Iran's Nuke and North Korea's Nukes
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Super Bunker-Buster Bombs Fast-Tracked for Possible Use Against Iran and North Korea Nuclear Programs
|Edwin Black||September 21st 2009|
|GBU 57 A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator|
The Pentagon is accelerating by three years plans for a super bunker buster, the GBU-57A/B or Massive Ordnance Penetrator or MOP, a powerful new bomb aimed squarely at the underground nuclear facilities of Iran and North Korea. The gargantuan bomb—longer than 11 persons standing shoulder-to-shoulder or more than 20 feet base to nose, weighs 30,000 pounds. Some 18 percent of its total weight is comprised of explosives. Guided by a precision GPS system, the MOP can penetrate an unprecedented 200 feet down before exploding with devastation into an underground bunker, such as those buried in Iran and North Korea currently used to shield rogue nuclear programs. Now Congress has quietly advanced $68 million into the 2009 budget to accelerate the purchase and deployment of ten such super bunker busters making clear they are for possible use against the regimes in Iran or North Korea. Pentagon planners are rushing to beat by months the latest June 2010 deadline for just four such bombs, and have been subsequently directed to increase the number of MOPs to at least ten.
In early July 2009, the Defense Department told a Congressional committee that the MOP was the "weapon of choice" for an “urgent operational need” enunciated by both the U.S. Pacific Command, tasked with North Korea, and the Central Command, tasked with Iran. In doing so, the Pentagon accelerated the program by three years.
The GBU-57A/B MOP is so immense it can only be carried by either a B-52 or a B2a Stealth bomber. The weapon’s explosive power is 10 times greater than its predecessor, the BLU-109. Moreover, the GBU-57A/B MOP is one third heavier than the MOAB dubbed the Mother of All Bombs.
Following successful tests in deep New Mexico caverns, and a B-52 test drop, a crash program has been approved to modify a B-2a Stealth bomber to carry a payload of two GBU-57A/B MOP bombs. The speed and urgency comes at a time when Iran, NATO and Israel are approaching a denouement over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, its development of long-range, multi-stage missiles and a new awareness that it is clearly developing a nuclear bomb.
A consortium of defense agencies and air force units, are now working on the project. They include members of the recently-disbanded 417th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base in California who last year safely managed the first test drop from a B-52, dubbed FT-1 MOP for Flight Test1, according to sources at the base. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and the AFRL’s Munitions Directorate and the Air Armament Center, both headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, are now rushing to modify the bay of a radar-evading B2a Stealth Bomber to deliver the bomb, according to base sources interviewed. A collage of private sector subcontractors is also working on effort, from Stealth bomber manufacturer Northrup-Grumman to Boeing’s “Phantom Works,” maker of the bomb itself and prime contractor for the entire project. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency in Virginia has been coordinating among the various air force groups from the beginning.
The Pentagon has been working on the GBU-57A/B MOP for years since Congress long ago cancelled funding for the highly portable “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator,” based on the lightweight M-61 nuclear bomb adapted as a bunker buster. Congress feared the consequences of radioactive fallout and worried over the inherent limitations of a nuclear blast radius on deeply buried facilities. In September 2003, a bi-partisan group of senators led by Diane Feinstein (D-California) tried to bar further funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. As she introduced the Amendment 1085, Feinstein held high pictures of destroyed Hiroshima and spoke of the carnage and suffering America’s atomic bomb had caused. Her efforts to defund the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator were defeated in a senate voice vote. Only after a second attempt the next year, was the small nuclear weapon fully defunded.
In the meantime, with the nuclear option clearly problematic for bunker busting, a 2003 study by the Defense Science Board Task Force on “Future Strategic Strike Forces,” submitted in February 2004, recommended a replacement approach. It would be MOP—that is, massive conventional explosives sent burrowing deep into an enemy position using GPS guidance and the power of its own ground-crashing weight. The caves at Tora Bora in Afghanistan which protected Osama Bin laden, had been examined by the special defense team. Their report admitted: “A deep underground tunnel facility in a rock geology poses a significant challenge for non-nuclear weapons. Such a target is difficult to penetrate…and the likelihood of damaging critical functional components deep within the facility from an energy release …is low. Our past test experience has shown that 2,000 lb. penetrators carrying 500 lbs. of high explosive are relatively ineffective against tunnels, even when skipped directly into the tunnel entrance.” The new approach would be for “a bomber-delivered massive penetrator. A family of massive ordnance payloads (20,000 to 30,000 pounds), both penetrator and blast variants, should be developed to improve conventional attack effectiveness against deep, expansive, underground tunnel facilities.”
On November 1, 2004, shortly after Congress approved MOP, the AFRL awarded a $30 million MOP contract to Boeing. The warhead case was to be fabricated from a special high performance steel alloy, thus allowing it to survive a high-speed impact into hardened concrete bunker facilities. The warhead design and internal cavity were also optimized for case survivability. Progress Ellwood National Forge of Irvine, Pennsylvania created the casing according to a design created by General Dynamics’ Ordnance and Tactical Systems division in Niceville, Florida.
By March 2007, a MOP prototype had been exploded deep under the rugged mountains of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the caverns of the little-known “Weapons of Mass Destruction National Testbeds.” A slender orange-colored MOP prototype was vertically hung, nose down, just inches from the floor of a narrow cavern and then detonated. Its sheer explosive power was demonstrated. By the end of 2007, a full-size dummy mock-up of the eventual GBU 57 A/B MOP was loaded into the bay of a B2 at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. A member of the 509th Maintenance Group personally handling the bomb remarked, "I couldn't help but notice how enormous the bomb was hanging in the weapons bay.”
Early in 2008, as concern about the nuclear programs of both Iran and North Korea began intensifying, the defense establishment started focusing more attention on a delivery system. By February, 2008, the Pentagon proposed a contract to integrate the bomb into B2 stealth bombers. In May 2009, the project was fast-tracked via “Quick Reaction Capability” purchasing rules that allow an accelerated defense contract for urgent needs. In mid-July 2009, Boeing’s McDonnell Douglas Corporation was awarded a $12,100,000 contract to provide MOPs for B-2 bomb bays. In mid-August, McDonnell Douglass Corp. was awarded a second contract, this one $12,500,000 cost plus fixed fee contract with performance incentives to provide for three MOP separation test vehicles, associated aircraft and handling equipment and technical support for release on a B-52 bomber.
In describing the accelerated program, Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, who heads weapons acquisition for the Air Force was quoted as saying, “These are purchases beyond just those needed to test the capability," adding, "In other words, build a small inventory.”
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of IBM and the Holocaust, and The Plan--How to Save America When after the Oil Stops. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.