The MOP: Needed Capability or Message to Iran?

Nov 18, 2011

By Stephanie Spies


The Air Force recently confirmed the addition of the 30,000 pound GBU-57A/B or Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to its arsenal, providing the U.S. with a new bomb to defeat hard and deeply buried targets. Although this weapon has been in development stages for some time, it was not until this September that Boeing began to deliver the MOP to the Air Force in order to fulfill its proclaimed “operational needs”. Military representatives have publicly shied away from attributing this recent acquisition to a particular country or threat, instead claiming that it provides a crucial new defense capability. However, the timing of this transfer, and its public announcement, seems oddly coincidental with the current media frenzy over Iran’s nuclear program following the release of the newest IAEA report. Not only has the U.S .recently announced the acquisition and readiness of the MOP for deployments overseas, but it has also tested the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a new, non-nuclear system used for prompt global strikes, and has proposed a sale of bunker busters designed to defeat hard and deeply buried targets to the UAE. Together, these developments seem to indicate that the Obama administration is using containment and demonstrations of military capability in order to send a “strong and clear message” to Tehran to halt its nuclear activities…or suffer the consequences.
The MOP is no ordinary weapon – it is a 30,000 pound , GPS-guided bomb with a 530,000 pound explosive payload that can destroy targets over 200 feet underground. Intended to be carried by the B-2 or B-52 bomber, the bomb is designed to strike hard and deeply buried targets such as those suspected of harboring Iranian and North Korean nuclear facilities. According to the U.S. military’s official description, the MOP will “defeat our adversaries’ WMD before they leave the ground”. Although little other information is known about this new capability, it is ten times more destructive than its predecessor BLU-109, or “The Mother of All Bombs”, and uses hardened-steel casing to defeat even the most reinforced of underground targets.
Its awesome design and power aside, many are wondering whether the MOP is intended specifically for Iran, considering its capabilities and the timing of its procurement. Air Force officials have been quick to dismiss these charges, claiming that “the system is not aimed at any one country, it’s to develop a capability we believe we need”. Yet in describing “the current operational need” that the bomb provides, military officials have pointed to “hard and deeply buried targets in high-threat environments” that certainly align with U.S. suspicions about Iranian nuclear facilities. In fact, some officials such as Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess have described these types of targets as “key elements of Iran’s extensive program to protect its nuclear infrastructure from destruction”, demonstrating the importance of penetrating capabilities such as the MOP to defeating Iranian nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, many powerful military commanders in the Middle East have “recently identified the need to expedite” the MOP’s deployment. The U.S. “unusually detailed” description of the MOP’s capabilities seems to match almost perfectly with the targets the U.S. must be able to defeat in destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The timing of the announcement of the MOP’s transfer to the Air Force also seems closely aligned with recent advancements and fears of Iran’s nuclear program. Although the MOP has been in production for several years and Boeing began transferring an unknown number of these bombs to the Air Force in September, the military chose to emphasize the readiness of the new capability this week. Many experts  picked up on this “heck of a coincidence,” with the military’s public disclosure coming days after the release of the IAEA report and media hysteria over its results. While it remains questionable whether the MOP was acquired solely to defeat Iranian nuclear targets, it seems clear that the consistent statements about its capabilities, particularly in the current international environment, are intended to send a message to Iran: heed international pressure over your nuclear program or we will resort to other options.
The acquisition of the MOP is not an isolated message intended for Iran, but rather part of the Obama administration’s broader strategy of escalating its military containment options in order to deter further nuclear advancements. Around the same time that the IAEA report was released and the frenzy over Iranian nuclearization began, the U.S. undertook a series of initiatives meant to increase regional deterrence against Iran. Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the U.S. began to push for a strengthened GCC security alliance, dubbed a “mini NATO” by many in the media, whose main goal appears to be to “push back against Iran”. In particular, the U.S. has emphasized the need to improve military ties and integrated air defense and missile defense capabilities, likely in an effort to reassure Israel and other Gulf allies that “Iran will not be allowed free rein” in the region. Moreover, the Obama administration recently announced its intention to sell military equipment, including bunker busters, to the UAE so that it can “assume a role in which it can deter Iran” and target Iranian underground nuclear facilities. Most recently, the U.S. Army tested its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon in the Pacific in a demonstration of its “Prompt Global Strike” program, which allows the U.S. to “destroy, delay, or disrupt key enemy targets” anywhere in the world in a very short amount of time. 
Although it is unclear whether the U.S. would actually use any of these new military capabilities, it is evident that they are intended to threaten and pressure Iran into halting or making concessions over its nuclear program. The Obama administration’s response to the IAEA report, from many officials and in a variety of situations, has consistently been one of firm opposition to the emergence of a nuclear Iran and of definite support for increasing pressure on Tehran from numerous fronts. The timing of these new changes in U.S. policy in the Gulf and announcements of new military capabilities intended for hard and deeply buried targets cannot be purely coincidental with the current frenzy over Iranian nuclearization. The U.S. may not be preparing to strike Iran, but it certainly is convincing the regime in Tehran and American allies in the Gulf that it easily could if the Islamic Republic doesn’t bow to international pressure over its nuclear program.

Stephanie Spies is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.