave com­plex in the im­preg­nable Nan­garhar prov­ince of Afghanistan and led to the killing of 94 ISISKho­rasan mil­i­tants.

Not to be out­done, the US’ Cold War ri­val Rus­sia field­tested its “Avi­a­tion Ther­mo­baric Bomb of In­creased Power” ( ATBIP), or the “Fa­ther of all Bombs” ( FOAB), in 2007, a ther­mo­baric weapon of smaller phys­i­cal di­men­sion, but with sup­pos­edly dead­lier im­pact — 44 tons of TNT or four times more dam­ag­ing than the US “MOAB”! Given its de­struc­tive ca­pa­bil­i­ties which match those of a smaller/ tac­ti­cal nu­clear weapon, with­out a sub­se­quent ra­dioac­tive fall­out out­side of its blast ra­dius — the race to de­velop the most pow­er­ful non- nu­clear- bomb has es­ca­lated. Re­cently, the Chi­nese have joined the club with their own ver­sion of the “Mother of all Bombs” — be­lieved to be ap­prox­i­mately 6m long and weigh­ing sev­eral tons, only one was able to be air­lifted and dropped by the H6- K Chi­nese bomber air­craft. Like the Rus­sian ver­sion, the Chi­nese claims of its de­struc­tive abil­i­ties can­not be tech­ni­cally ver­i­fied. The rel­a­tively smaller size and lighter weight of the Chi­nese MOAB gives it the osten­si­ble op­tion to be car­ried in a bomber air­craft, un­like the Amer­i­can MOAB that re­quires a trans­port air­craft to op­er­ate the same, given its gar­gan­tuan weight and size. The Chi­nese sta­te­owned con­glom­er­ate and arms man­u­fac­turer, NORINCO, is be­hind the Chi­nese MOAB.

How­ever, un­like the range, speed, ac­cu­racy and “un­de­tectable” hom­ing abil­i­ties of a mis­sile sys­tem — the de­liv­ery of these mega bombs are ob­vi­ously less stealthy and typ­i­cally us­able in sit­u­a­tions where the en­emy has in­ad­e­quate air de­fence sys­tems on the ground or air to counter the drop­ping of these bombs, such as the drop­ping in Afghanistan against the ISIS- Kho­rasan el­e­ments. Mil­i­tary an­a­lysts are also a lot less en­thu­si­as­tic about the long- term im­pact and ef­fi­cacy of the much- hyped US MOAB strike in Afghanistan, as ISIS mil­i­tants still dom­i­nate that par­tic­u­lar area. It is ar­gued that in­stead of achiev­ing any strate­gic or even tac­ti­cal mil­i­tary ob­jec­tive, it per­haps earned US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump the po­lit­i­cal brag­ging- rights of mus­cu­lar­ity. There­fore, while it is yet an­other feather in the cap of the Chi­nese arms man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try, it poses no im­me­di­ate headache to In­dia’s se­cu­rity cal­cu­lus, given the air de­fence and re­lated se­cu­rity sys­tems. How­ever, rid­ing on the back of the re­cent Chi­nese bel­liger­ence on threat­en­ing to blow up Amer­i­can naval ships and tak­ing over Tai­wan by force — the lat­est show­case of Chi­nese ad­vance­ment in weaponry via the MOAB, is as much about po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing as mil­i­tary mus­cle- flex­ing.

Be­sides China’s bur­geon­ing nu­clear pro­gramme with an es­ti­mated arse­nal of 260 war­heads, it is the re­cent ad­vance­ments made in the de­vel­op­ment of the fifth gen­er­a­tion stealth fighter plane “J- 20”, air­craft car­rier and nu­clear sub­ma­rine build­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Type55 naval cruis­ers and the claimed “world’s best an­ti­ship mis­sile” in CM- 302 ( Pak­istan’s Navy is said to be ac­quir­ing the same), that is threat­en­ing to al­ter the re­gional bal­ance of power. With a Chi­nese de­fence bud­get said to be nearly four times that of In­dia ($ 175 bil­lion to $ 45 bil­lion) and gal­lop­ing away with a eight per cent in­crease over the pre­vi­ous year, China is “glob­al­is­ing” and mod­ernising, both its armed forces and its man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The Chi­nese are push­ing the bound­aries of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment by weapon­is­ing” ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence”, which will re­quire a com­pletely sep­a­rate realm and ded­i­cated coun­ter­mea­sure to negate.

Hold­ing all the in­vest­ments and com­mit­ments to­wards ac­quir­ing “su­per­power” mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, is the Chi­nese eco­nomic jug­ger­naut that has slowly started de­vel­op­ing cracks and has wit­nessed an un­prece­dented slow­down. The on­go­ing trade war with the United States will put ad­di­tional bur­den on the strug­gling Chi­nese econ­omy and its abil­ity of main­tain the mo­men­tum in mil­i­tary pre­pared­ness. The Chi­nese bench­mark stock in­dex was among the worst per­form­ing in 2018, sig­nalling the red­flag for its eco­nomic health that could jeop­ar­dise the hege­monic in­stinct and on­ward march to­wards fruc­ti­fy­ing the so- called “Chi­nese cen­tury”. Sabr­erat­tling and pos­tur­ing with weapons like the re­cent MOAB or snarling in the South China Seas or at Tai­wan and Ja­pan is one thing, ac­tu­al­is­ing the “bite” and mo­men­tum is an­other thing. China’s mil­i­tary and tech­nol­ogy re­mains es­sen­tially untested on the bat­tle­ground, and like its MOAB, en­joys and suf­fers from an equal mea­sure of both hype and scep­ti­cism.

The writer is a re­tired lieu­tenant- gen­eral and a for­mer lieu­tenant- gover­nor of An­daman & Ni­co­bar Is­lands and Puducherry

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