Key Point: So, what do we know about China’s big bomb? Not much, and what there is may be mere hype.
China has joined the “Mother of All Bombs” club.
A Chinese arms maker has unveiled a weapon similar to America’s GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB (hence the nickname “Mother of All Bombs”). The Chinese version was dropped from an H-6K bomber, the Chinese version of the 1950s Soviet Tu-16 aircraft.
Photographs on China’s state-owned Global Times news site showed earlier in the year what appeared to be a large bomb falling from a bomb bay, and then a large explosion. Chinese military analyst Wei Dongxu told Global Times that based on photographic evidence and the size of the H-6K’s bomb bay, the bomb was five to six meters long (16.4 to 19.7 feet long). Chinese media also suggested that the bomb weighed several tons, and was so big that the H-6K could only carry one.
“The massive blast can easily and completely wipe out fortified ground targets such as reinforced buildings, bastions and defense shelters," or knock down trees so troops can rappel down from helicopters, Wei said.
According to Global Times, military observers claimed that “the weapon will also spread fear among enemies if a weapon of this caliber is deployed.”
If any weapon can inspire, it’s giant bombs like these. The MOAB is the biggest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, and the biggest non-nuclear bomb that America has ever dropped. The MOAB is 30 feet long, weighs 21,600 pounds, and is so big that it isn’t dropped by bombers, but rather is shoved out the back of a C-130 transport (the Air Force wants to equip the B-52 to carry them on its wings). Guided by GPS to its target, the MOAB works not by hitting the ground and exploding like a regular bomb, but explodes a few feet above the target in an airburst that destroys everything in the surrounding area with a massive overpressure. This means the force of the bomb isn’t wasted burying itself in the ground, but spreads through the air.
While the United States has giant bunker-buster bombs like the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the MOAB can also destroy cave and tunnel complexes through overpressure that slams through the openings. In fact, the MOAB’s combat debut was in April 2017 in Afghanistan, where it reportedly destroyed three tunnel complexes and killed ninety-four Taliban fighters.
Not to be outdone, Russia has its FOAB (“Father of All Bombs”), which Moscow claims is four times more powerful than America’s MOAB. It is a thermobaric weapon, a fuel-air explosive that releases and detonates an explosive vapor of devastating power (NORINCO denies reports that China’s weapon is thermobaric).
So, what do we know about China’s big bomb? Not much, and what there is may be mere hype. Chinese analyst Wei told Global Times that “the Chinese bomb is smaller and lighter than the US one, enabling it to be deployed on the H-6K bomber. The US bomb is so large that it has to be carried by a larger transport aircraft rather than a bomber, Wei said, noting that a bomber can fly faster and is better at targeting than a transport aircraft, and the Chinese bomb's designer must have had this in mind when it produced the bomb to fit the H-6K.”
But nothing comes for free, and if China has devised a smaller and lighter bomb than MOAB, the drawback may be less explosive power. And to be fair to history, all of these giant twenty-first-century bombs trace their lineage back to Britain’s “Dam Busters” of World War II, and legendary bomb designer Barnes Wallis, who devised the six-ton Tallboy and ten-ton Grand Slam bombs.