WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 (UPI) -- Amid continuing tension over political upheaval in Iran, the U.S. Defense Department says it wants to accelerate production of a 30,000-pound "ultra-large bunker-buster" bomb designed to destroy deeply buried installations.
The Pentagon has requested Congress to provide the necessary funding to ensure that the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a next-generation bomb known as MOP and built by Boeing, would be ready by July 2010, spokesman Bryan Whitman said on Aug. 3.
The non-nuclear weapon will be the biggest conventional bomb the United States has ever deployed. It carries 5,300 pounds of high explosive inside a 25.5-foot bomb casing of hardened steel and would be delivered by the radar-evading Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bomber. The B-2 can carry two of the bombs.
The GPS-guided MOP is believed to be capable of blasting through 200 feet of reinforced concrete before exploding. It is seen as a potential weapon against nuclear facilities in Iran and North Korea.
It has 10 times the explosive power of its predecessor, the 2,000-pound BLU-109, which carries 535 pounds of explosive.
The MOP is about one-third heavier than the 21,000-pound GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb, known as the "mother of all bombs," that was dropped twice in tests at a Florida range in 2003.
Whitman declined to comment on whether the accelerated production schedule was linked to either of those countries' nuclear programs.
But according to Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service, both the Central Command, which covers Iran, and the Pacific Command, which covers North Korea, have endorsed the Pentagon's efforts to speed up production of the MOP, a project launched in 2004.
The administration of President Barack Obama has sought to engage Tehran in a diplomatic dialogue to eliminate Iran's nuclear program, which the Americans and Israelis say contains a clandestine drive to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies that.
But given the upheaval in Iran triggered by the disputed re-election of firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12, it is unclear whether such a dialogue is possible within the next few months.
Israel, which has threatened to launch pre-emptive strikes against what it sees as an existential threat, wants Obama to place a time limit on his dialogue effort.
The Americans are pressing the Israelis not to take action on their own, and the MOP plan could be a message to Israel that the United States still has the military option in play if the diplomatic initiative does not succeed.
It was probably also a message for Tehran that U.S. patience is not inexhaustible.
On the same day the announcement on the MOP was made, The Times of London quoted Western intelligence sources as saying that it would take Iran six months to enrich enough uranium to weapons grade and another six months to assemble a warhead for its Shehab-3 intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran's elite military force that controls missile and nuclear production, was reported to be only waiting for the go-ahead from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to put together a nuclear weapon.
The projected date given for the operational deployment of the MOP would tally with that Iranian timeframe. Most of Iran's nuclear facilities are buried deep underground.
"Even if the MOP only comes close to achieving its design objectives, it will represent a significant leap in the U.S. ability to threaten hardened and deeply buries targets, and destroy them if necessary," according to the Texas-based security consultancy Strategic Forecasting.
"The centrifuge halls at the Natanz enrichment site in Iran, for example, are unlikely to be able to withstand a direct hit (though admittedly just how hardened the facility is has been a matter of speculation). Fitting the MOP to the B-2 also makes delivery in a high-threat air-defense environment more credible."