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U.S. Drops Largest Non-Nuclear Bomb Ever Used In Combat


Now to the war in Afghanistan. American forces attacked the Islamic State there with one of the most powerful non-nuclear weapons ever used in combat. It's known by its nickname, the mother of all bombs. It's part of the ongoing fight by the U.S. and its Afghan allies against ISIS. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now for more. Hey there, Tom.


CORNISH: And of course this sounds like a big deal with a name like that - right? - using one of the biggest weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Can you tell us more about this weapon?

BOWMAN: Well, Audie, the technical name is the GBU-43/B, the Massive Ordinance Air Blast, and it gives it the initials for the nickname. It was developed during the second Iraq war but never used. It's about 22,000 pounds, roughly 30 feet long. And it's too big for a bomber, so what they have to do is put it in a cargo plane, a C-130, and then it goes off the ramp.

CORNISH: What do we know about why it was used now?

BOWMAN: Well, commanders in Afghanistan have been fighting ISIS in the rugged hills of eastern Afghanistan. This is Nangarhar Province. I was there two years ago. So picture Wyoming with vast plains in these rugged hills. And ISIS has been using tunnels recently and bunkers to avoid attacks, so the commanders brought in this bomb to go after them in these hideouts.

Now, I'm told President Trump wants the military to step up the fight against ISIS everywhere, and he says, I'll give you what you want, what do you need. And he said something similar today.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What I do is I authorized my military. We have the greatest military in the world, and they've done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization, and that's what they're doing. And frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately.

CORNISH: So Tom, any sense of what kind of damage was done as a result and maybe what kind of difference this will make to the fight against ISIS?

BOWMAN: Well, no sense yet whether it was successful in getting these ISIS fighters in their tunnels and caves. Now, the U.S. says ISIS grew to about 2,000 fighters over the past two years. They've reduced that number they say to about 800 with airstrikes and assaults by American special operators and Afghan commandos.

Now, it's important to note that back in 2001, the U.S. used something similar on several occasions. That was a 15,000-pound bomb nicknamed the daisy cutter to go after the Taliban and al-Qaida. People I've talked with said they were a few miles away when it dropped. You could feel the blast. The last time they used that bomb was in December 2001 to go after a guy named Osama bin Laden and his leadership. Of course that didn't work, and they just ran into Pakistan.

CORNISH: Now, what does using this size weapon now mean for the outlook for the war in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Not much. This is still a stubborn fight against ISIS, and Americans are on the front lines here. And this area, by the way, is right near where Army Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar of Edgewood, Md., was killed last weekend. But of course there's a larger war against the Taliban who have gained territory over the past year. And the U.S. general there says that war is at a stalemate, and he's asked for more troops - several thousand more. And the national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, is heading over there to talk about that with commanders in Kabul - no word yet on whether the Pentagon will approve those additional troops.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR SONG, "CHILEAN SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.