Bombs vs Bunkers in a Potential Iran Attack (POPULAR MECHANICS) By Sharon Weinberger 03/14/12)
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The possibility of an Iran attack highlights the latest arms race:
The United States trying to build new bunker-busting weapons while
Iran buries its nuclear labs deep underground to try to avoid
possible U.S. (or Israeli) bombs.
The United States and Iran have engaged in a war of words over their
military capabilities in the last few weeks. But if an actual war
breaks out, it will not be a war of U.S. bombs versus Iranian bombs,
but of U.S. bombs versus Iran´s bunkers.
Iran´s network of nuclear facilities, some of which are underground,
would be the primary target of an Israeli or U.S. attack intended to
destroy Iran´s suspected clandestine weapons program. As the rhetoric
has heated up, the United States has been talking up its military
capabilities. Whether American or Israeli bombs indeed could
penetrate or destroy Iranian bunkers, though, is still unclear.
The bomb getting the most press lately is the Pentagon´s newest
megaweapon: the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a 30,000-
pound bomb designed to penetrate through dozens of feet of concrete.
Speaking last week at a conference, Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the
Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, called it a great
weapon and noted that it was "part of our arsenal."
But the MOP, which B-2 bombers will carry, is still in testing,
though it is supposed to be ready for use sometime this year. Until
the MOP is ready to go, the biggest bunker-busters in the U.S.
arsenal are much smaller. That includes the 5000-pound GBU-28, a
laser-guided bunker-buster (which Israel wants to acquire) that the
U.S. developed two decades ago to obliterate bunkers in Iraq during
the first Gulf War.
Meanwhile, Iran´s Press TV has cited public reports that Iranian
industry is working on "ultra-high-performance concrete" that "may
render Iranian nuclear sites impervious to U.S. bunker-buster bombs."
Indeed, Iranian scientists are good at cooking up tough concrete, in
part because so many earthquakes strike the country. But there´s no
evidence that, even if Iran had such a super-concrete, it has been
used to protect any of the nation´s nuclear operations.
Even so, the Pentagon is worried about what it calls Hard and Deeply
Buried Targets, and with good reason. Iran´s Fordow facility, for
example, is believed to be more than 265 feet underground and is part
of a concerted strategy to distribute the country´s nuclear
capabilities and make them more difficult to destroy. According to
The Economist, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that MOP would
need an upgrade to destroy the deepest bunkers in Iran.
So besides the MOP, the Pentagon is also working on other weapons and
technologies to break through underground bunkers, and a cottage
industry has sprung up to build these new weapons. Last year, for
example, the defense company ATK won a military contract for a
technology called the Hard Target Void Sensing Fuze, which can be
used to program a warhead to go off at a specific time. The fuze can
be time-delayed to explode only after penetrating through many feet
of concrete, and it will also include a "void sensing function,"
which would allow it to know when it has gone through the ground and
penetrated into a targeted bunker so that it doesn´t detonate too
early. The Air Force Research Laboratory is also considering more-far-
out bunker-busting technologies that may come around in the next few
decades, such as directed-energy weapons.
Finally, the standoff in Iran creates another problem for any
attacking country to consider, beyond the bunkers or their depths
underground. Some of Iran´s nuclear facilities are located near
populated areas, making airstrikes politically difficult and
potentially dangerous to civilians because an airstrike could
introduce radioactive material into the atmosphere.
"I do think that if you popped a ton of HE [high explosive] inside a
tunnel at Qom or elsewhere there would be a plume of UF6 [uranium
hexafluoride] that could contaminate the surrounding area," says
Peter Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist and former chief scientist of
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But the question is not
whether you could detect contamination, but would it be high enough
to be significant?"
In places like the Fordow nuclear facility, outside the city of Qom,
any contamination would likely be far away from populated areas,
Zimmerman says. But some facilities, such as the Bushehr nuclear
power plant or the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility, are in or
near cities. "The bombing of the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility
would undoubtedly send radioactive plumes over the historic city of
Isfahan, a mere 9 miles downwind," says Joseph Cirincione, president
of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit arms-control association.
Bombing those facilities would have huge consequences for the
surrounding area, Cirincione argues. "We have never experienced such
bombings in history," he says. "Up until now, they have been
considered beyond the pale."
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