Nuke Bunker Busters

Seymour Hersh’s stunning article – “The Iran Plans” – in the New Yorker magazine about Bush’s plans to preemptively take out the Iranian nuclear program, using bunker-buster nukes “if necessary,” has created quite a stir.

And rightly so.

In the first place, all known Iranian nuclear facilities and activities have been made subject to a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. And, as a result of Iran’s cooperating with the IAEA for the past three years as if their unratified Additional Protocol was actually in force, a number of activities and facilities have been declared much sooner than required by the basic agreement.

For example, the underground bunker at Natanz, in which the Iranians intend to eventually install thousands of aluminum-rotor gas-centrifuges, need not have been declared to the IAEA under the basic agreement until shortly before uranium-enrichment activities were scheduled to commence there.

But with an Additional Protocol in force, the Iranians would be required to report their intentions as soon as critical decisions were made.

So, the bunker at Natanz would have had to be declared as soon as the Iranians decided to construct it.

It is this bunker at Natanz – currently empty, except for IAEA surveillance cameras – that the neo-crazies intend to “take-out,” soon, using bunker-buster nukes, “if necessary.”

Of course, the neo-crazies will deem it “necessary.” And while they’re at it, they’ll nuke underground command and control centers, missile sites, submarine pens – even above ground air bases and the nuclear power plant at Bushehr.

Their true goal, of course, is to effect regime change in Iran.

They tried – but failed – to effect regime change in Iraq in 1998, and again in 2003, with bunker-busters. But not nuke bunker-busters.

A few days after being impeached by the House of Representatives, President Clinton received intelligence that Saddam Hussein would be spending a specific night in an underground bunker beneath one of his palaces.

After determining the Global Positioning Satellite coordinates of that and other palaces, Clinton launched a GPS-guided cruise missile attack.

Saddam wasn’t killed by Clinton’s cruise missiles because they weren’t capable of penetrating deep enough to destroy underground bunkers.

So, when President Bush got intelligence that Saddam was spending the night in a German-designed underground bunker near Baghdad, Bush tried to kill him immediately, 20 hours before Operation Iraqi Freedom was officially scheduled to begin.

This time, the Air Force first hit the target with powerful GPS-homing bunker-buster bombs, specifically designed to penetrate deep into the earth before exploding.

After the bunker was busted, then came the GPS-homing cruise-missiles.

Again, Saddam wasn’t killed, mostly because he wasn’t there. In fact, the bunker wasn’t even there.

But back to nuke bunker-busters.

Our first nuke bunker-buster – a “gun-type” nuke – entered stockpile in the late 1950s.

It bugged the Air Force that they had never been able to take out the German submarine pens at Saint-Nazaire, France which had 10 meter thick concrete roofs.

The Germans had developed something we now call the Long-Rod Penetrator and successfully used LRPs against supposedly impenetrable French and Belgian forts in 1940. Many armour-piercing projectiles used by the Germans in WWII were tungsten LRPs, and are, nowadays, usually depleted-uranium LRPs.

The idea behind the first nuke bunker-buster was essentially to encase a nuke in a LRP. The current nuke bunker-buster in stockpile – an implosion-type nuke – is about twelve feet in length but only thirteen inches in diameter, and is mostly steel.

The problem, of course, was that none of our nuke bunker-busters approach the target at supersonic speeds. They don’t develop anything like enough velocity to penetrate several meters of concrete, even when dropped from 40,000 feet.

Hersh’s article has resulted in Harper’s posting on its website an article by Benjamin Phelan that originally appeared in Harper’s magazine back in December, 2004. Subtitled “Debunking the nuclear ‘bunker buster’” it does that and more.

In particular, after chronicling the challenges facing the designer and developer of a nuke that will truly bust bunkers, Phelan quotes Joseph Howard, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos.

“We’re in the new world order, and I think a very low-yield penetrator offers us some versatility. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do against some of these other diaperheads. . . . The problem is that, whatever the rogue nation is, whoever the rogue leader is, it seems like it could be very, very tough to deter them with any type of rational means we deterred with during the Cold War.”

Yes, deterring crazies – ours and theirs – could be a problem.

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.