Hard and Deeply Buried Targets
The U.S. Air Force is seeking help from private industry to improve techniques for locating and analyzing “hard and deeply buried” targets, a description that fits some of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
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If diplomacy with Iran should fail, the U.S. is ready to defeat Iran's hardened and buried nuclear infrastructures with specialized ordinance and a sprawling agency devoted to the detection and destruction of hard and deeply buried targets.
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Detecting and studying underground facilities has been in the news given concerns about Iran’s nuclear programs. Dwayne Day examines the roles satellites play in such studies based on Cold War and more recent experience, and their limitations. [ More ]
In arguing their case, U.S. officials acknowledged some uncertainty over whether even the Pentagon’s newest “bunker-buster” weapon — called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP — could pierce in a single blow the subterranean chambers where Iran is making enriched uranium. But they said a sustained U.S. attack over multiple days would probably render the plant unusable by collapsing tunnels and irreparably damaging both its highly sensitive centrifuge equipment and the miles of pipes, tubes and wires required to operate it. “Hardened facilities require multiple sorties,” said a former senior intelligence official who has studied the formerly secret Fordow site and agreed to discuss sensitive details of U.S. strike capabilities on the condition of anonymity. “The question is, how many turns do you get at the apple?” U.S. confidence has been reinforced by training exercises in which bombers assaulted similar targets in deeply buried bunkers and mountain tunnels, the officials and experts said.
The technology to create effects against a truly deep underground facility, short of a nuclear weapon, does not exist. “We keep inventing and improving penetrating bombs,” says the U.S. defense specialist. “We've hardened them and we've boosted them and we've only increased the amount of the deeply buried target set we can defeat by a fraction. And right now the Israeli capability against deeply buried targets is not much more than a noise-level effect.”
As a result, the enthusiasm for a U.S. attack on Iran is negligible, and the technological ability for Israel to create the necessary effects is not much greater.
Think of it as Plan B for Iran. The failure of diplomacy might lead the U.S. to turn to a weapon finally ready for real-world action after years of design and testing. The so-called “Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” or MOP, represents decades of military research, dramatically accelerated in recent years, focused on the problem of destroying targets buried deep underground.
That research once revolved around places like Russia, Iraq and North Korea. But in recent years, aided by a little-known military team of intelligence analysts, geologists and engineers, it has come to focus on Iran. More specifically, a uranium enrichment facility burrowed more than 250 feet into a mountain, about two hours’ drive south of Tehran.
Iran’s facility, known as Fordow, houses 3,000 centrifuges that can enrich uranium to a purity suitable for nuclear weapons. Fordow is not Iran’s only enrichment facility, or even its largest. But it is the best protected. And it would be all Iran needs to develop a nuclear weapon.
The mock desert target was almost certainly meant to simulate Fordow.
When Obama officials say that “all options are on the table” to stop Iran from getting a nuke, they are in effect speaking in code about the MOP. The MOP is what Secretary of State John Kerry was clearly referring to when he recently told Israeli TV that the U.S. has “designed and deployed a weapon that has the ability to deal with Iran's nuclear program.” When CNN recently put the question directly — can the MOP destroy Fordow? — to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, he was succinct: “Yes. That’s what it was designed to do.