First Ever Operational Use of the GBU-43B MOAB Suggests Target Was of Strategic Value.
A U.S. Air Force Special Operations MC-130 Combat Talon II has dropped the first operational GBU-43B MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Burst) on a cave complex target in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. Intelligence indicated members of the so-called Islamic State were using the cave complex. Both personnel and equipment were targeted in the strike that occurred at approximately 1800 hr.s local.
The massive, 11-ton, parachute deployed GBU-43B is the largest conventional air dropped weapon ever employed by the U.S. military. The “MOAB” produces shock, overpressure and blast effects equal to tactical nuclear weapons without residual radioactive fallout or the political ramifications associated with nuclear weapons.
The GBU-43B MOAB is deployed from a specially adapted MC-130 Combat Talon II using a system of rollers and a deployment sled. The bomb is attached to the deployment sled then pulled from the rear cargo ramp using a drogue parachute. Once pulled out the back cargo door of the MC-130 the sled falls away from the 30-foot long bomb. The bomb uses guidance wings and a system of stabilizers to maintain consistent ballistic flight trajectory and control its descent rate for more precise guidance. The MOAB uses a satellite guidance system along with internal gyros. GPS target coordinates are initially slaved from the launch aircraft then programmed into the weapon prior to release in close proximity to the target. Once released at medium to high altitude depending on target stand-off requirements the weapon uses its internal GPS for its terminal guidance to the target.
The GBU-43B is primarily intended to produce an “overpressure” or localized barometric shock wave effect to neutralize its target. The 9,500-kilogram bomb uses 18,700 pounds of H6 explosive, a combination of RDX explosive made of cyclotrimethylene trinitramine, conventional TNT explosive used in commercial dynamite and aluminum powder. The high-energy H6 explosive is made in Australia according to sources and is also used in concussive weapons such as mines and depth charges to produce a similar overpressure effect.
The shock wave generated by the massive release of energy from the explosion is transmitted through the air and into solid objects such as reinforced bunkers and cave complexes. This often results in their collapse. U.S. military officials also note a significant psychological impact to the employment of the GBU-43B MOAB because of its massive blast and the ability to produce a large mushroom-shaped cloud in certain atmospheric and terrain environments mimicking the appearance of a nuclear strike. There is no radioactive component to the GBU-43B.
According to several sources this was likely the only GBU-43B in the operational theater. Unless production has resumed, there are likely only 15 (14 now) operational GBU-43B MOAB weapons in U.S. inventory. The use of the weapon suggests that the target attacked was of strategic importance to the conflict in the region. Because of the special equipment and planning required to employ the GBU-43B this operation likely took a number of days minimally to plan prior to execution. No bomb damage assessment information has been released about the strike yet.
In 2016, VAQ-130 Growler Electronic Attack aircraft worked hard to deny the ISIS militants the ability to communicate.
Islamic State militants rely heavily on COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) and DIY radios along with smartphones to communicate, browse the Internet, send emails, exchange messages, dispatch orders, trigger IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) etc.
Various platforms of the US-led coalition that fights ISIS in Syria and Iraq continuously work to snoop into Daesh comms, intercept the signals emitted by their devices and, if needed, make such communication impossible (by disturbing the comms or attacking the cell towers or targeting specific high value individuals using cell phones).
“Kinetic Electronic Attack platforms” can be called in by other aircraft (such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint spyplanes which can disseminate data gathered in real-time via tactical data link) or ground forces to prevent ISIS fighters from talking to other militants by jamming their cell phones with high-power signals or by dropping actual ordnance at them.
Last year, among the units waging the Air War on ISIS frequencies, there were also the VAQ-130 Zappers.
Embarked on USS Eisenhower with their Boeing EA-18G Growler, the Electronic Warfare variant of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet (that replaced the EA-6B Prowlers in U.S. Navy service), the “Zappers” have supported Operation Inherent Resolve carrying out a wide variety of missions.
The badge sported by the VAQ-130’s EA-18G during their 2016 cruise.
Indeed the Growler has the ability to jam the enemy communications or work in combination with other EA-18s to geo-locate a signal source and target it from stand-off distance with air-to-surface missiles such as the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile).
The following video provides the highlight of VAQ-130’s 2016 cruise. And includes much OIR footage.
Based on the images released by the flying branch so far, the 6o years old aircraft have flown with the underwing pylons loaded with two types of JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions): the 500-lb laser-guided GBU-54s and the 2,000-lb GPS-guided GBU-31V3 “bunker busters” onto the Heavy Stores Adaptor Beam pylons.
