It’s often been said that a military plan never survives the first contact with the enemy. By any reasonable estimate, we’re still several days away from a first strike against Syria, yet our plan appears to be constantly changing.
To be fair, no one outside the operational chain has actually seen the plan, so much of what we know is based on rumors and leaks, some well-informed, others near-fantasy. But one thing seems clear; what was originally described as a limited, “catharic” attack–lasting only a couple of days–is now evolving into something much longer and more complex.
From today’s edition of The New York Times:
President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employchemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.
Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.
In some regards, the expanded target list might be viewed as a reality check. The original plan outlined by administration officials seemed little more than a “feel good” strike, aimed (largely) at salvaging the Commander-in-Chief’s reputation after Basha al-Assad crossed Mr. Obama’s infamous “red line” on chemical weapons employment at least five times.
Apparently, the President’s national security team convinced him that a few volleys of cruise missiles would achieve little in the way of “hurting” the Syrian dictator; his military forces, or their ability to deliver chemical weapons. Indeed, there was great concern in the White House about Assad winning the propaganda war, emerging from an underground bunker unscathed, after taking a direct blow from the U.S. military.
An expanded target list would suggest a longer campaign, forcing Assad to remain in hiding longer, while his armed forces absorb greater punishment. That, in turn, will supposedly make it more difficult for the Syrian leader to rally his degraded forces.
But there are a couple of problems with that scenario. A longer bombing campaign, with an expanded target list, requires more military force. But so far, we’re not seeing the required deployment of additional ships, planes and personnel that could sustain attacks for a period of weeks. While some U.S. assets (notably B-52 and B-2 bombers) can stage from bases here in the CONUS, you need to position other units closer to the fight.
For example, let’s say Mr. Obama and his planners want to mount tactical airstrikes against targets in Syria, using aircraft from the USS Nimitz, now positioned in the Red Sea. Like any super-carrier, the Nimitz carries only about 50-55 strike aircraft (F/A-18s). The rest are support platforms, such as the EA-6B or EA-18 (for electronic warfare support); the E-2C (for airborne early warning), or SH-60 helicopters, which perform a variety of missions, ranging from anti-submarine warfare, to search-and-rescue. Four dozen Hornets can pack quite a punch, but they’re not enough to cover an expanded target list, even with surface ships firing volleys of cruise missiles at targets ashore.
A sustained campaign against Syria would require scores of additional aircraft, ranging from KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, to AWACS platforms; SIGINT aircraft (such as the USAF RC-135); additional strike assets (notably F-16s and F-15Es), along with rescue and airlift assets, to name a few. Some of those aircraft are already based in theater (RC-135s and F-15Es are based in England, while there is a wing of F-16s at Aviano AB, Italy), but other assets would have to be deployed from the states. And if plans call for “round-robin” strike missions from places like Lakenheath and Aviano, our combat power will be decreased, since crews will spend much of their time flying to and from their distant targets.
So far, we haven’t seen the required deployment of needed assets to airfields in Turkey, or Cyprus. But, since this plan seems to be evolving on the fly, there is the possibility that such movements could occur in the coming days. But that would further delay any attack on Syria, since the Pentagon would need more time to arrange the tanker and airlift assets needed to move aircraft and personnel to the Mediterranean. At this point, with no mobilization orders in the offing, it seems the attack on Syria will be carried out by forces already on station, or those able to operate across long distances. So, we’re guessing that many of the “additional” targets will be reserved for the carrier air wing on the Nimitz, and bombers staging from Barksdale, Whiteman and Minot.
But we’re not the only military power that can ad lib an operational plan. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia might support Syria, possibly providing a “missile shield” to its allies in the region. That appears to be a slightly-veiled reference to the S-300 air defense system, which has capabilities against both aircraft and cruise missiles. Moscow has a contract to provide the S-300 to Syria, but has never fulfilled that obligation, bowing to pressure from Israel and the United States.
However, Mr. Putin may have changed his mind. Russia’s Interfax news agency reported today that a ship heading for Syria will stop in the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk to pick-up a “special cargo” before completing its journey to Tartus. Novorossiysk and other Black Sea ports have been traditional shipping points for S-300s being delivered to foreign customers.
Needless to say, the introduction of the S-300 would be something of a game changer, even though U.S. crews have practiced against similar air defense systems. The potential delivery of the S-300 means Mr. Obama has a relatively short window to strike (with or without Congressional approval). Otherwise, he’ll need to add more assets, gear up for a longer campaign and prepare for potential losses of aircraft, missile and crews.
And, did we mention the possibility of a military confrontation with Russian and Iran as well? Tehran has also pledged to help Damascus, and they might use an American strike as a pretext for attacking our assets in the Middle East, or dragging Israel into the fray. Likewise, Moscow could retaliate for U.S. attacks on Syrian bases where Russian advisers and technicians are operating. It’s a much more distant possibility than Iranian action, but something that cannot be entirely dismissed.
“Another fine mess,” as Laurel and Hardy might say. Except this one has deadly serious (and far-reaching) consequences, the product of security policy built on speeches, sound-bites and vows that meant nothing–until a Syrian dictator decided to call the Commander-in-Chief’s bluff.