Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bunker Buster Bomb Back in the News

In Washington, there is no such thing as putting something quietly into a bill, even if there is little prior discussion of an inserted item. But ABC News may be jumping the gun with a headline that reads: "Is the U.S. Preparing to Bomb Iran?" Here's the ABC News article:
Back in October 2007, ABC News reported that the Pentagon had asked Congress for $88 million in the emergency Iraq/Afghanistan war funding request to develop a gargantuan bunker-busting bomb called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). It's a 30,000-pound bomb designed to hit targets buried 200 feet below ground. ...

Now the Pentagon is shifting spending from other programs to fast forward the development and procurement of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. The Pentagon comptroller sent a request to shift the funds to the House and Senate Appropriations and Armed Services Committees over the summer.

The first thing to keep in mind is that back in 2002 President Bush advocated building nuclear bunker busters. It was one of the lamest ideas of the Bush Administration since it risked lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Since that time the thinking has moved toward the development of a conventional weapons system to penetrate a bunker where the development of nuclear weapons is likely to be taking place. That's what being discussed in the article above. By the way, just to broaden the thinking a bit, bunker busters can be used for other purposes than disrupting a nuclear program. But let's stick to the nuclear angle for now.

The two potential nuclear renegades at the moment are Iran and North Korea. Given the feeble world economy, using a bunker buster on Iran would probably drag us into a war that would put much of the oil in the Persian Gulf at peril and sink what little economic recovery the world is seeing so far (In 2006, the idea pushed by Cheney and others to bomb Iran was a lame idea even then). Perhaps Obama and the Pentagon see the bunker buster mostly in terms of pressure on Iran, though the weapon wouldn't be ready, supposedly, until 2010.

As for North Korea, the issue has always been—and remains—the fact that North Korea has artillery weapons that can do enormous damage to Seoul before an effective response can be mounted. Negotiations and sanctions are still the best way to go with North Korea.

So who does that leave? UPI quotes a Pentagon spokesman:
After winning congressional approval, the Pentagon said this week that it had awarded Boeing's McDonnell Douglas a $51.9 million contract to "enable B-2 aircraft" to carry the bomb.

"The threats have been developing over the years," a Pentagon spokesman was quoted saying to U.S. media. "There are, without getting into any intelligence, there are countries that have used technologies to go further underground and to take those facilities and make them hardened. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is a growing one."

Even under Obama, nothing in Washington is ever straightforward. So, what countries does the anonymous spokesman have in mind? First, it should be noted that the bunker buster proposal was put forward over the summer. In the last six months, we have seen nasty developments in Iran and nasty developments in North Korea. In both cases, the nastiness has seemingly died down. Yes, I realize there is this notion sometimes of needing more options. But sometimes having more options simply complicates rather than simplifies the picture. If nothing else, perhaps the bunker buster is intended as a shot across the bow of Ahmadinejad's ambitions (this includes, of course, Iran's more conservative clergy).

Sooner or later, there will be other nuclear pretenders. And some of those pretenders may succeed in building functional bombs. There are several organizations, including the Arms Control Association, who keep track of who has what and who has ambitions. Syria, for example, is an example of a country that may still have ambitions—or not. Actually I don't mean to single out Syria since there are others to consider. Burma, for example? One of the insanities of our era is that nuclear weapons give status to a country and there are a number of leaders who want that status.

For the moment, the real question is whether conventional bunker busters that can do the job help diplomacy or hinder diplomacy. I don't know the answer. I hope someone in Washington does.

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