USAF floats Massive bomb idea to industry

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US Air Force researchers are soliciting industry's ideas for a new version of the 9,525kg (21,000lb) Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB) weapon - but one nearly 50% heavier and designed solely for attacking deeply buried bunkers.

This year, the Air Force Research Laboratory's munitions directorate completed preliminary designs of a 13,600kg bomb called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). The concept will compete for a spot among the air force's future line-up of weapons dedicated to striking hard and deeply buried enemy bunkers. Other options involve modifying emerging weapons and developing smaller, faster weapons powered by hypersonic engines.

The laboratory is close to launching a three-year experiment to gauge the validity of the MOP concept. Pricing and technical proposals are due on 16 August. Several companies will be awarded contracts to refine their design proposals before one will be selected to fabricate live weapons for five drop tests from a Boeing B-52H in 2007, says Fred Davis, a technical director at the Air Force Munitions Laboratory.

The MOP would be carried internally by B-52H and Northrop B-2A stealth bombers, and released from high altitude. The GPS-guided weapon must prove lethal against tall buildings, hardened bunkers and tunnels.

The project could lead to the development of several lethal and non-lethal warheads for the bomb, says Steven Butler, head of engineering at USAF's Air Armament Center. The weapon's huge size is capped only because 13,600kg is the limit a bomber can safely carry in an internal weapons bay. Lethal warheads could be developed for both penetration and air-burst settings. Non-lethal payloads, however, could be used to broadcast warning messages, Butler adds.

The MOAB was rushed into production shortly before Operation Iraqi Freedom started in March 2003. It was designed to target massed enemy positions on an open battlefield, but has not been used in combat. However, the effort yielded advances in guidance systems and aerodynamic control surfaces that can be borrowed for the MOP experiment.

STEPHEN TRIMBLE / WASHINGTON DC