A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress refuels from a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Feb. 15, 2017. The 340th EARS extended the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorists by delivering fuel to U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and a B-52 Stratofortress. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jordan Castelan)
One of the most common loadout includes 3x GBU-31s and 8x GBU-54s along with PGMs carried inside the bomb bay of the B-52H Stratofortress. With the 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade the Buffs can carry up to 16 external laser JDAMs (8 per pylon) as well as 8 internal J-series weapons mounted on a conventional rotary launcher.
Such “mixed” PGM configuration provide the aircraft the ability to deliver “kinetic” attacks engaging both stationary and moving ground targets with reduced collateral damage (using the GBU-54s, that combines 500-lb Mk-82 warhead and the precision strike capability delivered by its dual Laser/GPS mode guidance system) as well as concrete shelters and hardened targets by means of the GBU-31s that use the BLU-109 forged steel penetrator warhead.
According to the U.S. Air Force, the B-52 will be constantly upgraded so that it will be able to internally carry eight joint air-to-surface standoff missiles, as well as a variety of miniature air-launched decoys. It will also have the option of carrying up to 12 extended-range JASSM-ERs on the external pylons for a total capacity of 20 of these advanced, stealthy cruise missiles.
Until the venerable B-52 is replaced by the recently announced B-21 Raider, the B-52 is projected to continue operations until at least 2040 thanks to a series of constant upgrades that will facilitate the Stratofortress flying into is 90th year.
The current “H” model is indeed much different from the early B-52 that flew for the first time in 1952. It currently features multi-function digital display screens, computer network servers and real-time communication uplinks with Internet access.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Ben, left, and Capt. Justin, right, 96th Expeditionary Bomber Squadron pilots, takeoff to execute air operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve Feb. 13, 2017. The B-52 Stratofortress enables vital kinetic capability for the U.S. Air Force and is actively engaged in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorists. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jordan Castelan)
A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?
Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.
It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.
Google Earth screengrab of the target area.
During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.
Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.
While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.
Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)
One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.
Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.
Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.
Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.
We can’t say whether it happened by accident or on purpose, but a U.S. unmanned spy aircraft broadcast its position for everyone to see while flying a long mission over northern Libya.
It’s not a secret that U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella, Italy, from Beale Air Force Base, California, have been flying ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in support of EUCOM, AFRICOM and CENTCOM theater mission tasking since 2011.
The Global Hawks of the flying branch had their baptism of fire on Mar. 1, 2011, and were the first to fly over Libya to perform high altitude Battle Damage Assessment sorties on targets located in regions with a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat after Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched on Mar. 19, 2011.
From their deployment bases in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and from Al Dhafra, UAE, the HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) drones are regularly tasked with intelligence gathering missions over North Africa, East Europe and Middle East: in March 2015, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged the involvement of the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft in the air war on ISIS not only as an IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) platform but also as Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) platform, that replaces the imagery sensor package normally installed in the aircraft, to support ground ops by relaying communications between people and aircraft as well as enabling airstrikes on the Islamic State militants.
Like all the other spyplanes, during their (long) sorties, these strategic ISR drones typically tend to keep a low-profile: they operate in “due regard” with transponder off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts, much like a VFR flight plan without flight following. For this reason it should not be possible to detect RQ-4s on clandestine missions using “simple” commercial receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange.
But Global Hawks could be tracked online over Ukraine beginning on October 2016 and, for the very fist time, while conducting a 21-hour mission over northwestern Libya on Feb. 4, 2017.
Indeed, yesterday an RQ-4 could be tracked on FR24.com taking off from Sigonella airbase around 1.30AM UTC, climb to 46,000 feet over the sea then head towards Libya where it circled for several hours.
Tracking while heading southbound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Flying over northwestern Libya (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Skirting Tripoli southeast bound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
We have informed the U.S. Air Force and other air forces that their planes could be tracked online, live, several times, but our Tweets (and those of our Tweeps who retweeted us) or emails have not had any effect as little has changed even though this author has received several emails from USAF pilots and aircrew members who wanted to say thank you for raising the issue.
Sometimes the reason for making an aircraft visible on FR24 can be deterrence: they purposely broadcast their position to let “the others” know a spyplane hunting terrorists is there. Was this the case? Hard to say.
H/T to the always alert @CivMilAir for the heads-up!