by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Legislative approval for U.S. strikes on Syria is churning through Congress, with Democratic and Republican leaders now backing Pres. Barack Obama’s plan for military action. In the meantime, the U.S. and one of its few partners, France, have been beefing up naval and air forces in the region while awaiting the order to move against Assad.
The precise nature of a campaign off the coast of — or over — Syria is still uncertain. Most likely, the strikes will be limited to cruise missiles launched from destroyers and submarines supported by a small fleet of surveillance planes from the U.S. and France, based from Crete and Cyprus to Turkey.
Currently, the U.S. has six warships in the eastern Mediterranean. Five are Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers: the Stout, Ramage, Mahan, Graveley and Barry. The USS San Antonio, an amphibious assault ship hauling Marines and helicopters, is also nearby. Finally, the powerful Nimitz carrier battlegroup is headed into the Red Sea. The Nimitz is escorted by three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the William P. Lawrence, Stockdale and Shoup; and a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, the Princeton.
The first group of destroyers already in the Mediterranean have hundreds of cruise missiles altogether, but strikes on Syria may only use a portion; perhaps fewer than 100. The dozens of carrier-based, fixed-wing F/A-18 Hornets are likely a reserve. In addition, the U.S. also has ground-based aircraft in Jordan. In all, the U.S. has readied a force for a short war, but with a reserve in case the White House decides to fight a longer one.
Building Up Air Forces
Were the U.S. to use bombers, the Air Force could call on B-1 and B-2 bombers based in North America for long-range strike missions. Both bombers can drop tons of high-explosive bombs, and three B-1s were used in the opening blitz against ex-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But using the bombers for an extended period of time is a tough call: the bombers are few in number and count among the U.S.’s strategic nuclear deterrent. Generals are reluctant to hand them over even for single missions.
Closer to Syria, the U.S. has a squadron of F-16 fighters stationed at Mafraq in Jordan. These fighters were first deployed in Jordan as part of the annual Eager Lion exercises over the summer. Around 1,000 U.S. Air Force logistics and command specialists are also in the country. Were these fighters not to be used over Syria, they do provide a deterrent against reprisal attacks on U.S. interests by Assad’s forces. Were the war to escalate, Jordan could function as a lily-pad for follow-on troops and aircraft.
Britain is staying out of the war, but did send six Eurofighter Typhoon jets to RAF Akrotiri base in Cyrus “to protect British interests as tensions grow over Syria,” as reported by Defense News.
“They are not deploying to take part in any military action against Syria,” the Ministry of Defence said it a statement. According to Greek Cypriot newspaper Famagusta Gazette, several of the Typhoons “nearly clashed” with Turkish F-16s on Sept. 2 after the Typhoons flew over the Turkish-occupied north of the island.
Even if strike aircraft stay away from attacking Syria at all during a war, some aircraft will still be involved, a U.S. cruise-missile submarines and warships rely on command and control planes to help beam communications around the world. A U.S. E-4 communications bird was spotted at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey in recent days — one of only four in service — and which could be used to coordinate between forward-deployed ships and Washington. The U.S. also has a small fleet of E-6 Mercury planes that could be used to transmit the orders to strike.
Interestingly, the E-4 is equipped with ADS-B tracking gear, which means the plane broadcasts its location over public radio channels — which means their location can be tracked over the internet. An E-6 appearing over Germany or Spain in the coming weeks could be a sign strikes are imminent.
French spy planes are assembling close to Syria: RAF Akriotiri is now housing two propeller-driven French navy Atlantique IIs. These are likely moving within range to intercept Syrian military communications. Two French E-3 early warning planes have also been spotted at Akriotiri.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has moved U-2 spy planes at Crete, and CV-22 Osprey vertical-lift birds, which were used to rescue a downed pilot during the Libya war. A U.S. WC-135C, which is used to sniff for chemical attacks, was also spotted refueling near Malta late last month.
Another ‘Desert Fox?’
However, Syria poses several challenges to U.S. war planners before considering an extended air campaign beyond ship-based cruise missiles. There’s the long lists of questions whether an intervention would deter or provoke Assad, embroil the U.S. in a conflict it can’t win but might make worse, among many others. Then there’s the problems with air strikes.
In the 2011 Libya war, NATO faced an opponent with a badly degraded surface-to-air missile network, while the bulk of the fighting was concentrated along a long and narrow coastline within range of ships in the Mediterranean and ground-based aircraft in southern Europe. But Syria’s population centers — and thus the heaviest fighting — is set away from the coasts and surrounded by Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. The only route from the sea into Syria is in the country’s northeast. Assad’s air defenses are also comparatively more advanced than Gaddafi’s.
“While a major air campaign remains a possibility, a more limited military action looks more plausible to me,” wrote arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis in Foreign Policy. “In both Kosovo and Libya, there was an organized opposition capable of taking territory when supported by Western airpower. The situation in Syria is not nearly so promising. […] The opposition seems too fragmented to make use of the sort of air campaign of the sort we saw against Yugoslavia or Libya.”
The number-crunchers at RAND Corporation seem to agree. Recently, the think tank sketched the scenario of an extended air campaign over Syria, and it didn’t look good. The U.S. could easily destroy the Syrian Air Force, according to the study, and also destroy Syria’s surface-to-air missile capabilities. But “making safe areas in Syria reasonably secure would depend primarily on the presence of ground forces able and willing to fend off attacks, and defending safe areas not along Syria’s borders would approximate intervention on the side of the opposition.”
More likely, Lewis argues, is a campaign similar to Operation Desert Fox — the 1998 cruise-missile strikes against Saddam Hussein. The operation involved 97 strikes over four days against Iraqi command and control facilities, airbases and facilities used by the elite Republican Guard, as well as facilities believed to be involved in producing nuclear, chemical and biological materials.
There’s a debate about how effective these strikes were, but Lewis argues the strikes did deter Saddam from pursuing chemical weapons, largely due to the realization among Iraqi senior officials of the vulnerability and visibility of a large-scale chemical program.
Would the same logic apply to another Baathist dictatorship? We’re likely about to find about. Spy planes, warships: That’s consistent with a limited intervention. But the Nimitz and the ground-based fighters in Jordan are a backup in case a war escalates further.