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The World’s Most Powerful Non-Nuclear Weapons


History and warfare were forever changed in 1945 when the United States dropped two atomic bombs, covering the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an inferno the likes of which the world had never before witnessed. The introduction of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction meant that wars would be forever changed, right? Well, fortunately for everyone, they haven’t been used in combat since, though plenty have been tested by several nations, and the largest of which, the Tsar Bomba, was detonated by the Soviet Union with a force of more than 50 megatons. But after the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, nations began to only test these bombs underground, and the idea of using them on another country became less and less likely as the cold war fizzled out.

Although humanity more or less collectively agreed to not nuke itself into oblivion, wars of continued around the globe, and likewise, weapons continued to evolve. Some of these weapons stand out from the rest in terms of power and lethality, so, without further ado, here are some of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear weapons.

Mother of all Bombs

The GBU-43/B MOAB, whose name officially stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast, and unofficially stands for Mother of all Bombs, is a satellite guided bomb weighing over 21,000 pounds with a blast yield equivalent to 11 tons of TNT. The MOAB’s casing is a thin layer of aluminum, weighing only

about 2900 pounds. The rest of the bomb’s weight comes from its explosive filling, which is nearly 19,000 pounds of H6, an explosive composition that is about 1.3 times as powerful as pure TNT. The thin casing around the explosive allows it to quickly detonate just as it’s hitting the ground instead of attempting to penetrate through the surface before exploding. This is because the MOAB is not designed to destroy industrial or fortified targets, but instead is an anti-personnel bomb for large open spaces or hard-to-reach places such as tunnels, caves, or canyons.

The MOAB is designed to be deployed at high altitude from the gigantic C-130 Hercules. The bomb, which is roughly the size of a bus, rests on a cradle in the cargo bay which slides backward and releases the bomb from the aircraft. As the bomb cradle begins to slide out, a parachute deploys that pulls the bomb all the way out of the C-130 and into its proper orientation in the air. After the parachute and cradle disconnect, fins on the side of the bomb, in coordination with GPS, guide the MOAB on its path toward its target, which can be more than 3 miles away, keeping the aircraft that deploys it out of range of anti-air defenses.

The MOAB was designed by the United States in the early 2000s for use in the Iraq war as a dazzling part of the so-called “shock and awe” that would showcase the military’s power, but despite being designed, developed, and tested in under a year, the plans to use it in Iraq never got off the ground. Marc Garlasco, a former senior intelligence analyst at the Pentagon, said that the MOAB wasn’t used in the initial stages of the Iraq invasion because it carried an unnecessary risk of killing civilians. The bomb would have to sit on the military’s shelves for over a decade before it was finally used.

In 2017, the MOAB saw its first combat usage when it was dropped on a tunnel system in northeastern Afghanistan that was being used as a weapons depot and to hide ISIS militants. It was seen as the perfect target for such a bomb – the tunnels would be difficult and costly to take with ground

troops, and the caves that made up a large part of the structure would be naturally resistant to traditional bombs, especially considering the fact that some of them were up to 300 meters deep. After the bomb was dropped, the Afghan Army reported that the explosion had killed 94 ISIS combatants and that there were no civilian casualties, and US President Donald Trump reported that the attack was a “huge success”.

There was, however, some backlash after the attack. Locals reported to their province that a schoolteacher and his son were killed in the explosion, and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, saying, “This is not the war on terror, but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons,” Because of this and its massive price tag, it’s unclear if or when the MOAB will be used again.

An important note here is that the MOAB is the most powerful nonnuclear bomb ever used in combat, but it’s not the largest ever invented. For example, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, weighs 30,000 pounds, and the FOAB, or Father of all Bombs, is a Russian made bomb that, though it weighs less than the MOAB, has a blast yield up to 4 times as powerful. This is because it is a thermobaric bomb, meaning it essentially ignites the oxygen around the blast to create a larger, hotter explosion. The FOAB, however, has not been used in combat and US defense analysists, as expected, question the validity of Russia’s claims.


The bombs we just covered were powerful because of their immense size, but now we’re going to turn our attention to the microscopic. Bioweapons are an ancient part of warfare, even mentioned in classics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, where water wells were poisoned, and arrowheads were dipped in decomposing corpses or even manure. But perhaps the deadliest biological agent that has ever been weaponized is Anthrax.

Anthrax is an infection resulting from one of the 89 known strains of the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. Apart from intentional infection, it is an incredibly rare disease around the world – the United States, for example, sees an average of only 1-2 infections per year. But its infectious potential and high mortality rate make it the perfect candidate for a lethal bioweapon. The infection can occur through injection, skin contact, or ingestion of contaminated materials, but Anthrax is most deadly when its spores are inhaled. If an infection develops in the lungs, the mortality rate is higher than 50%.

