Aerospace giant Boeing Co. has delivered the first batch of 30,000-pound bombs, each nearly five tons heavier than anything else in the military's arsenal, to the U.S. Air Force to pulverize underground enemy hide-outs.
At a total cost of about $314 million, the military has developed and ordered 20 of the GPS-guided bombs, called Massive Ordnance Penetrators. They are designed to be dropped on targets by the Boeing-made B-52 Stratofortress long-range bomber or Northrop Grumman Corp.'s B-2 stealth bomber.
In an age of new emphasis on drones and lightweight weaponry, the Air Force's purchase highlights the Pentagon's ongoing need for defense contractors to build the kinds of big bombs and other heavy-duty ordnance they have produced for decades.
Packed with more than 5,300 pounds of explosives and more than 20 feet long, the giant bunker-busting bombs were tested at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the site of the first atomic bomb test during World War II.
Earlier this month, Brig. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm, who oversees the B-2 fleet at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, told Air Force Magazine that there is "no other weapon that can get after those hard and deeply buried targets" like the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. It "is specifically designed to go after very dense targets … where enemies are putting things that the president of the United States wants to hold at risk."
Citing national security concerns, the Pentagon hasn't allowed Boeing to comment about the program. But the company's past news releases and publicly disclosed Air Force contract announcements indicate that Boeing developed and built the massive bomb at its Phantom Works facilities in St. Louis, where the company works on top-secret projects.
Although illustrations and models of the bomb have been made public, no photos have been released. But the Air Force did disclose that it took delivery of the weapon in September, along with a few other details.
The weapon's explosive power is 10 times greater than its bunker-buster predecessor, the BLU-109. And it is nearly five tons heavier than the 22,600-pound GBU-43 MOAB surface bomb, sometimes called the "mother of all bombs."
"The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is a weapon system designed to accomplish a difficult, complicated mission of reaching and destroying our adversaries' weapons of mass destruction located in well-protected facilities," Lt. Col. Melinda F. Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Experts took note of the fact that the military disclosed delivery of the new bunker-busting bomb less than a week after a United Nations agency warned that Iran was secretly working to develop a nuclear weapon. That country is known to have hidden nuclear complexes that are fortified with steel and concrete, and buried under mountains.
"Heck of a coincidence, isn't it?" said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research. "The military hasn't said what underground facility they need to blow up with this thing. Whether it's in Iran or North Korea or somewhere else, I don't know. But they've been asking for this weapon for years."
When U.S. forces initially went looking for Osama bin Laden among the caves in Afghanistan, they discovered the locations were deeply buried and would be difficult to penetrate with existing bombs. The soldiers' concerns were supported years later in Iraq when military personnel came across underground tunnel systems belonging to Saddam Hussein.
In 2004, a Pentagon science board task force issued a report called "Future Strategic Strike Forces." In it, the task force said that existing non-nuclear weapons were too weak and recommended that a new weapon be developed "to improve conventional attack effectiveness against deep, expansive, underground tunnel facilities."
"Our past test experience has shown that 2,000-pound penetrators carrying 500 pounds of high explosive are relatively ineffective against tunnels, even when skipped directly into the tunnel entrance," the report said. "Instead, several thousand pounds of high explosives coupled to the tunnel are needed to blow down blast doors and propagate a lethal air blast throughout a typical tunnel complex."
By 2009, with concerns about Iran's and North Korea's missile capabilities reaching new highs, the Pentagon said there was an "urgent operational need" to speed up the weapon development process.
The Air Force and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency conducted tests at White Sands, and Boeing delivered the first Massive Ordnance Penetrator this fall. Additional deliveries are expected to be completed by 2013.