The U.S. Air Force has developed a new, lighter bunker-buster bomb that can be launched from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Flight Global reports that David E. Walker, the Air Force’s chief scientist, says that the U.S. Air Force research laboratory has proven the technology for its high velocity penetrating weapon (HVPW). The HVPW program, which was launched in 2011, was aimed at building a 2,000lb, rocket-propelled bomb that would be small enough to be integrated onto the F-35 and other non-strategic bombers.
Like other bunker-buster missiles, such as the gigantic 30,000lb Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), the HVPW is designed to destroy buried targets like underground bunkers and tunnels. However, unlike MOP and traditional bunker-busters, his new kinetic weapon is rammed into the ground like a pile driver instead of being accelerated naturally by gravity. The force with which the HVPW strikes the ground allows it to penetrate underground targets while still being compact enough to be carried on the F-35.
“The idea is to get a heavy weapon effect with a much lighter weapon and a more compact weapon,” Walker, whose official title is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology, and Engineering in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, told Flight Global. “That technology, we’ve proven that the concept works.”
Still, Walker emphasized that it isn’t clear how the U.S. Air Force will proceed with the HVPW program, which will depend on funding and the priority given to other bunker buster bombs. “The analysis of alternatives will determine what we’re going to do and how much actual funding we’ve got to go forward.”
When the Air Force first unveiled the program in 2011, it presented the HVPW as specifically designed to be carried on the F-35 joint strike fighter. However, Walker explained that the bomb could also be eventually used on other aircraft.
“[It’s] not just with the F-35, but for our entire fleet. How can I get a much more compact, lighter-weight capability which allows me to have more carriage? It’s very important in the future to have that capability.”
The United States’ has numerous potential uses for a bunker-buster capability in general. The one most often discussed, most often with regards to MOP, is to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, particularly the Fordow fuel enrichment plant, which is buried deep inside mountains (should a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran be reached, the Fordow plant would be converted into an exclusively research and development facility.)
Less often discussed is how a bunker-buster capability could be deployed against China’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Although China is believed to have a fairly small nuclear arsenal, with roughly 300-400 warheads, Beijing conceals its arsenal within an extensive underground tunnel system to deter adversaries from trying to conduct counterforce strikes that destroy China’s strategic deterrent.
Interestingly, the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) ordered U.S. Strategic Command to submit a report on the “underground tunnel network used by the People’s Republic of China with respect to the capability of the United States to use conventional and nuclear forces to neutralize such tunnels and what is stored within such tunnels.”
Thus, any new American bunker-buster capability is surely to be viewed with suspicion by leaders in Beijing. This is doubly true when the bunker-buster bombs can be carried by F-35 joint strike fighters, which many Asian nations— including Japan—are purchasing.
Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.
Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/CC by-nc 2.0