by JAMES DREW
If diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program fail, the country’s underground nuclear facilities could expect a surprise package delivery from Uncle Sam and his stealthy B-2 bomber.
Last year, while the White House was negotiating a settlement to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the U.S. military was upgrading a terrifying weapon that could smash Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s thinly-veiled nuclear weapons program, albeit at great risk of sparking a shooting war.
We’re talking about the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb, which Boeing and the Pentagon have tailored for punching deep into the ground to destroy buried targets including nuclear, chemical or biological weapons facilities.
In mid-January, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester confirmed in a report that flight testing of an enhanced version of the MOP went ahead in late 2014, and one live-fire test was planned.
According to Pentagon documents, that test was panned for December at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The military had previously dropped a MOP from a B-2 under test conditions at White Sands in October 2012.
That earlier test also involved an RQ-170 stealth drone that apparently assessed the bomb damage—a possible model for how America could deploy the giant munition in a real-life crisis.
The older B-52 bomber has also dropped MOPs in tests, but doesn’t routinely carry the weapon.
The Air Force has not confirmed whether the planned 2014 live-fire test actually took place. If it did, that would conclude Enhanced Threat Reduction Phase II, a classified program to improve the GPS-guided bomb’s effectiveness against reinforced underground bunkers and tunnel networks.
Exactly what changes Boeing and the military have made to the bomb remain a secret. We know engineers added a second fuze during an earlier round of upgrades. In any event, it’s likely any recent changes aimed to make the weapon tougher, more accurate and more lethal.
The enhancements come as the Air Force develops a void-sensing fuze that can count how many levels a warhead has penetrated … and explode at the correct depth.
According to one Middle East policy expert, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator appears to have all the characteristics necessary to destroy Iran’s Fordow uranium enrichment plant, an underground complex located near the city of Qom.
“This weapon seems to fit the profile of what could potentially be needed, or give the president options if it came to blows over Iran’s nuclear program,” Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle East affairs for the Congressional Research Service, said in a Jan. 16 interview.
“The president might want the option because it would enable a larger target set, particularly of hardened targets that are very difficult to destroy with existing ordnance,” Katzman added. “It just gives you a way of attacking such sites without having to go in on the ground. It gives you more options to be able to take out sites, particularly when countries like Iran and North Korea are hardening their targets to try make it difficult for the U.S. to hit them.”
Development of the MOP began in 2008 and the first war-ready weapon appeared in late 2011. Upgrades began almost immediately to fix issues that surfaced during operational testing. In 2011, Congress approved the transfer of more than $80 million to the program to kick-start two “enhanced threat reduction” phases. Phase I concluded in 2013.
The MOP is at least six times heavier than its predecessors, the 5,000-pound laser-guided GBU-28 “Deep Throat” bomb and the 2,000-pound BLU-109.
In 2013, the Air Force modified its 20 B-2 stealth bombers to carry the new weapon. Each bomber can carry two MOPs.
In September, the Pentagon wrote to Congress requesting authority to transfer an additional $120 million to the program for another “mission-critical modification” and to fund the operational tests.
The Air Force, which owns the program, has already spent $341 million developing the weapon and millions of dollars more modifying the B-2 to carry it.
These latest MOP upgrades come as Congress threatens to ratchet up sanction on Iran in response to its alleged nuclear weapons program and Israel itches to take unilateral action.
During his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, Pres. Barack Obama took the diplomatic high road, declaring that “for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of [Iran’s] nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”
“Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran,” the president continued. “There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.”
Katzman said the Massive Ordnance Penetrator may not feature in discussions between the State Department and the Iranian government, but the strike option remains in the back of everyone’s minds. “I think it’s always in the background, not necessarily coming up in the talks that are going on.”
Katzman also explained that the MOP is useful against a range of targets, from underground terrorist tunnel networks to more conventional bunkers. Russian and North Korean facilities could also be on MOP’s target manifest, but conventional strikes against those nations might risk nuclear confrontation.
Speaking at the Brookings institute in Washington on Jan. 21, the Pentagon’s top intelligence official said Iran and North Korea continue to present a serious national security challenge as the rogue states develop new systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.
“We’re at a time of unprecedented instability in the international system,” said Michael Vickers, the Pentagon’s under secretary of defense for intelligence. “Most threats we face are likely to be enduring threats. It’s not like the Cold War where we had one big enduring threat and a series of episodic threats. Now we’ve got several that are likely to be enduring.”
Even as the Air Force completes its work on the existing MOP, there are already plans to build a follow-on weapon.
Last year, the flying branch completed a review of options for defeating hard and deeply buried targets, which is the first step for initiating a new program. The Pentagon will now review those options, examine the recommended alternative and decide whether to start development.
“According to the findings to date, there’s going to be a family of systems come out of this and it’s probably going to include some boosted penetrators and some new ordnance,” an Air Force official said during a precision-strike conference near Washington last year.
“We hope to roll that into some hard requirements and then go out and acquire some of these munitions so that we have a better and more complete capability in the hard-target arena. We find there are a growing number of targets that will be difficult for us to service, so we’re going to need this.”