Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The curious case of the busted bunker busters (concluded)

Cornell Schrödinger Cat. From Amit Goswami.

A week after the 4 January inauguration of the new president, David Sanger offered Times readers one of those magisterial (I want to say deanly? diaconal?) big articles for which he is famed, collations of a wide range of anonymous leaks and a firm grounding in Received Opinion, this one on the subject of US-Israel relations over the past couple of years; focusing, as a matter of fact, on the case of the bunker busters: on a request Prime Minister Olmert [jump]
had made sometime in 2008 for more GBU-28s, openly intended for a raid on Natanz, where what were then Iran's only uranium enriching facilities were located.

The Bush administration had swiftly turned the request down, Sanger's informants said, fearful that such an adventure would not only fail to work, but could ignite bigger trouble throughout the region;  but they added that they were working on a different kind of attack on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Not only would the well-known financial sanctions get screwed tighter, and the price of oil driven down, but the CIA was working on various ways of sabotaging the project directly, of making the machines go haywire or break down. (As we now know, thanks partly to David Sanger, these plans were for real.)

It looked as if Sanger had one specific reader in mind, because he broke off right at the climax of his prefatory remarks to more or less address him directly:
Those covert operations, and the question of whether Israel will settle for something less than a conventional attack on Iran, pose immediate and wrenching decisions for Mr. Obama.... Mr. Obama must decide whether the covert actions begun by Mr. Bush are worth the risks of disrupting what he has pledged will be a more active diplomatic effort to engage with Iran. Either course could carry risks...
That last bit is pretty weird, isn't it, in terms of English prose? The two different sets of risks nested one in the other like matryoshka dolls, and the "either course" when the reader can only identify one...

Anyhow, one of the problems Sanger was concerned with was the possibility that all the US intelligence agencies working together had been wrong in "estimating" that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. And then there was the possibility that they might have been right (which George W. Bush, of course, couldn't believe).

But that was pretty much the end of the discussion, except for a curious report in Haaretz that spring, laying out the findings of a study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on how the IDF could go about destroying Iran's nuclear capacities. They concluded, as quoted by Haaretz, that
"A military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible ... [but] would be complex and high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate."
However the really odd thing about the Haaretz report was a little point that had not been discussed in Toukan's and Cordesman's paper, involving those bunker busters:
According to reports in the foreign media, 600 of these bombs - nicknamed "bunker busters" - have been sold to Israel. One is called GBU-27, it weighs about 900 kilos and it can penetrate a 2.4-meter layer of concrete. The other is called GBU-28 and weighs 2,268 kilos; this monster can penetrate 6 meters of concrete and another layer of earth 30 meters deep. But for these bombs to penetrate ultra-protected Iranian facilities, IAF pilots will have to strike the targets with absolute accuracy and at an optimal angle.  (Haaretz, 14 May 2009)
The odd thing being that it wasn't according to reports in the foreign media, as far as I can find out, at all, unless you go back to those reports of 2005, before the IDF invaded Lebanon, and thus before the IDF actually had the bombs. And then since Olmert—and Sanger, as leak recipient—had been pretty open about feeling that Israel did not have enough GBU-28s, why was Haaretz suggesting that they did?

Be that as it may, that paragraph became a kind of weird standard, which appears in all sorts of louche places, virtually unchanged. A week later, it appeared in Le Monde, in a translation so slavish you'd think it counts as much as plagiarism
La presse internationale a laissé filtré que 600 de ces bombes - surnommées "bunker busters" (briseurs de bunkers) - auraient été vendues à Israël. Le premier modèle, le GBU-27, pèse près de 900 kg et peut défoncer une couche de béton de 2,4 mètres. L'autre, le GBU-28, pèse 2 268 kg : ce mastodonte traverse 6 m de béton plus une couche de terre de 30 m de profondeur. Mais, pour que ces obus atteignent les installations iraniennes ultraprotégées, les pilotes israéliens devront viser avec une précision absolue et à un angle optimal. (Le Monde, 20 May 2009)
as it does in English in pakistaniscandals.com. But other than Le Monde, the "presse internationale" didn't pick up the story, and it quite likely was not true.  (Josef Joffe, covering the Toukan/Cordesman study for Die Zeit, insisted that the bombs didn't exist.) Obama had so far resisted the fear of getting fingered as someone who does not accept Israel's "right to defend itself" (which always means something quite different to a right-wing Israeli government than it does to anyone else).
From Totally Baked.

In early 2010, a startling tale that apparently had little to do with GBU-28s appeared in an unexpected venue, the Sunday Herald of Scotland:
Hundreds of powerful US “bunker-buster” bombs are being shipped from California to the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in preparation for a possible attack on Iran....
Experts say that they are being put in place for an assault on Iran’s controversial nuclear facilities. There has long been speculation that the US military is preparing for such an attack, should diplomacy fail to persuade Iran not to make nuclear weapons....
Crucially, the cargo includes 195 smart, guided, Blu-110 bombs and 192 massive 2000lb Blu-117 bombs.

