Friday, August 28, 2015

MOPing Up Israel

Massive Ordnance Penetrator

As I wrote recently for a lead editorial in my local Jewish newspaper, the opponents to the Iran Deal are "Losing the Battle" in Congress. Even clear-headed opponents to the deal have read the writing on the wall.

So now we move to the next phase, a phase that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to defer until after the Congressional vote - just how will the United States enhance Israel's security from both Iranian behavior outside the nuclear arena, and from the fear that Iran may still cheat on the deal.

There is one crazy idea circulating in Washington for years. It has been trumpeted most recently by the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, the well-placed and highly-regarded pro-Israel think tank. I first heard the idea aloud in a conference call with former Ambassador Dennis Ross about a month ago. Two days ago, Ross was joined by former CIA Director and military wunderkind David Petraeus in an op-ed in The Washington Post to make the case for the crazy idea, entitled "How to Put Some Teeth into the Nuclear Deal with Iran." Coming from two respected insiders, the article is garnering an enormous amount of attention. Here's the gist of their presentation:

The Iranians also should know that if they produce highly enriched uranium — for which there is no legitimate civilian purpose — that we would see that as an intention to make a weapon and would act accordingly. There is no mention of highly enriched uranium in the president’s letter. Although Obama speaks in the letter of providing the Israelis with the BLU-113, a 4,400-pound “bunker buster” bomb, it would not be sufficient to penetrate Fordow, the Iranian enrichment site built into a mountain. For that, the Israelis would need the 30,000-pound massive ordnance penetrator (MOP) and the means to carry it. While some may question whether we would act militarily if the Iranians were to dash to a bomb, no one questions whether the Israelis would do so.
 Bolstering deterrence is essential in addressing key vulnerabilities we see in the deal. A blunter statement on the consequences of Iran moving toward a weapon and of producing highly enriched uranium would allay some of our concerns. Providing the Israelis the MOP and the means to carry it would surely enhance deterrence — and so would developing options now in advance with the Israelis and key Arab partners to counter Iran’s likely surge of support for Hezbollah and other Shiite militias after it gets sanctions relief.
Deterrence would be more effective — and full implementation of the agreement more likely — if the Iranians understand that there will be a price for every transgression, no matter how small, and that we will raise the cost to them of de-stabilizing behavior in the region. The president’s letter to Nadler was useful but fell short of addressing our concerns. It is still possible for the administration to do so.
So that's the crazy idea: give Israel the MOP.

The MOP is one big freaking bomb. It is more than 20 feet long and weighs a minimum of 30,000 lbs, though it only carries something more than 5,000 lbs of explosives. It was developed over the last 5 years by the United States specifically to penetrate through more than 200 feet of mountain protection, and thus could destroy even the most "impregnable" underground facilities in the Iranian nuclear enrichment program.

You can't put the MOP on the tip of a rocket, not even the biggest Minuteman ICBM in the US arsenal. It certainly can't be placed on Israel's largest surface-to-surface Jericho III ballistic missile. You can't mount it on an F-22 or F-35 combat fighter, certainly anything older like an F-16.

There are only two ways to deliver it - the American stealth B-2 Spirit strategic bomber (which can carry two MOPs), or a retrofitted subsonic B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber (which can carry one). Neither heavy bomber is part of the Israel Air Force inventory.

Thus, to be perfectly clear, any MOPing of Israel entails a credible delivery system. To MOP Israel "and the means to carry it" is to supply Israel with strategic bombers. Period.

Now let's take a look at this a bit more carefully. First, the economics: a single B-2 stealth bomber costs about $2 billion per unit, though I've heard it said that if you deduct research and development, it is more like $900 million per plane. The United States has about 20 B-2s. A B-52H costs far less per unit - only $84 million. The US has 76 of those, with less than a dozen in reserve (the last one was built in 1962).

One can assume that no sane ally would deliver a squadron of supersonic stealth strategic bombers to Israel, which reportedly holds approximately 150 nuclear warheads of various sizes. So because of its expense, and because there are so few to move around, and because it is so dangerous, let's assume the B-2 is off the table, and was not what was intended by Ross and Petraeus.

So the only real option for MOPing Israel is to provide it what is affectionately known as the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker) - the B-52H. At full weight, the minimum runway length for a BUFF is 11,000 feet, and more typically 13,000 feet, though there are recorded take-offs and landings at shorter lengths. As best I can glean from published sources, there are only two working runways in all of Israel that can handle an eight-engine B-52H - one is at Ben Gurion Airport, and the other, built in the mid-2000s, is at Netavim airbase to the southeast of Beersheva.

Netavim Airbase

So now imagine the delivery of a handful of MOPs to Israel, and a wing (2 planes? 4? 8?) of B-52Hs to go along with it. The Israeli Air Force has never contemplated such a wing. There have been a few published reports in Israel that the Israel Air Force doesn't even want such a thing. The technology is 60 years old, and so are the refurbished airframes, which are projected to remain airworthy for another 30 years.

B-52 Boneyard at David-Monthan Airbase outside Tucson

The B-52 goes against IAF doctrine. Advanced avionics and high performance are the strategic mindset of Israeli fighter pilots. A slow subsonic, 6-person crew bomber from the 1960s just doesn't fit. The IAF would have to build massive facilities, and it would have to train a new generation of pilots, crew, and ground support personnel to handle the BUFFs. Even at an accelerated pace, such a squadron wouldn't be operational for years, and would come at fantastical cost.

Then imagine flying a slow-moving heavy bomber into a well-defended combat environment. Since the MOP is not a stand-off bomb that can be fired from a distance, it must be released in close vertical proximity to its target. And B-52s have been easy targets for a long time. Hell, the North Vietnamese shot down 16 B-52s in 11 days during an air operation in 1972. Without massive suppression of Iranian air defenses as a prelude, no sane Air Force would fly a B-52H into the area.

That doesn't mean that the government of Israel hasn't requested the MOP. It has, reportedly at least 3 times in the past 6 years, and such requests have been consistently rebuffed.

But there may be an even greater impediment to MOPing Israel. The United States and the Russian Federation are bound to a strategic arms agreement known as New START, which went into effect in 2011. According to Article IV of New START, "Strategic offensive arms subject to this Treaty shall not be based outside the national territory of each Party." Heavy bombers are just such "strategic offensive arms."

Article XIII of New START is even more explicit: "To ensure the viability and effectiveness of this Treaty, each Party shall not assume any international obligations or undertakings that would conflict with its provisions. The Parties shall not transfer strategic offensive arms subject to this Treaty to third parties. The Parties shall hold consultations within the framework of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in order to resolve any ambiguities that may arise in this regard. This provision shall not apply to any patterns of cooperation, including obligations, in the area of strategic offensive arms, existing at the time of signature of this Treaty, between a Party and a third State." (h/t @KingstonAReif)

Thus, to MOP Israel is to violate New START. Is the United States going to unilaterally violate its signature arms control agreement with Russia in order to calm Israeli concerns?

So let's put this matter aside, once and for all. It might sound good to Israel's supporters. As a bit of debate theater, the proposal to MOP Israel is an effective way to deflect some critics of the Iran deal. But MOPing Israel is a non-starter. Let's put this ridiculous idea to bed, now and forever.

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