What are the air power options for US military planners for strikes against Syria? TIM ROBINSON offers an initial analysis. At the time of writing this blog post, the signs are pointing to some kind of US military intervention  in the coming days against the Syrian Assad regime for its (as yet unconfirmed but highly likely) role in the massacre of civilians using chemical weapons. UPDATE The US President Barack Obama is to now follow the UK example and seek approval from Congress before committing to any airstrikes. While this is not expected to result in a 'no' vote, this does mean that strikes are now not imminent.    

The US - going it alone now?

[caption id="attachment_8494" align="alignnone" width="376"] USAF B-2 stealth bomber. Will Washington now go it alone with strikes against Syria? (USAF).[/caption] Earlier on this week - the case for military intervention which was building seemed to have promised Anglo-US action with support from France. The US is already reported to be moving naval assets into position in preparation for action. It can also draw on US airbases in Turkey, Italy, and two US carrier groups in the Indian Ocean and Gulf. Additionally France has its aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle in the Mediterranean. However, while the UK announced the preemptive decision to deploy RAF Typhoons to Cyprus to protect its base there, the vote in Parliament on Thursday night has effectively removed the UK from taking any military action against Syria. It therefore looks increasingly like this will be unilateral action on Washington's part.  

The potential targets

What then, might be the potential targets for any missile or airstrikes? Immediate targeting of chemical or WMD stockpiles would be unlikely, due to the possibility that the strikes could actually produce a chemical incident similar to the one before. This would also apply in targeting the Syrian army chemical units involved. Instead, if the intent is to deliver a ‘message’ about the use of WMD to Assad and the regime, the likely targets would be military facilities, command & control centres, Baath party and secret police HQs. In the absence of JTACs on the ground to direct air strikes, or the ability of UAVs to loiter (see below), this would also limit the target set to fixed targets rather than mobile ones. Scud missiles, for example, (which may be a priority target for planners in case the regime responds by firing them at Israel) would be a very difficult target set to hunt down, even with full air supremacy.  However it is worth noting that Israel’s missile and BMD defences are much stronger than in 1991 where fear of Tel Aviv’s retaliation drove coalition ‘Scud hunting’ missions. Today along with Patriot missile batteries, Israel also has a layered defence of Iron Dome, Arrow (and David’s Sling in development) systems to protect against missile or rocket strikes. Patriot SAMs too have also been deployed to Turkey and Jordan to protect them from any of Assad's Scuds. The situation is also complicated in this instance by the established civil war. The search will be for high-value, strategic targets whose loss would hurt the regime but, would not be a critical tipping point in aiding the rebels. Taking out air defence systems, SAMs and air force control centres might then, be the preferred option, as the rebels have no air power themselves but the loss would open up Syria to easier future attacks. Additionally the regime itself might be targeted in the form of strikes on Assad or his powerbase. Though targeting of foreign state leaders is problematic due to US restrictions on 'assassination' - there is precedent in the air strikes against Colonel Gaddafi in 1986 which might be classed as a 'decapitation' and against Saddam Hussein in 2003.  

Syria’s IADS

[caption id="attachment_8495" align="alignnone" width="224"] More modern surface to air systems, such as this mobile SA-17 present a tough challenge to air planners. (Wikipedia).[/caption] However the biggest obstacle to military action against Syria is its sophisticated integrated air defence (IADS) system of Russian-made SAMs and radars. These include SA-5s, along with modern systems like the Pantsir (SA-22) and Buk (SA-17). There is also the potential threat of the extremely dangerous long-range S-300 SAM system which Syria has ordered. These latest SAMs are, (unlike the ubiquitous Sa-2 Guideline) highly mobile – making them challenging to track down and destroy. Privately, some western defence sources that have ‘wargamed’ an attack on Syria have been shocked at the expected loss rate of manned combat against this IADS network. Any manned combat aircraft missions that do not use long-range stand-off weapons such as ALCMs from B-52s, will therefore need substantial and overwhelming ECM and SEAD support. This would limit initial action to cruise-missiles and stand-off weapons until the air defences could be degraded. Some observers speculate that it even may be too risky for the B-2 stealth bomber to operate there unsupported. However, it is not all is bad news. First, the IADS network may not be fully watertight due to defections by army units to the rebel, or missile or radar sites changing hands. This might conceivably create gaps between SAM zones that coalition missiles or aircraft could exploit in pressing attacks. Second, Israel has had substantial experience in spoofing, thwarting and overcoming the Syrian air defences, most notably in 2007 when Israeli aircraft destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor facility in the east of the country. This required overflight of Syrian airspace with speculation that the Israelis had achieved total surprise in the raid either through extensive jamming and/or a cyberattack on air defence radars. More recently, in January 2013, Israel reportedly carried out an air strike on a missile shipment and WMD facility in the south of the country, using stand-off missiles.  

