U.S. Can Destroy Syrian Air Force, Defenses But Not Chemical Weapons Stockpile
Without recommending a plan of action, the report published Aug. 30 by Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank The Rand Corp., outlines the effect warplanes could have on the Assad regime, his military forces and the chemical weapons stockpiles that have brought the United States and its few allies to the brink of war.
Congress on Sept. 4 was mulling a use-of-force agreement that would set a 60-day deadline — with possibility of one 30-day extension — for the Obama administration to order military strikes against the Assad regime.
Given the go ahead, the Navy would be able to launch missile strikes against Assad’s forces, government infrastructure or chemical weapons stockpiles and delivery systems. The Air Force — using fighters, bombers and drones — would have five options to limit or sway the conflict, protect civilians and deter the use of chemical weapons, the report says.
Nearing its three-year anniversary, the Syrian civil war has claimed about 100,000 lives and created more than 2 million refugees. A massive chemical weapons attack suspected to be sarin nerve gas was allegedly launched by the Assad regime against civilians in August.
Karl Mueller, a senior political scientist and the lead author of the report, says “choosing between them, or not doing any of them, should be based on a clear sense of the military realities and their potential rewards and risks.”
Options include establishing a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria by destroying or neutralizing through intimidation Assad’s air force. Fighters could also take out Syria’s air defenses, which are old and poorly operated, choose safe areas in which to protect civilians from air attack or destroy Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles and delivery systems.
Another option would be to use airpower to aid a Free Syrian Army and rebel advance on Assad’s forces, as the Air Force did in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, the report says.
Incirlik Air Force Base in Southern Turkey and the U.K.’s Akrotiri Royal Air Force Base on Cyprus are within 300 miles of Syria’s major cities, which puts them in striking distance, the report notes.
Depending on the scope of attacks and the desired outcome, fighters and bomber aircraft will be needed to intercept and possibly shoot down Syrian aircraft and to attack air defenses.
Airborne warning and control system aircraft like the E-3 Sentry will be needed to monitor the airspace within a no-fly zone, along with tankers for refueling and combat search-and-rescue forces for picking up any downed allied pilots, the report says.
Though U.S. military action was spurred by the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, destroying the Assad regime’s stockpile without causing “significant” collateral damage will be nearly impossible without a ground operation, the reports says. Congress is expected to ban that option outright and Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry have all said U.S. boots will not touch Syrian soil.
“In spite of often casual rhetoric about ‘taking out’ Syria’s chemical weapon capability, the practical options for doing so have serious limitations, and attempting it could actually make things worse,” the report says.
Still, Assad’s use of chemical weapons violates an international “norm” against their use and violation of that could embolden U.S. enemies to acquire and use such weapons, Hagel told the Senate foreign relations committee Sept. 3.
"Given these threats to our national security, the United States must demonstrate through our actions that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable," Hagel said.
In remarks announcing his intention to launch attacks against Syria, Obama said chemical weapons could be transferred to terror groups that would seek to use them on U.S. forces or the homeland.
"Unless we hold them into account, it also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don't mean much,” he added.
Destroying Assad’s chemical stockpiles is made more difficult because the storage sites and production and launch sites are dispersed and hard to locate, the Rand report said. Bombing the stockpiles could also release the gases, which could injure or kill civilians as a result.
But U.S. strikes can more safely target the Syrian military’s rockets and artillery sites as a deterrent to their future use, the report says. Retaliatory strikes for future use of chemical weapons is also an option.
Syria’s air defenses are extensive, but antiquated. They should be taken seriously, but are less capable of shooting down enemy fighters than is generally understood, the report says. The report describes air defense operators as “strikingly incompetent” in past engagements.
“U.S. and allied air power could readily destroy its fixed elements in a major campaign and is relatively well prepared to deal with the residual threat that surviving mobile systems would pose to other air operations over the longer term,” the report says.
But U.S. experience in Kosovo under then-President Bill Clinton, should inform military leaders that destroying dispersed air defenses is difficult and should only be considered an enabling action for other missions in the country.
In any case, Obama, Congress and U.S. military leaders should take into account that military intervention carries the risk of sparking a regional conflict, a proxy war with nations like Russia or China and may lead to an escalation of U.S. involvement, Mueller says.
“Anticipating and assessing potential next steps beyond an initial intervention effort should be central to any strategic planning for using airpower in Syria,” he says.