The U.S. Air Force Has Lots of Options for Smashing Iran’s Nuclear Facilities
Flying branch shopping for bunker-busting bombs
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told CNN the United States military has the capability to “shut down, set back and destroy” Iran’s nuclear program.
The highly-publicized yet classified weapon Carter was referring to is the Massive Ordnance Penetrator — a behemoth, 30,000-pound bunker bomb introduced specifically to destroy Iran’s underground uranium enrichment facilities.
In January, we told you the Pentagon was modifying and testing the bomb as the diplomatic push for a nuclear settlement with the pariah state intensified. But of course, that’s not all the U.S. military has been up to in the background.
The Air Force, which leads the development of air-delivered bunker bombs, is preparing to go shopping for a new “family” of weapons to kill fortified targets — and it’s compiling that shopping list right now.
This list is likely to include a new rocket-rammed High Speed Strike Weapon for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, plus a new class of inexpensive, mid-weight penetrating bombs.
And as a last resort, the U.S. government is holding onto its only earth-penetrating nuclear bomb, the B61–11, even as it reduces its nuclear stockpile to comply with an arms reduction treaty with Russia.
The Air Force definitely wants to make more improvements to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, since a third and fourth “enhanced threat reduction” modification program is included in its 2016 budget plans. The service is also about to scale up production of a smart, void-sensing fuze that counts bunker layers and detonates at the correct level.
An Air Combat Command review of the flying branch’s so-called hard-target munitions inventory recently wrapped up, and that study is circulating among senior leaders within the department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The classified study assessed what the Air Force currently has, and what it might need in the future as nations like Iran and North Korea find new ways to harden their military installations against attack from the West.
The Air Force won’t say much about the study officially, but senior service officials have been dropping hints as Congress seeks assurances about the military’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites should diplomacy fail.
The service’s chief scientist told House lawmakers in March that a research program to develop a 2,000-pound hard-target killer for the F-35 and other modern fighters and bombers is ready to transfer to an acquisition program.
The Air Force needs a smaller, more compact weapon to destroy hard and deeply buried targets, Walker said at the hearing.
“The High Velocity Penetrating Weapon was a program that we put together to do this,” he continued. “[It has] been very successful and now it’s transitioned that technology into the follow-on program that Air Combat Command is now looking at in their analysis of alternatives.”
There has been surprisingly little discussion about the weapon program since 2011, when the Air Force paid military contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to design prototypes, which were due to undergo sled-testing last year.
According to an Air Force presentation from 2011, the bomb would fit inside the F-35’s internal weapons bay for stealth. To overcome the size and weight constraints, a rocket motor would ram the hardened, high-explosive warhead into the target.
The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is a gigantic bomb with plenty of punching power because of its sheer size. But it only fits on the Air Force’s B-2 and B-52 bombers, whereas the High Velocity Penetrating Weapon would be compatible with more aircraft types — and overcome its relatively small size with speed.
According to Maj. Gen. Scott Jansson, the Air Force’s top weapons-buyer, the flying branch probably won’t ever produce MOP in large numbers.
“We’re looking at less-expensive weapons than MOP that we can build in greater quantities, but MOP was considered in that analysis as well,” Jansson said. “[It] might be part of a family of capabilities that can hold certain targets at risk.”
One program Jansson is about to approve for production is Orbital ATK’s Hard Target Void Sensing Fuze. The company completed development of the smart fuze last month, and the Air Force and Navy plan to purchase 5,500 of them over the next few years to replace the existing time-delayed fuzes on older penetrating warheads.
“It’s a big deal,” Jansson said in a March interview. “It’s a significantly improved fuze over anything that we have today. If we have the intelligence that says we want to target the third floor down in an underground bunker, we will program the fuze to ignite in that layer.”
If all conventional means fail to destroy a target, there’s the B61–11 nuclear option. The National Nuclear Security Administration is reducing its five B61 nuclear bomb variants to one, the B61–12 — except for the bunker-busting variant that debuted in the 1990s.
“I see an enduring role for the ability of the U.S. Air Force to be able to take out deeply-buried, hardened targets,” Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence, said in an April 20 interview. “We will do that for the nation, and in order to do that we have an array of assets and weapons to do that in a credible manner, and not just nuclear weapons.
“We don’t have a set retirement date yet for the B61–11. It was actually more recently introduced into the stockpile, but it will continue for a while.”