Beyond Tomahawks: Defeating Syria from the air

Staff Sargeant Jim Araos |

An F-15K Slam Eagle from the South Korean air force approaches a US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from Kadena Air Base, Japan, for mid-air refueling during RED FLAG-Alaska 13-3 Aug. 21, 2013.


While President Obama pursues a potential Russian diplomatic solution designed to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, the potential for U.S. airstrikes remains very real. Should the President decide on military action, then he will likely return to his prior plan of securing Congressional approval. While the political debate over both Russia's proposal and Congressional authorization continues in Washington, U.S. military planners are busy preparing for a wide range of actions. Yet successfully attacking Syria goes far beyond simply launching cruise missiles from a few U.S. Navy destroyers sitting in the Mediterranean. Instead, the U.S. military will have to exploit the full dimension of its aerial capabilities in order to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and deter him from using chemical weapons in the future.

Like Libya before it, Syria is shaping up to be an exemplar of the new era in American warfighting. Regardless of the ultimate political aim of any intervention, the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world increasingly is one in which American military actions do not involve the use of ground troops. That means air campaigns and naval missile strikes as the primary (if not sole) method of operating. This, indeed, was encapsulated in last year's Defense Strategic Guidance, and the rapid shift to standoff strikes and offshore operations will likely dominate the evolution of U.S. military doctrine in the coming years.

Such an approach also reveals the extent to which total control of the aerial domain is the prerequisite for fully integrated air and naval operations. Some of this has been prefigured in the heated discussions over Air-Sea Battle, but that is largely an approach centered on more cooperative American planning for a large-scale campaign in the Pacific against near-peer adversaries. What Syria reflects is the much more likely involvement of U.S. air and sea forces in small-scale, limited operations.

An air campaign starts with eyes in the sky. President Obama's decision to delay any air strikes before receiving Congress's approval has given Assad valuable time to move around or protect his troops, weapons, and potentially some command centers. Accurate, timely surveillance and reconnaissance is thus the key to any successful targeting strategy. Military planners will be using satellite imagery provided by the National Reconnaissance Office and the Air Force's Space-Based Infrared System, but also can deploy more flexible U.S. Air Force Global Hawks. If needed, the venerable U-2 can be deployed with its slightly better optical system and a wide array of sensors, data links, and even electronic warfare capabilities. Intercepting Syria's battlefield communications can be done by the Air Force's RC-135 Rivet Joint airplane, and then passed along quickly to U.S. theater and tactical commanders.


Once U.S. attacks begin, no targets will be hit without communications and data satellites. The backbone of this effort will be the Air Force-controlled GPS satellites for cruise missiles and other guided bombs. In addition, the Navy and Air Force will depend on Air Force Space Command's Wideband Global Satellite Communications system and the Defense Satellite Communications system, both of which are designed to support air, land, and sea forces deployed on the battlefield.

During any U.S. actions, keeping tabs on the Syrian response will also be critical. The Air Force's Space Based Infrared System was built to track both long- and short-range theater missile launches. Given that Syria maintains chemical weapons warheads for missile use, and has missile capabilities of up to several hundred miles, this system is particularly important in giving warning to Israel or other friendly nations of a possible missile strike, including towards those which host U.S. military bases.

Those missile launchers and command centers will be high on any Pentagon target list. Yet recent reports indicate that the Administration is asking war planners at U.S. Central Command to draw up wider lists, including Syria's 23 air bases, ground military units, air defense systems, storage facilities, and the like. Such a broad-based attack would be designed to significantly destroy Assad's war-making capability. So far, the Obama Administration wants to conduct any such strikes using standoff weapons, so as not to run the risk of any American pilots being shot down by Syria's air defenses. These consist largely of shorter-range, older Soviet fixed and mobile ground-to-air missile launchers.

Standoff attacks will come not only from the sea. The U.S. military has far more in its arsenal than the widely-reported Tomahawk cruise missiles carrying 1,000 lb. payloads fired from Navy destroyers and submarines. Evolving war plans include numerous U.S. Air Force assets. Cold War-era B-52 bombers can carry up to 20 conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles with a 1000 lb. payload and a range of nearly 700 miles, with a variant designed to destroy hardened or buried targets. These missiles cost just $150,000 each, a tenth of the $1.5 million price tag for the Navy's Tomahawks. A fleet of just 5 B-52's could thus deliver 100 missiles, return to base to reload, and be back in the battle in a matter of hours. In addition, the B-1B Lancer bomber can launch the GPS-guided Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), which packs a 1,000 lb. warhead that can aim at both fixed and movable targets, including moderately hardened targets, with a range of over 200 miles.

If standoff strikes do not attain the objectives set for the mission, the White House may determine that American bombers have to be put over Syrian targets. In that case, the B-2 stealth bomber, based out of Whiteman AFB in Missouri can make a transcontinental flight to penetrate Syria's air defenses and deliver the largest bombs in America's inventory, including ‘bunker busters' and the 30,000 lb. Massive Ordnance Penetrator.

A spiraling-out of the war could ultimately involve U.S. tactical fighters from both the Air Force and Navy. Once cruise missiles and JASSM's had degraded Syria's air defenses, Air Force EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare planes and RC-135U Combat Sent planes can both jam and collect information on Assad's remaining air defense and missile radars. Air attacks on Syrian ground forces and remaining fixed targets would be carried out by land-based F-15s and F-16s, along with carrier-launched F-18s, all using a variety of air-to-surface missiles and bombs. Supersonic anti-radar HARM missiles, for example, are carried by both the Navy and Air Force fighters, while the Joint Standoff Weapon can be used against Syrian troops and materiel. Targeting moving Syrian vehicles for destruction by U.S. fighters will be the job of Air Force E-8 JSTARS with its long-range air-to-ground radar.

The variety of land-based airpower that could be deployed by the U.S. military can be based in the continental United States (in the case of strategic bombers like the B-2), European bases such as Incirlik, in Turkey, and Middle Eastern bases in Qatar. Luckily for President Obama, while he has been deserted by America's traditional European allies, both the Turks and the Qataris are supportive of punitive action against Assad. That means the full power of the U.S. Air Force can be brought into play, along with the Navy's on-site assets, should diplomacy with Russia fail and the President decides to go ahead to defend his red line.


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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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