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US Stealth bombers may get nuke-bunker nobbler for 2010

14-tonne supersonic steel pencil could have your eye out

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Reports from Washington suggest that the US military is seeking to speed up efforts to deploy a new 14 tonne bunker-piercing conventional weapon aboard its fleet of B-2 stealth bombers. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) could be used to strike at heavily protected Iranian or North Korean nuclear facilities.

Reuters reports that the US Air Force is seeking to speed up the MOP programme, requesting extra funds from Washington politicians to that end. The Pentagon hopes to have B-2s equipped to carry MOPs as soon as next year.

"The Air Force and Department of Defense are looking at the possibility of accelerating the program," USAF spokesman Andy Bourland told the news wire. "There have been discussions with the four congressional committees with oversight responsibilities. No final decision has been made."

The MOP is a comparatively simple proposal, a massive sharpened steel pencil with a relatively small 2.5 tonne explosive charge inside. Dropped from high in the stratosphere, it will strike its target at supersonic speed and punch through many tens of metres of earth or concrete protection before detonating.

Very similar weapons - for instance the British "Tallboy" and "Grand Slam" penetrators, designed by legendary Brit bouncing-bomb boffin Barnes Wallis of Dambusters fame and termed "earthquake bombs" - were used against hardened Nazi targets in World War II. An even bigger design, the colossal 20-tonne American T12, arrived too late to see action*. The only significant enhancement boasted by the 14-tonne MOP over the 1940s models is precision guidance, which should mean that far fewer bombers will be needed to eliminate a target.

The likeliest target for MOPs in the immediate future - assuming that a US president chose to resort to military means against a perceived nuclear threat - would probably be the underground centrifuge farm at Natanz in Iran (Google Earth kmz file). A successful strike on the deeply buried enrichment bunkers there would be a major blow to the Iranian nuclear effort.

However, Iranian air defences have been beefed up with Russian missile systems in recent years, and may soon receive further enhancements from the same source. While MOPs could be dropped on Natanz from ordinary American B-52s, mounting such a raid would be difficult and likely to involve a significant aerial precursor campaign against missile sites and the like, with associated additional loss of life on the ground and risk to US aircrews.

By contrast, a B-2 stealth raid would be a comparatively surgical and painless affair - thus the desire to fit the new bunker-nobbling tool to the batwinged low-observable bomber. ®

Bootnote

*The MOP will not be "the largest non-nuclear bomb ever". Tchoh.

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