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Big Bombs Are Best

Up in the sky! It's a nuke, it's napalm, it's . . . a Daisy Cutter?

11:01 PM, Nov 8, 2001 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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THIS PAST WEEK during a massive nighttime aerial bombardment near Kabul, the Al Jazeera network caught on video an enormous, fiery-red mushroom cloud with flames reaching 1,000 feet into the air.

Had the United States, in its determination to win the war, decided to go nuclear? Hardly. But what everyone did see on the screen was the dropping of the world's largest non-nuclear weapon, the BLU-82. This bomb, popularly known as the "Daisy Cutter," but also bearing monikers like the "Commando Vault," "Big Blue," and the "Cheeseburger," costs $27,000, is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and weighs 15,000 pounds. Its manufacturer is classified--as is the number of Daisy Cutters in the U.S. inventory. But we do know how it works:

A C-130 transport plane (one of the few planes large enough to carry the bomb) flies over a designated target area at an altitude of no less than 6,000 feet. From the rear of the plane the Daisy Cutter is pushed out on a sled. Once in the air, the sled detaches and the Daisy Cutter releases its parachute (the sled has a separate chute). At the base of the bomb is a two-foot long conical nose probe. When the nose hits the ground (and the bomb is about three feet in the air), it detonates. (For a demonstration of how a BLU-82 is delivered, go to the London Guardian's website.)

There is no arguing that the Daisy Cutter is indeed the most powerful conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal. General Wesley Clark calls it "a terrific weapon. . . . It's got tremendous destructive power." He isn't kidding: Its 12,600 pounds of a high explosive called GSX is three times the amount of explosive used in the second most powerful bomb--the GBU-28 "bunker buster." Jane's Air Launched Weapons guide describes GSX as "a jellied slurry blast explosive" of aluminum powder, polystyrene soap, and ammonium nitrate. This would be similar to the bomb used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City--just six times more powerful. A fiery explosion results, as seen in the Al Jazeera broadcast, but most of the damage is caused by a shockwave, or "overpressure," amounting to 1,000 pounds per square inch. Because the bomb explodes above ground, the damage is not confined by a crater. Instead, the blast flattens everything within a diameter of roughly 600 yards. The shockwaves can be felt miles away.

First used during the Vietnam War, the Daisy Cutter wiped out dense vegetation (hence the nickname) to make way for helicopter landing zones. In 1991 during Desert Storm, the United States dropped 11 Daisy Cutters on Iraqi minefields and antiaircraft positions. The bombs were said to have had an enormous psychological impact on the enemy, which the American military quickly exploited by dropping leaflets stating that unless Iraqis surrendered, more were on the way.

It is no surprise that a weapon of such ferocity would grab the attention of the media. Many reports, though, have mistakenly described the Daisy Cutter as a fuel-air bomb. "That's absolutely incorrect," explains Robert Hewson, editor of Jane's Air Launched Weapons. "This bomb does not ignite oxygen, turning the air into fire. The damage comes from the overpressure." When asked what, then, happens to a person standing in its way, Hewson remarks, "He'd simply be flattened. Crushed. There'd be severe damage to one's internal organs."

With such firepower in mind, you might wonder why don't we just drop more of them on the enemy. Because these bombs are delivered by a C-130, an extremely large, slow-flying aircraft, enemy ground forces can pose a threat to the plane's crew even before the bomb is released. "It has to be a most benign environment," says Hewson. "During the Cold War, no one would ever think of using them on the Warsaw Pact so these bombs simply stacked up, collecting dust." Only when air superiority is achieved, as in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, can a BLU-82 be safely dropped.

Still, the very nature of the bomb has made it controversial. Britain's Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon had to defend its use against the Taliban. "One large bomb is used in substitution for a range of smaller ones and if, in fact, it hits the target more effectively, then it's an entirely appropriate weapon," Hoon explained to the BBC. He later went on, "These weapons are not being used against the civilian population of Afghanistan, they are being used to deal with military targets--military targets that ultimately could threaten coalition forces."

Even so, there's no denying that the Daisy Cutter is a terrifying weapon. Hewson relates the story of a British SAS unit in Iraq during the Gulf War. The men had apparently witnessed the detonation of a Daisy Cutter when one of them exclaimed, "My God, the Yanks are using nukes!"

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.