“They are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran,” said Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London, co-author of a recent study on US preparations for an attack on Iran. “US bombers are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours,” he added. (Sunday Herald, 14 March 2010)
(BLU numbers are used to designate the bomb bodies before the the guidance systems are attached to make them GBUs; the BLU-110 and 119 bodies are not used for GBU-28s.)

However, this was just after Vice President Biden's disastrous visit to Israel, when the Netanyahu government welcomed him with the announcement of plans for a huge new housing project for Jewish settlers at Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem, in the usual direct contravention of international law and the wishes of the US; and another rumor became current, that the bombs being sent to Diego Garcia had been meant for Israel, and were now being shipped off in the opposite direction in a gesture of imperial anger:
President Obama’s “punishment” for Israel’s continuing to plan building projects indicates he intends to go full-speed ahead with his and his advisors’ strategy that solving the decades-old Arab-Israeli struggle is the key to stability in the entire Middle East. So far, the only concessions he demands are from Israel. (Israel National News, 21 March 2010)
This could be a case of observer's paradox in itself. That same week, Haaretz announced that
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will use a visit to Washington this week to press the U.S. to release advanced weapons needed for a possible strike on Iran's nuclear sites, the Sunday Times reported [, as a reward for easing the blockade on Gaza],  asking Israel's closest ally to provide the IAF with sophisticated 'bunker-buster' bombs needed to break through to Iran's nuclear enrichment installations, many of which are buried underground.... (Haaretz, March 21 2010)
but this was the meeting where Netanyahu wound up being so rude that Obama fled to dinner with his family, leaving the PM to stew in the meeting room. Was Netanyahu reacting to his "punishment"? Or had all that frantic observation acted on him in such a way as to doom his efforts?
Cat's Schrödinger, by Garrett Lisi. From Ethan Zuckerman's Musings.

It now seems virtually certain that those 387 bombs were going to Diego Garcia on a routine transfer that had nothing to do with destroying Iran or with punishing the PM. It is also clear that the US intelligence agencies were still convinced that Iran had not decided to build a nuclear weapon and that a strike on Iran by Israel or the US would be a catastrophe.

What is really interesting is that the Obama administration evidently had sent a bunch of GBU-28s to Israel already, the previous November, in a move that none of these enthusiastic leakers and eager journalists had noticed. It was only with the release of the WikiLeaks State Department cables in November 2010 that the possibility revealed itself, in the report of a meeting between US and Israeli officials including Brig.-Gen. Pinchas Buchris and Defense Ministry Director-General Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad:
The GOI described 2010 as a critical year -- if the Iranians continue to protect and harden their nuclear sites, it will be more difficult to target and damage them. Both sides then discussed the upcoming delivery of GBU-28 bunker busting bombs to Israel, noting that the transfer should be handled quietly to avoid any allegations that the USG is helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran. (US State Department Cable, November 18 2009)
The story was to be confirmed almost a year later in Newsweek's big story:
The aid, U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to Newsweek, includes the long-delayed delivery of 55 powerful GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, better known as bunker-buster bombs, deemed important to any future military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. It also includes a network of proposed radar sites—some located in Arab neighbors—designed to help Israel repel a missile attack, as well as joint military exercises and regular national-security consultations....

The Israelis first requested the sale in 2005, only to be rebuffed by the Bush administration. At the time, the Pentagon had frozen almost all U.S.-Israeli joint defense projects out of concern that Israel was transferring advanced military technology to China.

In 2007, Bush informed then–prime minister Ehud Olmert that he would order the bunker busters for delivery in 2009 or 2010. The Israelis wanted them in 2007. Obama finally released the weapons in 2009, according to officials familiar with the secret decision. (Newsweek, 25 September 2011)
Thus the Sturm und Drang of spring 2010 was even stranger than it seemed. It seems as if the 2005 order of 100 GBU-28s must have been completed with the shipment of 55 of them (i.e., 45 had been supplied for the 2006 attacks on Lebanon) and what Netanyahu was asking for now was an entirely new order, which could not be processed in secret—Congress would have to authorize it—and which would be in absolute contradiction with Obama's Iran diplomacy, in which he still had hopes. And Netanyahu seemed to have no idea what he was demanding.

But at the same time it seems as if the off-the-wall observations being made by the press and the pundits in the spring of 2010 had altered the course of history, with the bombs turning up in the Negev like Schrödinger's cat after all.

And last week? I'd say we aren't going to know what was agreed on, if anything, for who knows how long—another couple of years, more if there are no more WikiLeaks to come, unless there is an attack on Iran and the 12-year-olds-at-heart like Michael O'Hanlon can tell us what was used. Some say Netanyahu has enough GBU-28s and concluded that they aren't good enough for that very very deep facility near Qom—now he wants the incredible 30,000-pound GBU-57, a weapon so new it hasn't yet been fully tested.

I'd say I've been watching Obama in a new way, with a different kind of expectation. I want him to avoid this war, and I'm confident that he can; and I can interpret every move he makes in that light (just as you can interpret them all as showing him bent on war, because it's the ambiguity he wants to project). And if we keep believing in the possibility of peace, in a calm and pragmatical way, in greater and greater numbers, we may create a quantum effect of our own.


  1. I like your blog very much. This is my first visit, I'll be back.

  2. You are so kind. I'll be over at your place too.