I just finished watching the president’s short address on his plans to respond to the Syrian military’s use of chemical weapons. Television had crowds of analysts of various stripe explaining how there is really not much the president can do and why. Here are a few of the points made:
The American people will not stand for another protracted war costing billions of dollars a week such as the ones that drained our economy for the past ten years and more. Not only that, but there are no longer the reserves in material and treasury to carry out such an operation. Putting it bluntly, the United States is tapped out.
It has become extremely difficult to make the case for action based on current intelligence reports. Apparently labeling faulty intelligence as a “slam dunk” once has turned out to be one time too many. Bashar al-Assad is going to have to strip down to his skivvies on Letterman and spray the audience with mustard gas to convince some doubters.
AP Sources: Intelligence on Weapons No ‘Slam Dunk’
WASHINGTON August 29, 2013 (AP)
By KIMBERLY DOZIER and MATT APUZZO Associated Press
The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no “slam dunk,” with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say.
So much for the value of our intelligence services these days. Didn’t a junior NSA contractor just abscond to Russia with a trove of intelligence data, and didn’t the Army just convict a junior enlisted man of shipping massive quantities of classified material off to an anti-American Web site? What can you do for us next, Military Intelligence?
Wait, there’s another danger associated with striking out at Syria. We might win. Yes, we can go to war with Syria, but we need to be careful not to win. Winning would mean that mass murder Bashar al-Assad would lose his job and those bad old al-Qaeda guys would take over, and didn’t we just spend ten years and billions of dollars just to put a bullet in the head of the previous leader of al-Qaeda? How about having an entire country run by these religious fundamentalist who only crash airplanes into tall buildings and throw acid in the faces of young school girls, but otherwise never ever would hold a seat in the United Nations?
Anyhow, what the president said was that he wants to attack Syria. This he said after being 30 minutes late to his own presentation. I swear, if I had known I would have to wait 30 minutes to hear that Barack Obama wanted to attack Syria I would never have voted for him, twice.
But, that’s all past. What this post is about is just what could and would our military do to make Bashar al-Assad miss his tee time? From this point on I only speculate. Go along with me on this.
I’m listening to all this crowd of TV analysts, and more than one is talking about the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles. This is a pilotless, aerodynamic craft with wings and a jet engine. It’s 21 inches in diameter and has, I am told, a one ton warhead. There’s a reason the diameter of the missile is 21 inches, and if anybody can tell my why it’s 21 inches the first to do so will receive a free, autographed copy of an essay on the conception and development of the Tomahawk missile written by me. Ex Navy people are automatically disqualified from this contest.
Anyhow, the deal with the Tomahawk, besides the one-ton warhead, is it has no pilot. This is a slow missile, less than the speed of sound. You can, in principle, shoot one of these down. Were there a pilot, and the pilot got captured the Syrians, there would be hell to pay. The pilot would not fare too well, either. This is the place where children who speak out against Bashar al-Assad disappear from the streets and are returned weeks later to their parents’ doorstep in pieces.
But here is what one analyst speculated about the Tomahawk. It’s not pinpoint accurate. That information may be true in one sense, but not in the sense the analyst intended. Here is one problem with the Tomahawk, and here is why the analyst may have missed the point.
First, since the Tomahawk can be shot down, there is the possibility the one-ton warhead will explode on some child’s birthday party. Talk about hell to pay. Also, the missile can possibly malfunction and crash into a day care center, or worse, into a CNN camera crew. In fact, during our short war with Saddam Hussein in 1991 we got to see the video of a hotel lobby when a Tomahawk apparently crashed outside. The Iraqis contend a hotel worker was killed, and there is no way to dispute that. Aside from all the just mentioned, this analyst did not consider Tomahawk to be pinpoint in the sense of Paveway pinpoint. There is some history to that.
Back 30 years ago I worked for a major defense contractor, and we were doing a project that would involve a Tomahawk missile. I was just becoming acquainted with this system through items in the news and propaganda videos from the developer, General Dynamics, Corp. The Tomahawk was launched, and it spread its wings and flew at 500 mph for hundreds of miles barely above the ground, and it finally detonated its warhead above a target area about the size of a football field. That was impressive. This was all done using an inertial guidance system (INS) and terrain-following radar. Anybody familiar with INS is aware that it’s essentially a dead-reckoning system based on very sensitive accelerometers, and it is prone to errors of drift the longer the missile is in flight. The ground-following radar was essential to canceling out INS drift errors.
