B-2’s Big Baby

January 20, 2007

mop.jpgWith  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.  


Here they come

January 19, 2007

ec725.jpgNATO forces in Afghanisitan will see some new air assets supporting operations there in the coming months, with the French government having decided to deploy special operations capable Eurocopter EC725 helos to the area, as well as air force Rafales. For the air force Rafales, it will be the first overseas deployment, after the service formally fielded the multi-role, twin-engined fighter last year – the French navy has already cruised with its Rafales, although those are at an earlier build standard. 

For the EC725, it is the second deployment already, although the helicopter has been fielded less than a year. The operational debut was in Lebanon. The twin-engine helo features missile, radar and laser warning receivers, as well as a dispenser system, but so far no laser-based countermeasures.   

France also is still trying to get the Rafales fully up to speed for its deployment, and is in talks with Raytheon about purchasing some Enhanced Paveway 2 laser-guided bombs with GPS capability to give them an all weather strike capability.

The French moves come as a decision was made to pull out special operations ground personnel, who have long been deployed to Afghanistan. One French military observer suggests the pull out of ground forces was driven by political calculus. It was a risk mitigation effort in the run-up to late Spring presidential elections, he argues. There was concern among some quarters that having a large number of ground forces exposed to potential losses could lead to damaging headlines during the electoral season.   

The French army also is mulling deployment of its Sperwer unmanned aerial vehicle, a tactical system already used in Afghanistan, most heavily by the Canadians, although Dutch forces are also equipped with the drone.

Meanwhile, German politicians continue their long debate on whether or not to send six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan to meet a request for additional support by alliance commanders. There is now a consensus emerging in Germany that the government doesn’t require new legal authority for the Tornado deployment, but political forces from the left and the center are urging such a move nonetheless.   

For now, Berlin feels no pressure to decide. NATO foreign ministers are salted to meet January 26th, and only after that get together will the federal government make its decision, according to a foreign ministry representative.

The six aircraft that would deploy belong to the 51st Immelmann reconnaissance squadron . The unit saw its first overseas deployment in 1995 as part of military operations in the former
Yugoslavia. The aircraft carry reconnaissance systems of two
KS153A optical cameras, built by Zeiss, as well as infrared line scanner and recce management systems from Honeywell. The suite has a digital data storage system, but currently no real-time data feed which NATO commanders have said they have great demand for.

The German air force also is trying to quickly buy a combat proven, medium-altitude unmanned aircraft to meet their NATO obligations, although that wouldn’t be fielded in time for deployment this year. Although funding in Germany is currently tight, the debate over the Tornado deployment could trigger funding support for purchasing a UAV, whose deployment would be politically more palatable in a future scenario.

Military obligations in Afghanistan have already demonstrated they can break free extra money in Germany, where modernization spending is hard to come by. Last month, the defense ministry received approval to triple its planned procurement of Dingo 2 armored vehicles to 100 from 33 this year.