The Massively Terrible Plan to Give Israel the Massive Ordnance Penetrator

The tough guys in Washington are crying out to send bunker-buster bombs and B-52s to Jerusalem. Hell, why stop there?!

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 09: of the Chicago Bears of the Indianapolis Colts during their 2012 NFL season opener at Soldier Field on September 9, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 09: of the Chicago Bears of the Indianapolis Colts during their 2012 NFL season opener at Soldier Field on September 9, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

There is a terrible idea floating around Washington. Now that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (or E3/EU+3) has survived the period of congressional review, the pointy heads of Beltway wonkdom are turning to the next steps.

Since the battle over the Iran deal was largely fought over the question of whether proponents loved Israel or not, both sides are talking loudly about providing the country with a big arms package. Those who supported the deal are eager to make it up to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, while those opposed have to find ever more extreme proposals to prove they love Israel more.

This absurd competition — which is primarily about political posturing, not Israeli security — has reached an almost perfect level of absurdity. There is now a growing chorus of people arguing that the United States should give Israel the Massive Ordnance Penetrator — a huge conventional bunker-buster bomb — and a fleet of heavy bombers to drop it.

My friend Kingston Reif recently detailed how this idea jumped from the op-ed page to the halls of Congress. The notion first appeared in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief David Deptula and former Pentagon official Michael Makovsky. Since then, the idea has been picked up by others, including Dennis Ross and David Petraeus writing in the Washington Post. Now it’s loose on Capitol Hill, drawing interest from Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Cory Booker.

The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is, as the name suggests, a really massive conventional bomb that is designed to penetrate deep into hard rock. The MOP, which weighs 30,000 pounds, is designed to crush deep underground structures like the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in Iran. The rationale for providing this weapon to Israel is straightforward: The MOP will, depending on who is making the argument, reassure the Israelis or scare the living bejesus out of the Iranians. Or to put it another way, we’re going to give Bibi some brass knuckles and hold his coat while he roughs up Iran.

Just one itsy-bitsy problem: The Israeli air force seems to think it’s a terrible idea. Well, the Israeli air force hasn’t issued a formal statement, but it isn’t hard to find current and former officers saying things like: “This idea is irrelevant for Israel,” and “Intuitively, I don’t believe this is the right answer or even relevant to the [Israeli] air force.”

It’s not hard to see why the Israeli air force would think this is a dumb idea. The MOP is, well, massive. Israel doesn’t have any aircraft capable of delivering such a large bomb, which means the United States would also have to supply a fleet of heavy bombers to go with it. Deptula and Makovsky were straightforward about that little wrinkle, going so far as to note that there are about a dozen B-52H bombers sitting in the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona that would do nicely. Others, like Ross, treat the issue as a mere detail — adding “the airplanes to carry it” as a kind of afterthought.

But the airplanes are far from an afterthought. The Israeli air force has its own ideas about what sort of aircraft it wants — and these aircraft in recent decades tend to be U.S. fighter aircraft that can be heavily modified and can serve in a strike role. Israel is currently buying the F-35 at a princely sum — something like $15 billion if Israel buys all 75 aircraft. It isn’t at all clear that Israel will pop for the full buy — but there is exactly zero evidence that Israel would prefer to further reduce its purchase of F-35 aircraft to accommodate a wing of heavy bombers from the U.S. boneyard.

And let’s be clear: To accommodate a wing of heavy bombers, the Israeli air force would have to completely change how it does business, overturning how it currently thinks about air operations and logistics. “We certainly don’t have the infrastructure to operate the B-52, let alone the support capability to try to get around its huge radar cross section,” a retired Israeli officer told Defense News, comparing the idea to “a pair of shoes many sizes too large.” Israel’s air bases don’t even have runways that can accommodate heavy bombers, though apparently one base — Nevatim — could be modified.

Even then, though, it’s not clear that a wing of B-52s would be of much use against facilities like Fordow in Iran. One would need multiple sorties, dropping one MOP after another, to dig down to the fortified underground bunker. It simply isn’t clear that Israel could sustain the sort of prolonged air operation where B-52s repeatedly penetrate Iranian airspace and repeatedly strike a facility until it is destroyed. The Iranians, after all, will be shooting at those airplanes with some pretty effective Russian surface-to-air missiles.

