This Big Bomb Should Not Go to Israel
In the aftermath of the Republican-controlled Congress’ failure to block the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), attention has begun to turn to implementation of the agreement and steps the administration and Congress can take to ensure scrupulous Iranian compliance, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, reassure nervous regional allies, and counter Iran’s many destabilizing activities in the region.
While numerous worthwhile suggestions have been put forward pursuant to these objectives, other proposals that have been put forward, including by Democratic supporters of the JCPOA on Capitol Hill, would severely complicate — if not threaten altogether — implementation of the agreement.
One such counterproductive recommendation is to transfer the GBU-57 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), and the means to deliver it, to Israel. The most powerful air-delivered conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the bunker-busting MOP is reportedly capable of holding at risk hard and deeply buried targets, such as Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow.
The MOP has been tested for delivery with the B-52H and B-2 strategic bombers, but the B-2, which can far more reliably circumvent Iran’s growing air defense capabilities, is currently the only operational aircraft configured to carry the weapon. As of March 1, 2015, the Air Force operational inventory included 76 B-52H and 20 B-2 bombers.
Supporters of transferring the MOP to Israel argue that it would bolster deterrence against a potential Iranian dash to a nuclear weapon, particularly after many of the limits on Iran’s enrichment program imposed by the JCPOA expire 15 years from now. The logic here is that while the United States might hesitate to act militarily if Iran dashes for a bomb, Israel will not.
Reassuring Israel of U.S. security commitments and ensuring that it has the means to counter and deter Iran should be an important objective of U.S. policy in the aftermath of the JCPOA. However, transferring the MOP to Tel Aviv is unnecessary and would be highly provocative. Worse still, it could potentially violate an important nuclear arms agreement and thereby undermine U.S. interests well beyond the Middle East.
Support for transferring the MOP to Israel is bipartisan and widespread. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula and Michael Makovsky, CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, appear to have been the first to propose transferring the MOP and a small number of B-52Hs to Israel in an April 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Former Obama administration official Dennis Ross joined the party, and in a high-profile August 25 Washington Post op-ed, he teamed up with Gen. David Petraeus to advocate transfer of the MOP. Robert Satloff, the Executive Director of the Washington Institute, also called for giving Israel the weapon, and on Twitter suggested providing the B-2 as the preferred means of delivery.
Not surprisingly, the MOP gambit soon found its way to Capitol Hill and has been touted by both supporters and opponents of the JCPOA. In a statement announcing his support for the deal, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said the administration “should provide Israel with access to the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to help deter Iranian cheating.” House minority whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) called for the “possible transfer of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to Israel” in his statement supporting the deal.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a vocal critic of the JCPOA, has also expressed his enthusiasm for equipping Israel with the MOP. During a recent visit to Israel, he suggested Congress authorize the transfer of the B-1B bomber to deliver the bomb instead of the “much older and more vulnerable B-52.”
Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who announced his opposition to the JCPOA on September 4, has stated that he intends to introduce legislation to strengthen congressional oversight of the agreement. An early draft of the bill reportedly authorized transfer of the MOP to Israel and the means to deliver it.
The first major problem with giving Israel the MOP is that the Israeli government does not appear to want the weapon — and for good reason.
The maintenance costs to sustain U.S. strategic bombers would be immense, as would the costs to reconfigure air bases to accommodate them. Giora Romm, a retired Israel Air Force (IAF) major general and former deputy commander, recently told Defense News that the IAF would have to build new runways to operate the B-52 and establish an entirely new concept of operations and training that would be enormously expensive and of limited operational value.
In addition, an unnamed senior Israeli official told Al-Monitor that acquiring the aircraft needed to deliver the MOP “is way beyond our means [and] not worth the … money and effort. We are not capable of maintaining and sustaining it.”
While the B-52H has been tested with the MOP, the bomber is vulnerable to Iranian air defenses, which are projected to grow in sophistication. The B-1 is more capable than the B-52H of operating in defended airspace, but it is still less capable in such zones than the B-2. Furthermore, it’s not clear based on the available open-source evidence whether any of the B-1’s three existing bomb bays are wide enough to accommodate the MOP.
The stealthy B-2 is far less vulnerable to these defenses, which is the main reason why the Pentagon chose the B-2 as the preferred means of MOP delivery in the first place. However, of the Air Force’s 20 B-2s, only half are available for use at any given time. In other words, the United States effectively doesn’t have any B-2s to spare.
Transfer of the MOP to Israel would also be highly provocative. For example, retired IAF Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu, a former commander of the IAF, has said that introduction of the B-52s would trigger a whole different level of conventional arms race in the region and prompt Russia to sell “10 times more” of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran. Moreover, what signal would Washington be sending to Iran if one of its first moves after agreeing to the JCPOA were to greatly strengthen the ability of Israel to unilaterally attack Iran? Such a move would not be particularly conducive to getting implementation of the deal off on the right foot.
Most problematically, transferring the B-52H or B-2 bomber to Israel would violate the 2010 New START Treaty. Article 13 of the treaty prohibits the transfer of strategic offensive arms subject to the treaty to third parties. Both the B-52H and B-2 are capable of delivering conventional and nuclear weapons and are thus subject to the treaty. Transfer of either aircraft would only be possible if the Air Force converted the entire B-52H and B-2 fleets to a conventional-only role, and there are no plans to do so.
Technically, transfer of the B-1 would not violate Article 13, since all of these bombers are no longer part of the nuclear mission. However, as noted above, it’s not clear if the B-1 can carry the MOP and if it somehow could, what it would cost the Air Force to configure and test the plane to do so. The B-1 is also a far less attractive delivery option for the bomb than the stealthier B-2.
Which begs the question: Are Ross, Petraeus, Sen. Cardin, and others who have supported transfer of the MOP to Israel aware of the folly of what they are proposing, especially as it pertains to U.S. treaty obligations? Was transfer of the MOP ever intended to be a serious policy proposal, or was it merely a politically convenient way to express support for the Israeli government, which strongly opposed the JCPOA?
For his part, Ross continues to support transfer of the MOP and the means to deliver it, and says there are ways to get around New START’s prohibition on transfer of the B-52H. However, Ross’s suggested workarounds don’t solve the treaty problem.
Meanwhile, Sen. Cardin appears to be walking back his support for the proposal. “Senator Cardin believes it is premature to be talking about specific weapon systems that may be part of an enhanced regional security strategy,” his spokeswoman Sue Walitsky said on September 22. Indeed, a revised version of the senator’s draft bill apparently no longer endorses the MOP transfer.
Whatever the motivations of those who have backed the MOP for Israel, their proposal should be strongly rejected. There are other ways to sustain and buttress Israel’s defense capabilities that do not run afoul of an existing arms control treaty and are less provocative, costly, and potentially destabilizing than transferring the MOP.
Kingston Reif is the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. You can follow him on Twitter @KingstonAReif.