By Ed Levine
As opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement have realized that they will be unable to block initial U.S. compliance with the agreement, they have shifted from trying to block our compliance to proposing new legislation to maintain or increase non-nuclear sanctions on Iran and to provide new security assistance to Israel. One major proposal in this regard has been to provide Israel with the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb, or MOPs, and the aircraft with which to deliver that bomb. The idea is that, by giving Israel a greater capability to take out underground Iranian nuclear facilities, we would increase the likelihood of such an attack and thereby increase the deterrent impact of threatening such an attack in the event that Iran tries to produce highly enriched uranium that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.
Why MOPs for Israel are really FLOPs.
Although there is some logic to this argument, it is far outweighed by the downsides to giving Israel these munitions and aircraft. The only American aircraft that can deliver the MOPs are the B-2 stealth bomber and the old B-52 strategic bomber. The United States does not share the B-2 with anybody, and for good reason. We rely upon its advanced technology to maintain the airborne component of our own nuclear deterrent triad against Russia and China. Sharing that technology with Israel, which has sold U.S. technology to China in the past, would be risky and unwise. Besides, the B-2 is famously difficult to fly. While Israeli pilots could learn to master that skill, Israel would probably be unable to spare the number of truly fine pilots it would need to maintain these aircraft in operational status. And the U.S. Air Force very likely could not spare any of our small fleet of these aircraft for use by any other country.
That leaves the old B-52, which also has never been shared with another country. Now it is true that the term “old” is a bit of a misnomer. The B-52 is perhaps the “bionic man” of airplanes, constantly being upgraded with new parts. Still, the basic design is sixty years old. And the B-52 is neither stealthy nor speedy. It lumbers along at subsonic speeds and below 50,000 feet, and must generally be preceded by fighter-bomber attacks to take out the enemy’s air defenses. All of that means that if Israel wanted to get into the strategic bombing business, it would have to devote quite a few skilled personnel (and possibly an airbase or three) to this inherently narrow mission. There are good reasons why Israel has never tried to acquire this capability!
How many treaties would we violate?
Then there is the legal question. We are bound to obey treaties that we have signed and ratified, and there are at least two treaties that can be seen as barring the transfer of B-52’s.
The first such treaty is the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. Our basic obligation under that treaty is specified in Article I, which is long and complicated. Parsing it out, however, it obligates us “not in any way to assist…any Non-Nuclear-Weapon State to…acquire…control over such weapons.” Would providing B-52’s to Israel violate that obligation? We have not provided strategic delivery vehicles to other countries, in part in order to guard against nuclear proliferation. We have argued that providing F-16’s and other dual-purpose aircraft to other countries does not violate the NPT, but those aircraft more clearly have non-nuclear purposes, and we make the case that they cannot be used for nuclear weapons without extensive modifications. It would be much harder to make that case for the B-52, which was designed specifically to deliver nuclear weapons. We could change the cargo bays, but it would take some real work to ensure that Israel could not retrofit the planes for nuclear uses. At a minimum, providing these aircraft to Israel would lead to political and legal questions that would dog the United States in international fora.
Then there is the New START Treaty between the United States and Russia. Article XIII of that treaty states: “The Parties shall not transfer strategic offensive arms subject to this Treaty to third parties.” One such weapon is “heavy bombers,” which are defined in paragraph 23 of Part One of the Protocol to the treaty as any bomber with a range greater than 8,000 kilometers. Now, the treaty does distinguish heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments from those that are not so equipped. Paragraph 3 of section V of Part Three of the Protocol to the treaty provides that a heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments may be converted to one not so equipped: “All weapons bays and all external attachments shall be modified to as to render them incapable of employing nuclear armaments.” And paragraph 7(c) of Article III of the Treaty says: “Heavy bombers of the same type shall cease to be subject to this Treaty…when the last heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments of that type is eliminated or converted, as appropriate, to a heavy bomber equipped for non-nuclear armaments….” But our B-52G aircraft were all eliminated, and some of our B-52H aircraft are still devoted to the nuclear mission, so our non-nuclear equipped B-52H’s are still treaty-accountable. Hence, they are still subject to the Article XIII obligation not to transfer them to third parties.
In short, we cannot transfer B-52’s to Israel without violating the New START Treaty and at least raising a question as to whether we are violating our obligations under the NPT. Supporters of the Cardin bill may argue that it merely authorizes such treaty violations, but does not require them. That would be too clever by half, however. If Congress encourages treaty violations, then it must bear the onus of explaining why violating our agreements, to which the Senate had previously acquiesced, is in our national interest. Surely Senator Cardin, who is a senior member of the committee of jurisdiction over treaties and who voted for U.S. ratification of New START, must face up to that challenge.
There is no quick fix.
The challenge for both Congress and the President is to reassure Israel and put Iran on notice that U.S. adherence to the Iran nuclear agreement will not in any way diminish our commitment to Israeli security and to keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, both during and after the period during which the agreement limits various Iranian nuclear activities. The President must find means of conveying this intent, not only rhetorically, but also in practice. Congress, in turn, must accept the frustrating fact that there is no quick fix to this challenge. Rather, it will be an enduring aspect of implementing the agreement in a manner that serves U.S. national security interests. And congressional supporters of the agreement should be especially wary of quick fixes proposed by opponents of the agreement, who may be all too willing to blow up other aspects of U.S. foreign policy in order to express their anger with this agreement. Beware of Trojan horses.
Center Board Member Ed Levine served more than 14 years as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and over 20 years with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He has co-authored the SSCI’s analyses on the implementation of numerous nuclear weapons agreements.