One of the great things about the reactions of Israeli officials is their sheer bewilderment. They are confused because they are taking the proposal seriously. But the people who came up with the idea don’t intend it to be taken seriously.

It’s pretty easy to see that such proposals are merely intended to show off a bit, like a peacock spreading his pretty feathers. The transfer of B-52 bombers to Israel would violate the New START treaty between the United States and Russia, as Ed Levine points out, which prohibits transferring strategic offensive arms like heavy bombers to third parties. (It might be possible to convert the entire class of B-52H bombers to serve only in conventional roles and then transfer a few, but I don’t think the Air Force will go for that.) None of the op-ed writers deal with this objection. Most give the impression that they weren’t even aware it was a problem. When a reporter pointed out the treaty problem to Ross, he simply asserted that “there are ways to deal with that issue.” But the ways he came up with don’t actually get around the treaty prohibition. But, hey, those are mere details for someone else to figure out.

Look, I’m sure that given the state of play with Russia right now, most of these guys don’t give a damn about the New START treaty, but still. To not even know this might be a problem? If the proponents weren’t serious enough to workshop the idea around town a bit before publishing, we shouldn’t be gullible enough to take them at face value.

This is a pretty common theme in Washington op-eds. It makes more sense to see them as fashion statements than serious policy ideas. An op-ed proposing we transfer heavy bombers to Israel serves the same function as a yellow power tie: to convey that the wearer is a jackass hard-nosed, centrist policy analyst.

Frankly, I am a little disappointed. It would seem to me that, if we’re going to have a competition to come up with an absurd proposal to demonstrate our seriousness, we can do a lot better than that. In fact, a colleague and I did so back in college during a debate competition.

We argued that the United States should transfer design information on sub-kiloton nuclear weapons, then known as precision low-yield nuclear warheads, or PLYWD, to Israel. We called it the Golan Lumber Company. You know, PLYWD for a Greater Israel. OK, it was a silly idea, but it was a great debate case! (We made extensive use of an article by Thomas Dowler and Joseph Howard, titled “Countering the Threat of the Well-Armed Tyrant: A Modest Proposal for Small Nuclear Weapons,” in the now-defunct journal Strategic Review. Despite the title, the authors earnestly supported their modest proposal. One wonders if they sometimes pondered whether to serve Irish babies with butter or hollandaise.)

Now that I’m older, I realize this is a terrible idea. Low yield is not at all useful when trying to crush bunkers. Sub-kiloton nuclear weapons? MOUSE FARTS! What you really want is a big bomb — at least a megaton or so.

It’s not that hard to make a normal nuclear bomb into an earth penetrator. The “physics package” has to be rugged enough to survive hitting the ground, of course. But what really matters is having a casing that is heavy and strong enough to penetrate into rock without deforming, coupling the shock of the nuclear weapon to the ground. The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, or RNEP, program of the 2000s was all about taking an existing bomb design and putting it in a new casing. So why not transfer the design information on the RNEP casings to Israel?

What’s that you say? You don’t want to do that? Then I guess I win. Well, that was easy.

Just one last thing about that casing for the nuclear earth penetrator. How different is it from the casing for a conventional penetrator? I mean, it would be pretty scary if the MOP casing were “suitable for housing a clean, low-yield weapon” of the sort Israel might have developed. Oh, wait, it is?

Well, that’s a little wrinkle…. Yes, Israel could certainly repurpose the casings! An Israeli nuclear bomb would probably be comically small inside a MOP casing, but it’s not like that has never been done before. Britain stuck a tiny Red Snow physics package in the much larger Yellow Sun casing back in the day. (This is almost certainly only the second-strangest story you’ll hear from out of England about sticking tiny little packages in odd places.) But, yeah, you could do it. The only question is how rugged the Israeli design is — or how rugged Israel could make it.

Now, wouldn’t it be awkward if it later turned out that Israel had repurposed the MOP cases? You almost get the sense someone didn’t think this idea through carefully at all.

Thank goodness we don’t have to take any of this seriously! No one is sending Israel the MOP or the B-52s. It’s all just for show. You propose the idea, then sit back and reluctantly accept whatever the treaty weenies in the room are willing to send to Israel.

Nice tie, though.

Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk