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Did the U.S. Lose a Crucial Proving Ground When It Left Afghanistan?

Fourteen years after dubbing its most powerful non-nuclear weapon ever developed “the Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB), the U.S. military finally found an opportunity to test the ordnance on the battlefield. In April 2017, intelligence officials had located a large cell of Islamic State Khorasan, the terrorist group also known as ISIS-K, hiding in a cave complex in Nangarhar province on the border with Pakistan.

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, to use its official name, had shown promise during demonstrations in proving grounds, such as Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, since its unveiling in 2003. But the Pentagon had never deployed it in actual battle, over concerns about civilian casualties. This cell, however, was believed to be remote enough for a MOAB deployment. According to the initial assessment by the Afghan Ministry of Defense and local media reports, the surprise blast swept through the caves with ease, causing at least 36 casualties, without harming any known civilians. (The U.S. government never publicly released its own damage assessment.) For the Pentagon, this was more than a strike against terrorists: It served to demonstrate the feasibility of its newly developed weapons systems.

In many ways, Afghanistan was the ideal battleground for trialing new military technology. Unlike in Iraq and Syria, much of the fighting took place in rural or mountainous areas with low concentrations of civilians. Using the GBU-43/B near urban centers would constitute a war crime under international law because the force would have been “indiscriminate,” causing civilian deaths and the destruction of critical infrastructure.

Using an active conflict to experiment and demonstrate the effects of new technology is nothing new. World War II saw the rapid development and deployment of technology ranging from computers for codebreaking to nuclear weapons. More recently, during the First Gulf War, the U.S. and its allies tested satellite surveillance and target identification technology that enabled coalition forces to disable the once-fearsome Iraqi army.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military first demonstrated a major new capability before its invasion. A prototype Predator drone had been loitering over Kandahar in September 2000 when its operators spotted a tall, bearded man they recognized as Osama Bin Laden. But as Stars and Stripes reported, “the elation was quickly erased by exasperation. The Predator had yet to be equipped with missiles.”

It was the start of a process that would lead drone warfare to becoming a major factor on the modern battlefield. In 2020 alone, the Trump administration used a Reaper drone to kill top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and Azerbaijan used Turkish- and Israeli-developed drones to overwhelm the Armenian military and end the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a matter of weeks.


Tested in Afghanistan

The nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan saw the development of both transformational and controversial new military tech.

On-the-Spot Surveillance

In 2019, the U.S. equipped a battalion from the 82nd Airborne with experimental mini drones that could be carried on a soldier’s person and flown with a handheld controller. This allowed them to rapidly scout nearby terrain from a safe position.

Medical Help on the Battlefield

As casualties from IEDs mounted, battle medicine developments focused on treatments that could be given at the scene. Medics developed tourniquets that could be applied with one hand, allowing injured soldiers to use it on themselves.

Biometric Data Collection

In one controversial development, U.S. and local authorities trialed biometric data collection, like iris scans, to compile large amounts of data on populations. Experts now worry the Taliban could use the tech to find Afghan allies who aided the U.S.


The Afghan government, especially under former president Ashraf Ghani, was particularly pliant to U.S. military requests, as it depended heavily on U.S. support and aid. However, the American exit from Afghanistan may not affect the readiness of the military for future fights.

“While the conflict in Afghanistan allowed the testing and rapid development of communication and precision weapons capabilities, the Taliban didn’t operate air capabilities,” says Justin Bronk, a research fellow for Airpower Technology at the Royal United Services Institute in the U.K. In the case of an offensive conflict with a peer adversary such as Russia or China, these developments would be of limited use.

“The advantages of UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles], for example, are rendered useless in the context of an enemy that can cut the link between operator and aircraft,” Bronk says.

And China, which has not been involved in a major military conflict since its war with Vietnam in the 1970s, is proving that a strong military may not even need an active proving ground. It recently shocked the Pentagon when it tested a hypersonic missile that circumnavigated the globe. And in their own Xinjiang province, the People’s Liberation Army recently built two mock aircraft carriers that bear the distinctive traits of American carriers—to possibly practice locating, tracking, and destroying the U.S. Navy’s most precious asset in any future wartime.

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