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March 11, 2012

Israel Unveils New Bunker Buster

Hones ‘Credible’ Military Option for Iran

By BARBARA OPALL-ROME

TEL AVIV — Israel last week unveiled an improved precision, bunker-burrowing weapon, the latest in a series of operational upgrades aimed at honing what one official here labeled “a very credible military option” against the Iranian nuclear threat.

Built by state-owned Israel Military Industries (IMI), the 500-pound MPR-500 is an electro-optical or laser-guided projectile that can penetrate double-reinforced concrete walls or floors without breaking apart. It is designed as an upgrade to the U.S. Mk82, thousands of which are in Israel Air Force stocks, and can use Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits or Paveway for guidance.

In an operational test video released March 6, the MPR-500 is seen penetrating four reinforced concrete walls, with fragmentation from the explosion limited to a radius of less than three meters.

“The lethality, precision ... and relatively low weight enables its use against multiple targets in a single pass; an element that increases the operational effectiveness of attack,” according to IMI.

The MPR-500 bridges an operational gap between the 250-pound U.S. GBU-39 small-diameter bomb — 1,000 of which were approved for sale to Israel — and the 5,000-pound GBU-28.

In parallel, the Air Force is planning to enlarge its Boeing 707-based aerial refueling tanker fleet.

Once deployed, the expanded tanker fleet will be capable of providing nearly 2 million pounds of fuel, allowing dozens of Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighters to carry more weapons for long-range strategic bombing missions.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv newspaper reported March 8 that Washington had offered to augment Israel’s aerial refueling and limited bunker-busting capabilities on condition that Israel refrain from waging an independent attack on Iran this year. An Israeli security source denied that report, insisting there was no “quid pro quo” linkage between the timing of future Israeli operations and additional capabilities that may be forthcoming from Washington.

A U.S. government source confirmed that additional GBU-28s were a subject of bilateral talks. However, he insisted that beyond the 100 GBU-28s authorized for Israel in 2005 and another 50 approved in 2007, there have been no new notifications to Congress regarding potential sales.

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is expected to discuss options for enhancing Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge in meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, scheduled next week in Washington.

Very Credible Option

Despite continued disagreement in Israel about the need for near-term unilateral action against Iran, the security official here insisted that Israel will have “a very credible option” should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu order such an attack.

“If we have to act militarily, we will do so well beyond expectations in Washington and especially in Tehran,” the official here said.

Speaking in Washington March 6, Netanyahu evoked analogies from the Holocaust when he told a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

In an interview after respective AIPAC addresses by Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, the Israeli security official praised Obama’s firm determination to act, militarily if necessary, to prevent a nuclear Iran. He also hailed Obama’s affirmation of Israel’s sovereign right to act in its self-defense.

But the official cited the differing sense of urgency driving potential operational timelines in Washington and Tel Aviv.

“The Americans want to wait until they have evidence of Iran’s decision to assemble a bomb. But we say that’s part of Iran’s strategy. We say Iran will continue to enrich uranium, harden its facilities and add redundancies that will allow it to break out or sneak out with nuclear weaponization,” the official said.

He added, “At that time, for us at least, it will be too late.”

In a March 6 White House press conference, Obama insisted sanctions against Iran were starting to have an effect.

“And so this notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks, or month or two months, is not borne out by the facts,” he said.

However, Obama also said, “Israel is a sovereign nation that has to make its own decisions about how best to preserve its security. And as I said over the last several days, I am deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any prime minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland.”

In a closed briefing at the Institute for National Security Studies here, a former senior defense official said both countries would act according to their essential interests.

“At the end of the day, there is an understanding in both leaderships that there is a point where you go by yourself,” the former official said.

He also described Israel’s military option as credible, adding, “Just to remind you that the Israelis surprised the world in the past with capabilities that nobody [knew] that they could do.”

In 1981, Israel attacked Iraq’s nuclear reactor and in 2007 is widely believed to have destroyed a suspected nuclear site in Syria.

Retired Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is among several leading security experts here disputing Netanyahu’s view that Iran is a threat to Israel’s existence.

“Terminology is important,” Halutz told participants at last month’s annual Herzliya Conference. “Iran is a severe threat; not an existential threat ... and one shouldn’t use this as an excuse to attack Iran.”

According to Halutz, a normally passionate advocate for strategic air power, “The military option should be last, and it should be led by others.”

He added, “We need to squeeze every last drop out of other ways before entertaining military options.”