Whatever happened between the United States and Iran last week—and it's too early yet to tell, really—"progress," or even "maintaining the status quo," wasn't good enough to be the whole story. Mendacious Mullahs, Negative Netanyahus, and the whole cast of national security knuckleheads had a field day speculating about war anyhow—because, well, what's the fun of speculating about peace?
The Pentagon has upgraded and tested the largest bunker-buster bomb in the U.S. arsenal, senior U.S. officials said, readying a weapon that could destroy or disable Iran's most heavily fortified nuclear facilities should a nuclear deal fall apart and the White House decide to take military action.
"Pentagon upgrades biggest 'bunker buster' bomb in case Iran talks fail," the Russian RT blared, "US upgraded 'bunker-buster' bombs as nuke talks with Iran advanced," the Israeli Ynet news.com repeated. So did the Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel. You get the message, right?
Maybe the Journal forgot their story of four years ago (January 28, 2012) entitled "Pentagon Seeks Mightier Bomb vs. Iran." Then it said:
Pentagon war planners have concluded that their largest conventional bomb isn't yet capable of destroying Iran's most heavily fortified underground facilities, and are stepping up efforts to make it more powerful, according to U.S. officials briefed on the plan.
That followed a Bloomberg story from three years earlier (July 31, 2009)—"Pentagon, Eyeing Iran, Wants to Rush 30,000-Pound Bomb Program." Which followed a USA Today story in September 2008—"U.S. Arsenal Is Adding More Bunker Busters: Could be effort to thwart Iran's nuke program" and other stories.
Stepping up efforts? Rushing? Upgrading? Adding? The "bunker buster" in question is called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), and though it is America's largest bomb, it's not rushing anywhere, it was never intended for Iran in the first place, and while it's been under development (now for more than a decade), "massive" has been supplanted by tiny.
Only armchair amateurs (and bloviating idiots) think some 30,000 pound bunker buster is a war-winning silver bullet, or that it is even usable. And "massive"—in an industrial sense—is so far off from what war planners really think about these days.
MOP finds its origins in the 21,000-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb, more affectionately known as the Mother of All Bombs, which starred for a moment more than a decade ago, when the mission was destroying Afghan caves and tunnels. It followed another weapon rushed forward to hit Saddam's bunkers in Gulf War 1, now almost 25 years ago.
So what's most important to understand is that these boutique bunker busters have always been in a rush to do something: panic, engineering challenge, hand-crafted, small amounts of money, and then OBE—overtaken by events.
I've talked to one of the Air Force's top experts on bombs and to a retired officer who's watched this entire development process. And I found the original document: The Initial Capabilities Document (ICD) for Hard and Deeply Buried Target Defeat System (HDBTDS) dated August 1, 2005, which a kind source reviewed for me.
There's a lot of blather about the move underground by China and North Korea and lots of Russian targets, and "deep, expansive, underground tunnel facilities" in Afghanistan and other countries—lots of juicy stuff I'll write about later. But the document and my sources agree: MOP was not justified nor is it being developed with any one country in mind. And Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational testing, told Congress in January 2013 that MOP was intended to hit targets "requiring significant penetration."
That's not Iranian nuclear facilities.
Boeing got its initial $20 million contract for the MOP development effort in 2004: A "quick reaction capability" sometimes referred to as the Direct Strike Penetrator System was then "validated" by a 2007 Urgent Operational Need (UON) document. The argument laid out in the original document is not a one-off to destroy some rogue's nuclear menace, but mission survivability.
In other words, the official argument is not that the threat to national security is so severe that Massive is needed to save America—it's more that Massive increases the chances of survival for Air Force pilots (and their aircraft): readiness for the forever next war.
The sliver of truth in the most recent reporting on MOP is that in its not-quick, hardly urgent history, the "Urgent" need—dating back to 2007—was revalidated last October, even after the first delivery of a weapon to the Air Force in September 2011 and ever more testing.
That same month, Air Force sources say that a B-2 stealth bomber successfully completed an actual drop of a MOP on a mock-up of a deeply buried target constructed under the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. It was the latest in a series of Enhanced Threat Reduction (ETR) phases, each tweaking the behavior of the weapon in more and more challenging environments.
In the coming year, several live weapon tests will further validate ETR-III and IV modifications. Those will no doubt be followed by more ETRs until 20 (!) production models of the GBU-57A/B are delivered.
That's the whole program: 20 hand-crafted bombs that seem to play no more of a role than being fodder for people bloviating about Iran to cry war.
MOP simply provides a capability not currently met by existing conventional weapons, which is self-revalidating—except that in the decade of its development, alternative ways of attacking (and neutralizing) hardened and buried targets have emerged: cyber, stealthy, sabotage—the very opposite of massive.
It's the future of warfare—every military Mullah knows it—but it's kind of hard to make tangible and phallic.
Air Force PowerPoint Briefing obtained by the author; Boeing photo, and B-2 with MOP at Whiteman AFB, Missouri copyright Jim Mummaw. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow us at @gawkerphasezero. If you are into the theater of being underground, you can anonymously deliver tips through the Gawker Media SecureDrop. I've got a book on drones coming out in July called Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare. I'm open to your input and your questions, tough questions.