The Mother of All Bunker Busters

It looks like the Air Force will be getting a new toy.  The Pentagon recently awarded a nearly $52 million contract to speed up delivery of the "massive ordnance penetrator" or MOP.  The MOP, which will be the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, is a precision-guided bomb that will carry 5,300 pounds of explosives and is designed to destroy deeply buried and hardened underground targets.  Not surprisingly, the MOP began development during the Bush administration – which certainly would have coveted such a weapon as part of its policy of preemption (more properly prevention since the Bush administration’s national security policy called for preempting emerging threats before they materialized rather than preemptive defense against known, imminent threats).  What is surprising is that the Obama administration has decided to accelerate the program so that the MOP can be aboard B-2 stealth bombers as soon as next summer.

Or maybe it’s really not surprising.

After all, in his first press conference as president-elect Obama said, "Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable and we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening." And in his speech in Prague calling for a world without nuclear weapons he said, "So let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies."  Other than President Obama’s willingness to engage in diplomacy with Iran (hailed by liberals and decried by conservatives), the policy is the same as when President Bush named Iran a charter member of the "axis of evil."

And since the military option is not off the table with Obama as commander-in-chief any more than it was when Bush occupied the White House, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Pentagon wants to add the mother of all bunker busters to its inventory of weapon as soon as possible – especially with the recent revelation of a heretofore secret underground nuclear facility in Qom.

But if bombing Iran when Bush was president was a bad idea, it’s just as bad an idea with Obama as president.  Even a so-called limited or surgical air strike would involve dropping several hundred bombs (Iran’s nuclear program likely consists of targets comprising hundreds of aimpoints and each aimpoint would require dropping two or three bombs each for reliability and to assure a high probability of kill).  While the U.S. military is certainly capable of carrying out a complex air strike, success would depend on three factors:

  • all the known targets comprise the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program, i.e., there are no secret facilities,
  • absolutely minimal, i.e., near zero, collateral damage, and
  • no retaliation by the regime in Tehran.

However, we already know that the Iranians were able to keep Qom a secret until recently (and Natanz before that), so why should we be confident that they don’t have yet another one?  And even if a bomb lands precisely where we want it to land (and our intention is to avoid collateral damage), there is always collateral damage.  In fact, civilian casualties are all but guaranteed since many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located in or near populated areas (such as the holy city of Qom).  Finally, it is hard to imagine any government not retaliating after being bombed on a relatively massive scale.  And since Iran would have very limited capability to retaliate militarily, resorting to terrorism would be a likely scenario.

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is certainly not one we should encourage or welcome with open arms.  On the other hand, we must realize that it also doesn’t mean an end to the world as we now know it.  Unless the mullahs in Tehran are truly mad and suicidal, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal would still be a powerful deterrent (not to mention the fact that Iran doesn’t have the long-range strike capability to target the United States with nuclear weapons).  Ditto for Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear capability vis-à-vis Iran.  And even though Iran has ties to Hezbollah, there is no evidence that the regime would provide dreaded WMD – including nuclear weapons – to terrorists.

So the reality is that – however unwelcomed and undesirable – we may have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.  As such, we would be better served a policy that reflects that reality rather than the same policy dressed up differently.

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SIDEBAR: A Better Reason?

There is another plausible reason to have a weapon such as the MOP that has nothing to do with targeting Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.  It might also be a way to conventionally neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in a worst case scenario where the Zardari government falls and is taken over by radical Islamists who support al-Qaeda and would have no qualms about handing over nuclear weapons to terrorists.  Please don’t confuse this with calling for military action against Pakistan.  But if the above worst case scenario became a reality, we might have to seriously consider such action.  And it would be imprudent not to.  However – unlike the Bush administration did in Iraq – we should not plan as though the worst case scenario is also the most likely and then act prematurely to prevent it from happening.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.