U.S. Military Options in Syria

3 MINS READAug 26, 2013 | 15:11 GMT
U.S. Military Options in Syria
(TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer anchored at the port of Manila in late May.

As the United States and its allies position their forces for a possible military strike on Syria, the nature of that strike will be entirely dependent on the objective of the mission. The scope of the strike will be heavily debated: whether it will be a punitive action aimed at critical leadership or command and control nodes, a strike geared toward degrading the regime's capabilities so that the balance of power tilts toward the rebels, or an assault on the regime's chemical weapons arsenal.

The more ambitious the objective the more resources will have to be committed. Additionally, the more the United States gets invested in the conflict the more likely it will be tied to the aftermath. Given the numerous constraints and Washington's already heavy reluctance to commit to another intervention in the Middle East, the United States and its allies will likely seek a limited scope for any possible operation. A punitive series of missile strikes and airstrikes or an effort to dismantle Bashar al Assad's ability to use chemical weapons is most likely.

In the event of a punitive strike or a limited operation to reduce al Assad's chemical weapons delivery capability — for instance, by targeting key command and control facilities, main air bases and known artillery sites — the United States already has enough forces positioned to commence operations now. Four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — and probably a nuclear cruise missile submarine — are already within Tomahawk cruise missile range of Syrian targets. In addition, the United States can call upon strategic bombers based in the continental United States as well as B-1 bombers from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. In such an operation, the United States would be able to carry out standoff attacks beyond the range of Syrian air defenses, while B-2 bombers could stealthily penetrate the Syrian integrated air defense network to drop bunker-busting bombs with minimal risk.

Despite having the forces already at its disposal for such restrained operations, the United States will seek time to build up international support as well as the defenses of it and its allies against the Syrian regime's potential retaliation.

Considering that al Assad's forces have a number of ways to deliver chemical weapons, ranging from air power to basic tube and rocket artillery, an operation that seeks to degrade the regime's ability to launch chemical weapons would necessarily be far wider in scope and scale. As a result, it would require considerable resources. This type of campaign would involve striking a number of hardened facilities, possibly repeatedly, thus necessitating the use of far more sorties of fixed-wing aircraft.

This means tactical aviation would have to play a key role in such a campaign, which in turn would entail the deployment of significant enabler aircraft such as aerial refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Given the threat from Syrian air defenses to manned tactical aircraft flying over Syria, considerably more ships equipped with cruise missiles would be needed for the inevitable suppression of an enemy air defense campaign, and aircraft carriers would be needed to bolster the tactical aviation assets available for the operation.

In effect, the more resources the United States and its allies utilize the more damage they can inflict. However, as the intervention grows, the potential costs also increase due to the commitment of more numerous and vulnerable assets into the warzone. In an operation of this scope, combat search and rescue helicopters and special operations forces would be required due to the high risk of aircraft being shot down over Syria.

It would be easy to see an operation of this magnitude coming because of all the resources and equipment movements needed for it. The United States has not yet begun to deploy the forces needed for this level of intervention, but significant combat power is not far off. Two U.S. supercarriers and their escorts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations are only a few days away, and the U.S. Air Force can rapidly surge squadrons into the theater if necessary, especially if air bases in Turkey, Greece, Jordan and Cyprus are available.  

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