Tomahawk cruise missiles are likely to be launched at night against hundreds of Syrian targets, including some of President Bashar al-Assad’s elite military units, if the U.S. and allies launch a military strike in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.
“I’m thinking a pretty significant initial wave” of several hundred Tomahawks “and an assessment period and maybe a second wave if we don’t think we accomplished the destruction we wanted to,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who’s now a defense fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
President Barack Obama’s administration is working with allies including the U.K. and France, which also have aircraft and ships armed with cruise missiles, to reach agreement on limited action against Syria after concluding that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against civilians.
A limited strike could be directed at the headquarters, facilities and depots of Assad’s most elite units, the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, which some U.S. officials think are most likely to have mounted the reported chemical weapons attack last week that opposition forces say killed about 1,300 people.
“There are some target sets that would be important to meet the goals of a limited operation,” such as the key units that “support the regime and have been bombarding civilians,” White said in an interview.
A campaign extending beyond cruise missiles could add satellite-guided glide bombs dropped from Air Force F-15 or F-16 fighter jets or Navy F-18s that remain outside Syrian airspace. B-2 stealth bombers flying from their base in Missouri could drop bombs while penetrating Syria’s dense air defenses.
The U.S. also could use remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to collect intelligence, pinpoint convoys or other moving targets for cruise-missile attacks or conduct their own strikes.
The introduction of ground troops isn’t being considered, nor is the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria, according to a U.S. official who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
No matter how carefully targeted, any military attack comes with risks, from accidental civilian deaths that could feed anti-American sentiment in the Middle East to an escalation of chemical or other warfare by Assad’s regime.
“There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing assets,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a July 19 letter to Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”
“If the goal is to topple Assad and change the dynamic in the civil war, cruise missiles and air-delivered munitions are not going to get you there,” said Jeremy Bash, who was the senior adviser to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in an e-mailed statement. “But if your goal is to punish Assad and reestablish deterrence against his further use of chemical weapons, then a carefully targeted bombing campaign can certainly advance those objectives.”
While Dempsey has been a voice of caution against military involvement in Syria’s civil war, he already has laid out an approach to conducting “limited stand-off strikes” against “targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons and defend itself.”
Such attacks from outside Syrian airspace “could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing,” Dempsey said in his letter to Levin last month.
A limited campaign would have a limited effect on Assad’s regime, including on its chemical weapons capacity, according to James Russell, an associate professor in national security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
“There are no good ‘real’ targets that we could blow up that would materially affect the Syrian regime’s ability to gas its people,” Russell said in an e-mail.
“If Assad has a ‘center of gravity’ it’s the security services and the Army -- the people and institutions keeping in control of what’s left of Syria,” Russell said. “We can also blow up some warehouses where our intelligence people believe he has weapons stored.”
The U.S. Navy has four destroyers on station in the eastern Mediterranean and probably at least two submarines, all armed with Tomahawk land-attack missiles, according to Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. Each destroyer can carry about 90 Tomahawks, according to the Navy.
The Tomahawks could take out buildings, aircraft hangars and control towers or damage a fleet of airplanes or trucks, Harmer said.
“It’s a quick missile to fire, and it’s an easy missile to fire,” Harmer said. “You can fly a Tomahawk through an individual window in an individual building.”
The Tomahawk, made by Raytheon Co. (RTN:US), based in Waltham, Massachusetts, has been fired in most conflicts since its initial use in 1991 against Iraq, when 288 were fired. In Libya in 2011, some of the Tomahawks used were fired from the USS Barry, a destroyer now stationed in the eastern Mediterranean.
The latest version of the Tomahawk, which both the U.S. and Royal Navies have, can loiter over an area for hours, beam target images and battle damage assessments to commanders and be programmed to attack new stationary targets while overhead.
With a 1,000-pound warhead and a range of 1,000 nautical miles (1,852 kilometers), the Tomahawk could inflict damage on targets across Syria without putting U.S. troops at risk.
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute, said cruise missiles alone wouldn’t be enough to cause lasting damage to the Syrian army’s elite units, such as the 4th Armored Division, thought to be under the control of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother.
Such a limited strike also risks emboldening Assad, Eisenstadt said.
“If you use only cruise missiles, you send the signal you’re not willing to entail risk,” he said. “It’s important to send some manned aircraft to show we have some skin in the game.”
The U.S. could use fighter planes to launch precision-guided stand-off weapons, such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US), and the Joint Standoff Weapon, made by Raytheon.
While both have shorter ranges than the Tomahawks, they could be launched from outside Syrian airspace, said Harmer.
Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC:US)’s B-2 bomber might also be used, White said. The aircraft is capable of penetrating Syrian airspace carrying as much as 40,000 pounds of satellite-guided bombs from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
The B-2 can carry 80 of Boeing Co. (BA:US)’s 500-pound satellite-guided bombs or as many as 16 of its 2,000-pound version, each capable of hitting different targets, according to the Air Force.
Three B-2 bombers flying from Missouri and refueling in mid-air struck 45 targets at a Libyan airfield on the first night of operations there, after the U.S. and U.K. fired Tomahawks, according to Air Force Magazine.
Unlike Libya, which North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces struck to topple the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Syria has formidable air defenses that complicate any military offensive.
The Syrian air force has an estimated 365 combat aircraft, 4,700 surface-to-air missiles and 4,000 shoulder-fired missiles that can strike planes, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Syrian air defenses are dense, sophisticated, and overlapping, covering all but the easternmost parts of the country,” said Frederic Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria. “The idea is to keep manned aircraft out of Syrian airspace.”
Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said in an e-mail that he’s concerned the administration might opt for only “largely symbolic strikes” that stop short of the sustained attack necessary to degrade Syria’s military.
“This would be risky,” he said. “It would do no serious damage to the instruments of regime mass terror and would enable Assad to proclaim he has faced down the U.S., thus compounding the credibility problem President Obama wishes to address.”
Eisenstadt said a strike isn’t likely to last more than “a day or two at the most.”
Harmer, who helped enforce a no-fly zone over Iraq in 2000 and 2001, said Syria’s air defenses may be overstated. He said the Syrian air force suffers from defections and probably has no more than 100 fixed-wing aircraft still capable of flying.
While a strike would be designed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, targeting chemical-weapons sites could unleash those toxic agents on civilians.
“That presents the risk of inadvertent contamination caused by an attempt to attack a chemical weapons storage site,” said retired Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan who’s now a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“The next choice would be of targets that are associated with delivery of chemical weapons,” such as artillery and aircraft, he said. Other targeting options include “Assad’s palace, a symbolic target to show him that he cannot do these things with impunity, or military headquarters or military assets that were very important to him.”
Brigadier General Mustapha al-Sheikh, who was among the first Syrian officers to defect from the army, said any military strike by the U.S. and allies is likely to be modest.
“I expect a couple of strikes inside Damascus and the bulk in the provinces so there won’t be a political vacuum inside Damascus,” he said in an interview from Syria. “This doesn’t lead to toppling the regime.”
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