Just days before U.S.-backed forces launched an offensive to expel ISIS militants from Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria and heart of the country’s sprawling oil fields, an unusual rumor began to circulate among civilians and activists operating around the city: Russian aircraft had allegedly dropped the “father of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear in the military’s arsenal, on ISIS fighters.
The rumor, which first surfaced on social media and was reported by The War Zone on Sept. 7, claimed that Russia “has bombed positions in Deir Ezzor [sic]” with the so-called Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP), the thermobaric weapon developed in 2007 that, at 14,000 pounds and with a yield comparable to 44 tons of TNT, is more powerful than the GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs” that the U.S. Air Force deployed against ISIS forces in Afghanistan back in April. If these claims are true, the alleged sortie represents the first time the FOAB has been deployed since the weapon came into existence.
— Rami (@RamiAILoIah) September 7, 2017
Unlike its American counterpart, the FOAB’s unique destructive power comes from its status as a thermobaric weapon, designed to create a punishing high-temperature explosion and subsequent blast wave that, apart from sucking your lungs out of your mouth, doles out most of the bomb’s destruction. “Test results of the new airborne weapon have shown that its efficiency and power is commensurate with a nuclear weapon,” then-Russian Deputy Chief Of Staff Alexander Rukshin told state media following the FOAB’s first successful test on Sept. 11, 2007, according to Reuters. “The main destruction is inflicted by an ultrasonic shock wave and an incredibly high temperature. All that is alive merely evaporates.”
Russia was happy to tout its powerful new weapon a decade ago, but the country’s government has remained mum on, well, whether the FOAB actually made it downrange. While the ministry confirmed to state media on Sept. 8 that the Russian air force had broken the ISIS siege on a crucial airfield southeast of Deir ez-Zor — allegedly killing ISIS “emir” Abu-Muhammad al-Shimali, who was linked to the 2015 Paris terror attacks — neither the Russian government or state media has substantiated the FOAB rumors in the week since they first emerged.
The Department of Defense was also unable to confirm the rumors propagated on social media by witnesses on the ground in Deir ez-Zor “at this time,” despite explicitly mounting a “clearing operation” on Sept. 9 and, more generally, increased communication between the Russian military and the coalition forces regarding air operations to “ensure the safety of flight in the region” and alleviate tensions. A spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve told Task & Purpose that CENTCOM “will not speculate” on social-media rumors, adding that the details of any communication between the two militaries are “a matter between the Coalition and the Russians.”
So how likely is it that the Russian dropped the “father of all bombs”? As of now, there’s no tangible evidence apart from eyewitness claims. After all, the War Zone points out that “almost no official pictures or video of the bomb” exist (the photos used in tweets appear to be mockups of the ‘Tsar Bomba’ hydrogen bomb, and even the “official” video of the 2007 test showing a supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack heavy bomber deploying the FOAB appears heavily edited. And though the War Zone speculates that the Il-76 and An-124 strategic airlifters likely have the capacity to deploy such a weapon, it’s deeply unlikely that a random set of naked eyes could recognize a plane from the ground, let alone the munition deployed and resulting shock wave, no matter how unique to the FOAB.
That said, it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility. The use of the FOAB to pave the way for the expulsion of ISIS fighters from the strategically important city of Deir ez-Zor makes tactical sense. The deployment of the MOAB that killed more than 90 militants in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province in April, though derided by some political observers as a shallow political and diplomatic ploy by the Trump administration, preceded the uptick in U.S. special operations forces missions against ISIS-K at the start of the fighting season. Perhaps the Russian government deemed it appropriate to clear a path for “legitimate Syrian government forces,” as state-run RT put it, to work alongside Operation Inherent Resolve’s own clearing operation to secure the city. After all, it’s not like coalition and Russian forces haven’t crossed paths in a Syrian town before — and whoever clears the region first gets to take de facto control of the province’s oil fields.
Then again, it’s not like the Russian military needs an explicit enduring mission against the pockets of ISIS militants spread across the country to deploy advanced weaponry in Syria. As The War Zone pointed out in November 2016, the Russian defense ministry has increasingly used the war-torn country as a testing ground for new weaponry, such the Bastion-P coastal defense system, delivered to the Assad regime in 2011 and used to fire off supersonic P-800 antiship missiles at “defenseless land targets.”
“Syria has become a great operational testing range, weapons marketing platform and propaganda tool for Russia above all else,” Tyler Rogoway wrote at the time. “The military operations there don’t have to make tactical sense … Russia will cycle every weapon system it has through the theatre before the war comes to an end, in part to test it operationally, to show other nations that it works and to fear it or to purchase it for their own militaries.”
There’s also the possibility that the news of the FOAB is designed to serve the same alternative function as the April MOAB: to not just hit ISIS with the “shock and awe” of a fabled munition in a “psychological operations effort,” but to reinvigorate perceptions of its military strength to observers and critics both at home and abroad, an extremely loud and extremely expensive piece of domestic propaganda. Indeed, the primary coverage of the alleged FOAB deployment in Syria among multiple state-run media outlets was that that Western governments and journalists are “scared” of the reports bubbling up from Deir ez-Zor on social media.
In that light, perhaps the FOAB’s real target was Putin supporters at home — and unlike the Air Force’s much-hyped MOAB moment back in April, it would seem they succeeded without actually firing a shot.