Industry Know-How on Hard Targets Sought by U.S. Amid Iran Deal

The U.S. Air Force is seeking help from private industry to improve techniques for locating and analyzing “hard and deeply buried” targets, a description that fits some of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Air Force Research Laboratory “is interested in developing far-term plans that may lead to innovative means to functionally assess, locate, and characterize” installations used in producing weapons of mass destruction, the military service said Tuesday in a solicitation to industry.

While the announcement of the $9.7 million project doesn’t describe potential targets, Iran’s buried and heavily fortified nuclear installations have been a focus of efforts to improve the Pentagon’s heaviest “bunker-buster” bombs.

The Obama administration has said the U.S. retains a military option if Iran violates the accord reached last week with the U.S. and other world powers to curb its nuclear program, or if the Islamic Republic accelerates efforts after terms of the accord begin to expire in 10 years.

The Air Force laboratory’s munitions directorate has conducted “a significant amount of work” on how to “neutralize” buried targets but needs a better understanding of “innovative concepts and technologies that may be developed” to aid in target identification, according to the solicitation.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is traveling in the Middle East this week to assure allies, including Israel, that the U.S. will provide strong military assistance after the Iran agreement takes effect.

Fordow Site

If military strikes were mounted against Iran, the toughest target would be the Fordow site, buried deep beneath a mountain about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the holy city of Qom. President Barack Obama revealed the existence of the previously secret nuclear enrichment facility in September 2009.

The Air Force’s 509th Bomb Wing’s B-2 bombers are equipped to carry the latest bunker-buster bombs developed with an eye on Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, even an airstrike with the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator -- the largest non-nuclear bomb ever developed -- would delay Iran’s nuclear efforts by only a few years, according to U.S. defense officials and private analysts. Israeli forces could do far less, the experts say.

The Air Force said in the solicitation that it expected to provide the Pentagon and allies “with a unique capability to simulate and gather data against a wide array of targets and varying scenarios involving hard and deeply buried facilities.”

“More specifically, this capability should be able to realistically emulate a wide variety of signatures associated with super-hard deeply buried facilities used for nuclear processing, biological agent engineering, and chemical production,” said the notice.

The proposed technologies also “should facilitate the detection of emerging cyber capabilities as they relate to hard deeply buried facilities,” it said.

Iran says it has the right to develop its nuclear program and that it is purely for civilian purposes.

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