The program to develop the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a next-generation bunker buster, may be accelerated, according to the U.S. Air Force. The bomb, six times as heavy and supposedly 10 times as powerful as the existing Guided Bomb Unit-28, promises to be a significant leap in the American ability to take out hardened and deeply buried targets.
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The U.S. Air Force may accelerate its attempt to field a next-generation bunker buster, a spokesman said Aug. 2. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) is a nearly 30,000-pound non-nuclear guided bomb just over 20 feet long, and is touted as being 10 times as powerful as the existing Guided Bomb Unit-28, which weighs in at just under 5,000 pounds (the MOP carries 5,300 pounds of conventional explosive). The MOP promises significant improvements in the U.S. ability to penetrate hardened and deeply buried targets, but remains beholden to the most important criterion for an air campaign: intelligence.
Still in development, the MOP is intended to be guided to its target by the Global Positioning System and to penetrate as much as 200 feet of 5,000 pounds per-square-inch reinforced concrete. The bomb’s hardened casing and the speed of the impact are meant to drive the entire 30,000-pound hulk as deeply as possible before it detonates. The program, which dates back to 2004, has already seen a MOP fitted into the bay of a B-2A stealth bomber (which would be able to carry two — one in each bomb bay) and released. If the acceleration is successful, the Air Force hopes to have the weapon operational by the middle of 2010.
Even if the MOP only comes close to achieving its design objectives, it will represent a significant leap in the U.S. ability to threaten hardened and deeply buried targets, and destroy them if necessary. The centrifuge halls at the Natanz enrichment site in Iran, for example, are unlikely to be able to withstand a direct hit (though admittedly just how hardened the facility is has been a matter of speculation). Fitting the MOP to the B-2 also makes delivery in a high-threat air defense environment more credible.
Indeed, while reinforced concrete itself is no engineering marvel these days, designing and building a facility sufficiently hardened to give its owner a credible sense of imperviousness to the new MOP is a significant undertaking that would require a substantial investment in resources (beyond whatever program or effort one might hope to conduct inside it) and whose construction would be difficult to hide from spy satellites.
This is not to make the MOP out to be some “ultimate” weapon capable of penetrating any target, however. Both the United States and Russia have designed facilities to withstand the detonation of large strategic nuclear warheads nearby. Some deep cave complexes could also offer significant protection (though geologic instability could be an issue).
But the underlying problem is one of targeting. Only the most hardened facilities in the world would likely be able to withstand the impact from an MOP, much less sustained bombardment by multiple MOPs. But while the movement of earth and other indicators may allow imagery analysts using measurement and signature intelligence to gauge the overall volume of an underground facility, its exact shape and disposition underground may be significantly less clear (not to mention potentially obscured by the builder). And if accurate estimates of where the bunker actually is cannot be made, no bunker buster in the world is enough to do the trick.
If the MOP has the effect the Pentagon is hoping for, it will act as a deterrent to burying illicit weapons program facilities in the first place while significantly increasing the U.S. ability to destroy those that already exist. In either case, it certainly ups the ante in terms of the resources, planning and time necessary to harden such a facility — something that in and of itself may be significant, given the already immense investment of resources required to carry out such programs