Anthrax spores were first weaponized during the First World War, but on a small scale and mostly against livestock. Imperial Japan began experimenting with the disease in the 1930s, killing thousands of prisoners of war in the process. The Allies also began serious research into its use during WWII with plans to turn the anthrax spores into little edible cakes and drop them to German cattle, but they later cancelled these ideas and incinerated the cakes. This testing, however, along with the development of anthrax bombs, contaminated Scotland’s Gruinard Island so heavily that it was completely quarantined until it was decontaminated nearly 50 years later in 1990.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, dozens of countries experimented with and developed weaponized anthrax, leading to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty which banned the production and stockpiling of bioweapons, which over 183 countries have signed, most notably at the time the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Following this, anthrax

production was ceased around the world and arsenals of it were disposed of… except in the Soviet Union. The USSR continued its production under some secrecy until it was exposed following the 1979 Sverdlovsk incident, where nearly 70 people were killed by a leak in nearby anthrax production. Initially the Soviet Union denied that the origin was a bioweapon, claiming that the infection was from infected meat and went to extensive lengths to cover up the accident, but eventually conceded and admitted that the cause was a militarized aerosol from a nearby testing facility. The Soviet Union was also home to the infamous ‘Anthrax Island’, which housed between 100 and 200 tons of anthrax spores. This site was abandoned in 1992 but wasn’t decontaminated for another 10 years.

The deadliness of anthrax once again hit the news following the 9/11 attacks when envelopes contaminated with the spores were mailed to US political offices and media outlets, resulting in 22 infections and 5 deaths. Since then, the US Postal Service has installed biohazard detection systems at its major distribution locations, but the attacks showed how easily a single person could use anthrax for nefarious purposes.

The other issue with anthrax is that if left untreated, the spores can lay dormant for over a century before infecting a host. Russian researchers recently estimated that over a million anthrax infected reindeer carcasses lay beneath arctic permafrost, which could become hazardous to nearby wildlife if the ice continues to melt.

Fortunately, if someone is infected, vaccines and a number of antibiotics have been developed to treat anthrax infections, but there’s no way to know what new strains are being cooked up somewhere in a lab.

Chemical Warfare

The First World War showed the world the horror of chemical weapons. The most widely used chemical agent was mustard gas, which while not always fatal, was pure agony to encounter. Mustard gas was launched in artillery shells at the trenches of both sides on the Western Front, where it would stick to skin, eyes, and get into the lungs. Soldiers inflicted with mustard gas could develop blindness,

permanent lung problems, internal and external bleeding, and a fatal exposure could take weeks to kill. The oily liquid would also seep into the soil which could remain contaminated for months.

But both sides were also tampering with more lethal gases. Germany was the first to develop chlorine gas, which would ride a gentle breeze to enemy trenches, which could then asphyxiate anyone unlucky enough to spend too long in the cloud. But chlorine had some downsides, mainly its highly visible greenish yellow cloud. Both sides were constantly in a race to develop better masks to protect their soldiers from gas while trying to create even more deadly forms of the weapon.

This culminated with the creation of phosgene gas, a colorless agent that was even more lethal than chlorine. The first German attack with a combination of phosgene and chlorine gas killed more than 1100 troops, most of which died less than 24 hours after contact with the gas. By the end of the war, 190,000 tons of chemical weapons were produced, and mustard, phosgene, and chlorine gas attacks were estimated to have caused more than 1.3 million casualties. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were also exposed to chemical weapons, thousands of which died in the years following the wars due to scarring of the lungs and cancers in various organs.

Following World War 1, the Geneva convention banned the use of chemical weapons, but several world powers hadn’t signed the treaty, namely Japan and the United States. During World War 2 The United States considered the use of chemical weapons in the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland, but after the Japanese surrender this was no longer necessary. And though both sides refrained from using chemical weapons on battlefields during the war, they all continued to research and develop newer and more fatal chemicals.

Perhaps the deadliest chemical weapon developed during World War 2 was Sarin, a German made chemical weapon known as a nerve agent. It was developed accidentally while German scientist Gerhard Schrader was tinkering with pesticides to protect farms and orchards from beetles. After combining cyanide and phosphorous, the result was so deadly that the German army was notified of the invention. Schrader continued experimenting with the agent, and eventually created Sarin, a colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid. Sarin is estimated to be 26 times deadlier than cyanide, and more than 500 times deadlier than chlorine gas.

Initial symptoms include chest pain and a runny nose, but as sarin attacks the nervous system, victims quickly lose muscle function in their body and suffocate in as little as one minute after exposure. Sarin can also remain on a person’s clothes for up to 30 minutes, meaning it can easily spread to anyone that stays close to the victim.

The Nazis developed over 12,000 tons of sarin, but Hitler was reluctant to use the chemical agent and it stayed in storage for the remainder of the war. Historians have speculated the reason for his hesitancy, including his own brutal experiences with toxic gas in the first world war, but the most likely cause was his fear of allied retaliation on his own troops.

While most of the weapons mentioned in this video have been banned and aren’t being actively produced around the world, weapons continue to evolve, and governments are always researching new frontiers. It’s even possible that one day, nuclear weapons won’t be the most powerful, as antimatter bombs have the potential to take the crown. From railguns to orbital weapons, there’s probably a lot of top-secret stuff being developed of which the public is entirely unaware.

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