The U.S. tested its new Iran “bunker buster” bomb for the first time last year, Israeli media reported this week, citing officials who were briefed by their American counterparts on the test.
According to media reports, last year the U.S. conducted the first test of its newly minted GBU-57B massive ordnance penetrator against a nuclear facility replica. The Jerusalem Post reported that the replica “cost millions of dollars to build, was made of concrete and buried under dozens of feet of dirt and rocks.” The MOP successful destroyed the nuclear facility.
The massive, 30,000 pound GBU-57A/B MOP cost somewhere between US$400 million and US$500 million to develop and each bomb costs around US$3.5 million to manufacture. It would be carried and dropped by America’s B-2 stealth bombers.
It was developed after U.S. officials began to doubt that their existing conventional bombs could destroy Iran’s underground nuclear facility, Fordow, located near the holy city of Qom.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the MOP was recently upgraded to ensure its viability to destroy the Fordow nuclear site. This upgrade included adjustments to the detonator fuse to ensure it could withstand the impact of penetrating the granite and steel that the Fordow nuclear site is buried under. The WSJ also reported that the bomb’s guidance system had been improved to increase accuracy as has its evasion capabilities to ensure it got through Iran’s air defense system.
U.S. officials reportedly decided to share the result of the test with allies like Israel to demonstrate Washington’s resolve to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities should negotiations fail, thus reducing the likelihood that Israel would launch unilateral attacks against Iran. U.S. officials also reportedly hope that the MOP’s existence will increase their leverage in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Although the MOP could give negotiators more time to reach a compromise, ultimately it cannot solve the Iran nuclear conundrum, which at this time is a political not a military problem. The MOP’s development and a recent poll highlighted by Think Progress underscore Washington’s inability to grasp this fundamental reality.
In many ways, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would increase the likelihood that Iran would acquire an actual nuclear arsenal, rather than a breakout nuclear capability which would be the likely outcome if the current course of action is continued without any agreement being reached. Iranian leaders are almost certain to use such an attack to justify withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and to revoke Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against building nuclear weapons. After all, every government’s most sacred responsibility is the protection of its people and its sovereignty.
An attack on Iran would also likely lead to the collapse or substantial fracturing of the Western-led international economic campaign against Iran. This, along with the Iranian regime’s ability to mobilization more resources for the nuclear program owing to the greater national demand for doing so, would increase the amount of resources the Islamic Republic would have available to rebuild its nuclear program.
At the same time, an attack on Iran would commit the U.S. to conduct follow-up attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities every couple of years for the indefinite future. In other words, the U.S. would have committed to pursuing the policy that Israeli leaders calling “mowing the grass.” There has been significant discontent in Tel Aviv about this policy, which is why many Israel experts assess that its operations against its enemies are often tactical successes but strategic failures.
In the case of the U.S. attacking Iran ever couple of years, ultimately there would almost certainly be a failure of some sort that would result in Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.
One possibility is a lapse in intelligence whereby the U.S. failed to accurately identify all of Iran’s nuclear activities. Another could be a major event in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world—such as a presidential election, natural disaster, economic crisis, or war in another theater—that saps Washington’s willingness to conduct a follow-on nuclear attack at a future date. In the meantime, the continuous attacks on Iran would frustrate the United States’ ability to advance its interests in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world—notably, in the Asia-Pacific.
The inevitability of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon if it is attacked is illustrated nicely by its construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak. Once this facility goes critical (Iran claims early 2014), it will be nearly invulnerable to attack unless the U.S. is willing to expose Iranians to dangerous nuclear materials. At any point, Iran could reinstate plans to build a plutonium separation plant and therefore have a clear route to build a nuclear weapon even without Fordow or any other uranium enrichment plant.
In this way, the successful test of the MOP does little to change the Iranian nuclear equation.