August 8, 2012 (TSR) – The biggest conventional bomb ever developed is ready to wreak destruction upon the enemies of the US. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said its record-breaking bunker-buster has become operational after years of testing.
“If it needed to go today, we would be ready to do that,” told Donley Air Force Times. “We continue to do testing on the bomb to refine its capabilities, and that is ongoing. We also have the capability to go with existing configuration today.”
The Pentagon has spent $330 million to develop and deliver more than 20 of the precision-guided Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bunker-busters, which are designed to blast through up to 200 feet of concrete.
Although there has previously been a bigger nuclear device, the new conventional rocket is six times the weight of the previous bunker-buster used by the US Air Force, and carries an explosive payload of 5,300 pounds.
US military chiefs openly admitted the weapon was built to attack the fortified nuclear facilities of “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea. Although the Pentagon insists that it is not aimed at a specific threat, unnamed officials within the ministry have repeatedly claimed the bomb is being tailor-made to disable Iranian nuclear facilities at Fordo, or at least to intimidate Tehran.
Iran is working at breakneck speed to expand its Fordo uranium enrichment facility, which is built inside a mountain in the heart of the country, and has previously been declared “impregnable” by senior officials in Tehran. Iran has often paraded its fast-advancing nuclear program, while denying that it intends to build a nuclear bomb.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon rapidly diverted $120 million in two separate tranches from other weapons programs to MOPs. The money was transferred to significantly redesign and upgrade the precision-guided missile to provide “an enhanced threat response” against the “deepest bunkers.”
Donley’s claim can be read as a reassertion of US determination to thwart Iran’s atomic ambitions.
Whether the MOP would be able to actually destroy Fordo is open to debate and may not be known by either of the sides.
The effectiveness of bunker-busters depends on the strength of the soil into which it plunges, how well it makes contact, and the internal structure of the facilities. In the case of Fordo, the US may only have a sketchy idea of its layout.
At best, the US believes a successful strike could set the Iranian program back several years, and, at worst, to at least collapse the passageways to the facility and force substantial rebuilding work.
Two bombs can be mounted simultaneously on a modified B-52 bomber, and a US official previously claimed the effectiveness of any operation would depend on how many “tries at the apple” the US bombers get.
Nonetheless, even if the MOP can be of limited effectiveness against Iran, the United States has precious little alternative. The only other weapon capable of destroying such a facility from the air would be a tactical nuclear missile.
USAF training ‘focused on drones’
There are currently around 1,300 drone pilots operating USAF Reaper, Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the US intends to have around 2,500 pilots and support crew by 2014, according to an article in The Times.
Some 350 new drone pilots were trained in 2011 compared to 250 conventional fighter and bomber pilots.
US Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, in his last press conference as chief, said: “Manned aviation will be part of the chemistry because at least for the near term, the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) capability is not for contested airspace. It is a benign airspace capability.”
“When and if we’re challenged, manned aviation – F35s are a case in point, and B2s – will be part of our force structure, I would estimate, at least for a generation and a half. Thirty years probably – maybe more, probably not less.”
“We’re training more RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) aviators than we are bomber and fighter pilots,” he said. “Ultimately, it is conceivable that the majority of aviators in our Air Force will be Remotely Piloted Aircraft operators.
Schwartz is expected to be replaced as chief of staff by General Mark Welsh upon his retirement later this month.