Iran is steadily building a nuclear facility that is most likely beyond the GBU-57’s range, which is thought to be the US military’s last-ditch weapon to destroy underground bunkers.
A set of satellite imagery accessed by The Associated Press has revealed that Iran is currently constructing a nuclear facility near a summit in the Zagros Mountains in central Iran which is believed to be beyond the reach of the US bunker-busting weapon, GBU-57 MOP.
The US bunker-busting bomb, on its part, has already been making headlines.
On May 2, the US military released images of the GBU-57/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator bunker buster, or MOP, at the Whiteman US Air Force Base in Missouri’s Facebook page. The facility houses US B-2 Bombers, the only aircraft capable of dropping the MOP bomb.
In a caption, the base stated that it had received two MOP bombs so a munitions squadron there could “test their performance.” However, the photos were deleted shortly after to prevent the leak of sensitive information about the composition and payload of the weapon.
The timing of the photos was called into question as they were published amid rising tensions between the US and Iran over the latter’s advancing nuclear program. Earlier this year, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl warned that Iran could make sufficient fissile for one nuclear bomb in “about 12 days,” down from one year.
On its part, Tehran is constructing underground nuclear facilities that would make it more challenging for its adversaries to carry out attacks.
Iran has been building tunnels in a mountain close to the Natanz nuclear complex, which is alleged to have been the target of numerous sabotage attacks owing to the dispute between Tehran and the West over its nuclear program.
According to experts, given the scope of the development project, Iran may be able to use the underground facility for uranium enrichment and centrifuge manufacturing. These swiftly spinning, dozens-strong, tube-shaped centrifuges spin uranium gas to enrich it.
Additional equipment would enable Iran to enrich uranium while shielded by the mountain quickly.
"A nightmare scenario": Iranian workers are building a nuclear facility near a peak of the Zagros Mountains in central Iran, so deep underground that it's likely beyond the range of a last-ditch U.S. weapon designed for such sites. By @jongambrellAP. https://t.co/XduFRGQP6H
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 22, 2023
Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, warned, “Completion of such a facility would be a nightmare scenario that risks igniting a new escalatory spiral. Given how close Iran is to a bomb, it has very little room to ratchet up its program without tripping the US and Israeli red lines. So, at this point, any further escalation increases the risk of conflict.”
Although the United States has taken a more studied approach, Iran’s biggest regional adversary, Israel, has openly threatened that it would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli Air Force has modified its fighter jets to carry out such a strike, but none of these aircraft can carry the 30,000 tons GBU-57, as previously noted by EurAsian Times.
However, the reports that this bomb might be rendered ineffective should the US military use it against Iran could be alarming. Iran’s underground nuclear facility could be between 80 meters (260 feet) and 100 meters (328 feet) below the surface, the AP’s study of the excavation mounds at the site has revealed.
That could be a problem for the GBU-57 since the US Air Force stated that the bomb could rip through 60 meters (200 feet) of cement and ground before detonating. US officials have talked about detonating two of these bombs consecutively to guarantee the destruction of a location. However, the new depth of the Natanz tunnels still poses a significant obstacle.
In addition, the B-2 has been grounded for months after one caught fire during an emergency landing in December, further complicating any potential US military strike.
The B-2 suspension was lifted on May 22. “While the B-2 fleet safety pause is officially over, our ability to deliver nuclear deterrence and provide long-range strike was never in doubt,” a US Air Force statement said.
What Do We Know About The GBU-57 MOP
The MOP is created to destroy heavily fortified targets buried beneath mountains, such as those in Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea. It is believed to be the most potent and deeply penetrating non-nuclear bunker buster.
The weapon can hit the surface above its target with high accuracy since it is guided. The development of this weapon dates back to at least 2002. Boeing received contracts in 2009 to finish integrating aircraft with MOP.
Seven different GBU-57 variants have appeared since then. Along with the guidance and other parts, including fins and tails, the GBU-57/B, -57A/B, and -57B/B were equipped with BLU-127/B, -127A/B, and -127B/B warheads, respectively.
The latest photos revealed stenciling on the bombs that listed their weight as 12,300 kilograms or 27,125 pounds. The description reportedly indicated that the device combined the conventional explosive AFX-757 and the more recent explosive compound PBXN-114.
Moreover, the stenciling on the bomb indicates that most of its weight derives from its heavy steel frame, enabling it to eat through concrete and soil before detonating. The weapon’s precise effectiveness, however, is still unknown.
Historically, the Air Force had released information on MOP under tense situations and was done in part to demonstrate the strength of the American military to potential enemies.
The recent uptick of MOP images coincides with increased geopolitical tension, especially between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
Iran has assured the international community that it did not intend to produce nuclear weapons. However, the pace at which it is enriching uranium, coupled with the loose comments made by Iranian officials hinting at pursuing a nuclear weapon, has led to suspicions in the West, widening the rift and raising tensions between the two adversaries.