Syria’s Air Force

  [caption id="attachment_8497" align="alignnone" width="335"] Syrian Air Force fast jets, such as these MiG-23s, have been used to hit rebels on the ground. (Syrian state TV).[/caption] Since the start of the uprising, the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAF) has been in action against rebels with helicopters, advanced trainers and fighters all deployed to strike positions on the ground, demonstrating the loyalty of the air arm to the regime. However, weighed against this is that the Syrian rebels now not only have access to MANPADS shoulder launched missiles (either captured from the regime or supplied by outside sources) but they at least in one case have captured a mobile SAM SA-8 system, and appear to have already scored one kill against a SyAF fast jet. Secondly, some SyAF bases have been the focus for intense fighting between the rebels and the regime. It is therefore likely that the SyAF readiness and operational capacity has been adversely affected by the civil war, and some aircraft may be damaged or inoperable. Defections of enlisted personnel in this vicious civil war would also have reduced combat effectiveness. Earlier conflicts saw SyAF fighters shot down en-masse by experienced Israeli pilots, most notably in 1982, and it is likely any attempt for the remaining airworthy combat aircraft to counter US strikes would also face a similar fate.  

It’s not Iraq

However, despite Syria having similarities to another Baathist state, Iraq, with a (on paper) strong air defence system and air force, there are differences. In Iraq in 2003, for example, coalition forces were able to quickly assert air supremacy because the Iraqi air force and air defences had been dealt a body blow in 1991 and ongoing operations over the past decade or so, by coalition forces such as the four-day Operation Desert Fox (1998) had never allowed it to recover to its previous state. The attack on Iraq then, was kicking in the door, on an already weakened air force and air defence system. While Syria’s AF could face the same fate as the Iraqi AF in 1991, the regime’s strong IADS (at least for the most lethal, high-altitude) missile systems remains in place. The latest SAM missiles deployed by Syria have also benefited from two decades of improvements since the Russian-supplied Iraqi AD network was taken apart.  

‘The wrong type of drones’

[caption id="attachment_8498" align="alignnone" width="376"] The majority of UAVs now in service would not last long in Syrian airspace. (USAF)[/caption] Another reason for cruise missile strikes from the sea to be the preferred option, is that while unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (or ‘drones’) have become indispensable to modern military commanders for their surveillance and persistence, the majority of these cannot operate in contested airspace. Only now are stealth UCAVs designed to penetrate highly defended airspace, such as the X-47B, Taranis and nEUROn in development and these will not be ready for some time. The option of ongoing ‘drone strikes’ against the regime is thus a non-starter without disabling or completely destroying Syria’s air defence system and air force. However, unmanned assets (such as Global Hawk UAVs) may be crucial to building the ISTAR picture and to surveillance outside the missile threat zones. And while publically admitted UCAVs may since be technology demonstrators, the US does operate small numbers of classified stealth UAVs in the form of the RQ-170 Sentinel. The RQ-170, along with perhaps another US still-secret ‘black’  UAV (or even UCAV) might also be used to gather key intelligence in the highly contested airspace of Syria.  

Effect of US sequestration

Finally, there is another factor at play. This is the weakened US global combat capability brought about by mandatory budget cuts or ‘sequestration’. Though the US remains the preeminent superpower, sequestration has enacted deep cuts that may not be quickly reversible. For instance, in April, the USAF grounded one-third of its combat aircraft for non-essential missions and cut 17 combat squadrons, including an Italy-based F-16 squadron. Though this was reversed and money allocated to restart flights in July, the stay of execution last until the end of September when the haggling will begin again. More critically, training has been reduced and cut – and this investment in exercises such as Red Flag, has always given Western powers the edge in post-Vietnam conflicts. In an article in the September issue of AEROSPACE on ‘The new sequestration’, Mike Bratby stated that aircrews can lose combat proficiency in 90-120 days, with another 60-90 days to rebuild their skills. With ongoing global commitments and the ‘pivot’ to Asia-Pacific, sequestration gives overstretch issues to any long-term US air campaign.  


[caption id="attachment_8499" align="alignnone" width="384"] A short volley of punitive cruise missile strikes, launched from naval assets, may be the Pentagon's preferred option. (US Navy).[/caption] In short then, cruise missile attacks from destroyers and submarines, perhaps augmented with US Navy air strikes with electronic jamming support or long-range B-2 missions flown direct from the US to hit strategic targets, would then seem to be the most likely initial option for planners. From open sources and official statements, the most probable model for these attacks for the Pentagon would seem to be not Iraq in 2003 or Libya in 2011 but Operation Desert Fox in 1998, Libya 1986 or Sudan cruise missile strikes in 1998 as a short, sharp warning to the regime about using WMD carried out with the least risk to US forces. What happens beyond that, however, is as yet unknown.  

Tim Robinson
30 August 2013