With concern in the Pentagon increasing about Iran and North Korea, both countries known to have hidden strategic facilities underground – including key elements of their nuclear establishment — the U.S. military is putting on the fast track an effort to field a massive, precision bomb designed to destroy just such facilities.
The weapon, called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), has been in development for more than two years. It is essentially a 30,000 lb.-class bomb, designed to use its massive kinetic energy from a high-altitude drop to reach targets deep underground, before setting off its explosive. To some extent, it’s the Pentagon’s best shot at taking out such deeply buried targets without having to resort to a nuclear weapon. MOP would be the Pentagon’s largest GPS-guided bomb in inventory.
The Pentagon certainly seems eager to get the bomb into its inventory. A decision has been made to take a development program that appeared to be moving ahead at moderate pace and put it on the front burner. The Pentagon is looking to start a program soon to integrate the weapon on the B-2 stealth bomber, which has always been one of the intended delivery systems.
The “quick reaction” effort, the U.S. military’s phrase for an urgent activity, is supposed to result in the B-2 being able to drop the bomb within 9 months from program launch.
Sponsorship of the weapon’s development has come from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which oversees efforts for the Defense Department to destroy underground weapons of mass destruction facilities as part of its mandate. Until recently, DTRA, located south of Washington, D.C. at Ft. Belvoir, Va., appeared content to let the program proceed on its own pace. Less than a year ago, DTRA director James A. Tegnelia described the Massive Ordnance Penetrator as no more than a test article. “We are not in the process to convince anybody to field a large earth penetrator,” he told the Pentagon’s internal newswire.
The Air Force, which is in charge of integrating weapons on its aircraft, is still preparing the ground work for the B-2 activity, but the “quick reaction” designation indicates the program is seen as a priority. Moreover, preparations also are being made for the purchase of “a limited number” of the bombs. Boeing was selected to develop and test MOP in November 2004, under a program initially estimated to cost $20 million. Although the B-2 has been seen as the main delivery platform, each of the bombers would be able to carry two of the weapons (one in each weapons bay), the older B-52H bomber would also be able to drop the bomb.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has also been closely involved with the program. One of its researchers told an Aviation Week colleague and myself several yeas ago that in developing the weapon, the service would draw heavily on work it had done when it built the 21,000-lb. GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Burst bomb. MOAB (which Air Force officials jokingly says actually stands for Mother Of All Bombs) was developed for the Iraq war but not used there. MOP is much bigger, with a thicker casing to withstand the earth penetration, but contains less explosive material. But some of the aerodynamic lessons learned on MOAB concerning how to drop such huge bombs have come in useful.
The 30,000 lb. MOP would represent a step-change in the U.S. military’s capability. Currently, the Pentagon has to rely on 5,000 lb. penetrators or try to place several missiles or bombs in the same crater to dig down. The Pentagon also has several 2,000 lb. penetrator bombs, some with special casings to increase the depth they can reach.
Just how deep MOP could strike is classified, although some officials suggest it could be well in excess of 100 feet. Having the bomb withstand the initial impact with the ground is the biggest design stressor, program manager Bob Hastie told two of my Aviation Week colleagues after the program was well underway. The casing is provided by the same company, Irvine, Pennsylvania-based Ellwood National Forge, which helped create the Air Force’s 5,000 lb. penetrator bomb built as a quick reaction program for the 1991 Persian Gulf war.