Bipartisan House bill will encourage US to sell bunker buster bombs to Israel

Proposal would require DOD to consider transferring long-sought munitions capable of penetrating Iran’s underground nuclear infrastructure, but move faces considerable hurdles

Prototype of the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator at a firing range in White Sands, New Mexico, March 14, 2007. (AP/Courtesy of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency)
Prototype of the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator at a firing range in White Sands, New Mexico, March 14, 2007. (AP/Courtesy of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency)

NEW YORK — Bipartisan legislation will be introduced in Congress this week requiring the US Department of Defense to consider selling Israel bunker-buster bombs capable of penetrating heavily fortified underground infrastructure, one of the bill’s co-sponsors announced Tuesday.

The massive munitions, reportedly long sought by Jerusalem, are seen as an essential component should Israel ever attempt to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, some of which are located deep underground and out of the range of ordnance currently in Israel’s arsenal.

The bill would be the latest piece of legislation aimed at bolstering Israel’s regional military advantage — or Qualitative Military Edge — which the US already is legally bound to maintain. An agreement was signed between Israel and the US last week promising to keep to the QME, paving the way for Jerusalem to okay the Trump administration’s planned sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE despite concerns about the move diluting Israel’s edge.

Speaking during a Zoom call with US Special Envoy to combat anti-Semitism Elan Carr, Rep. Josh Gottheimer said the goal of the US-Israel Common Defense Authorization Act will be to “help sure-up Israel’s QME in the region and secure both of our countries from the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

In order to achieve that goal, Gottheimer said the bill will require the Department of Defense to consult with Israel and report to Congress on Israel’s ability to deter a range of regional threats, “including whether transferring [Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) also known as] ‘bunker buster’ munitions… would advance both countries’ security.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J. speaks during a Zoom session on anti-Semitism and the US-Israel relationship on October 27, 2020. (Screen capture/Zoom)

Gottheimer, a hawkish Democrat representing New Jersey’s 5th District, is expected to introduce the bill before the House along with co-sponsor, Florida Rep. Brian Mast, on Friday.

The effort to supply the ordnance to Israel is expected to face considerable hurdles going forward, both legal and practical.

US federal law currently bars the sale of such bunker busters, which the new bill ostensibly will seek to amend. Even if the sale were to be approved, Israel does not currently have an aircraft physically capable of carrying the massive bomb, especially all the way to a country as far as Iran. The F-15, which Israel uses as its primary bomber, can only carry weapons roughly half the weight of the MOP.

If the US were to attempt to sell an aircraft capable of carrying the bunker buster, it would likely fall afoul of the 2010 New START nuclear reduction treaty with Russia, which includes an agreement to prevent the sale of heavy bombers to a third party. The pact is slated to expire in February, but both sides have expressed a willingness to extend it.

The MOPs were not included in the $38 billion defense aid package the Obama Administration signed with Israel in 2016, despite reported requests from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which had vehemently opposed the Iran nuclear deal signed a year earlier and was believed to be interested in acquiring weapons capable of striking at Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure if need be.

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The 30,000-pound (13,600 kilogram) bomb was made operational in 2011 and later redesigned in terms of guidance and penetration, but has never been offered for sale to Israel. In 2015, then-US secretary of state John Kerry appeared to reference the bomb when he told Israeli TV that Jerusalem should have some confidence in an “administration that designed and deployed the weapon that has the ability to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.”

A smaller bunker buster bomb, the GBU-28, was secretly sold to Israel in 2009, though it is not thought to have the ability to penetrate Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility, which is buried deep under a mountain.

US officials told the Wall Street Journal in 2015 that the MOPs, if used, would have a devastating effect never before seen by a non-nuclear weapon.

The bombs are designed to be released in pairs, with the first burrowing through the layers of rock and steel that protect underground nuclear facilities like the one in Fordo, Iran, and the second to follow immediately on its heels and destroy the target.

While saber-rattling between Israel and Iran has faded since the 2015 nuclear deal, it has never totally dissipated, and Israeli concerns were given new currency Tuesday with a report from the UN’s nuclear agency that Iran was building a new nuclear facility underground. The centrifuge assembly plant is meant to replace one at Natanz that blew up in what Tehran called a sabotage attack over the summer.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper hold a joint statement in the Pentagon on October 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

Concern regarding harm to Israel’s QME has been raised by members of Congress from both parties following reports that the Trump administration is hoping to ink a deal to sell F-35s to the UAE in the coming months.

Recent weeks have seen at least two other pieces of legislation introduced in both houses of Congress that seek to ensure Israel’s QME is maintained by building on the list of requirements the Department of Defense is expected to meet when selling arms to Israel or its neighbors.

Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his American counterpart Mark Esper signed a “joint declaration confirming the United States’ strategic commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East for years to come.”

Though the agreement appeared to be a largely symbolic gesture as this responsibility is already enshrined in US law, the defense minister said in a statement that it does have real-world implications.

Though the deal is not believed to have included the sale of weapons, a security official told The Times of Israel that a number of them are being considered for transfer to Israel.

Days after that agreement was signed, Netanyahu announced that Israel had rescinded its opposition to the US sale of F-35s to the UAE.

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