Things have changed. Some time after my first encounter with the Tomahawk I had another view. On the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, there is a building with a room about the size of a basketball court, and this room is chock full of software engineers and systems analysts working on some of our most advanced missile systems. One of these is the Tomahawk. And these people have more recent photographs.
The INS is long gone. Today’s Tomahawk, and many other of our precision attack weapons, employ GPS navigation. Additionally, some are fitted with optical terminal guidance, and I have seen in-your-window photos (unclassified) from one weapon test.
After achieving flight, the missile’s wings are unfolded for lift, the airscoop is exposed and the turbofan engine is employed for cruise flight. Over water, the Tomahawk uses inertial guidance or GPS to follow a preset course; once over land, the missile’s guidance system is aided by Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM). Terminal guidance is provided by the Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation (DSMAC) system or GPS, producing a claimed accuracy of about 10 meters.
As precise as it can be, the Tomahawk can never be an in-your-window weapon. It does not have the aerodynamic capability to perform the necessary maneuver. But, with a one-ton warhead, it does not need to come in your window.
Tomahawk is what is called a stand-off weapon. You do not need to get close to the enemy to deploy it. Another weapon with stand-off capability is the JSOW, which acronym stands for Joint Stand-Off Weapon. “Joint” means it is used jointly by divergent branches of our armed services. JSOW has a slogan, which was on posters in the Tucson room, and that slogan is “No more going down town.” People not old enough to remember the old days need to be reminded that the term “going down town” referred to flying a bombing mission all the way to down town Berlin in World War 2. Pilots dreaded that kind of mission 70 years ago, and they still do.
Anyhow, the JSOW has some stand-off capability, but not hundreds of miles. But it has in-your-window terminal guidance. Could JSOW find employment in Syrian air space? Possibly, given the right conditions. I will get to that later. Here is a short description of JSOW.
This is essentially a glide bomb, but some proposals include a powered version. See the references. The pilot carries a mission “brick” with him to the cockpit when he starts his flight, and he plugs it into the aircraft. The “brick” has all the specifics for the mission, including information to feed into the JSOW. You can launch a JSOW from the wing or from a bomb bay. In any event, once launched it spreads its tiny wings and hurtles along its way to destruction. It can be programmed at mission time to follow a circuitous route to the target to avoid enemy defenses and also to approach from an optimal direction. Multiple missiles can also be launched to arrive on target at pre-arranged times.
So, what can the United States military accomplish with all this capability, and what course of action are they likely to take. Here are some considerations. H-hour, and the mission is launched. What happens?
The first concern is Syrian air defense. Things have changed a bit since our pilots went to down town Berlin, and these changes have been driven by those experiences and by more recent experience in Korea and most of all in Vietnam. We have seen a new approach used very effectively against Iraq, then against Serbia and finally against Iraq again. The first order of business is defense suppression.
Modern air defense systems rely heavily on radar, and radar has seen marvelous improvements since its first use in WW-2. One drawback remains, and that is radar requires an antenna placed so it can illuminate attacking aircraft. Also, any coordinated defense requires rapid and reliable battlefield communications. An attacker can get by the first few hours with minimal communications capabilities, because everybody on the attacking team knows the game plan. The defenders need to detect the incoming attackers, and this information needs to be quickly relayed to a central command center and digested before a coordinated defense can be mounted. These days an attacker first goes after the enemy’s command and control system and its air defense network. That’s what a Tomahawk can do.
Radar is the easiest, since the systems must be exposed to be effective. A one-ton blast a few yards overhead will do in most missile defense radar systems. To the extent that the enemy does not have a well-concealed and hardened command and control network, that will be vulnerable to a Tomahawk attack. Heavy air defense missile centers will also be prime targets. Critical to all of this, of course, is that we will need to have up to the minute information on the placement of these systems, because they are typically mobile.
Of course, the Syrians can counter the Tomahawks just as well as they can, say, an F/A-18 Hornet. The Tomahawk is, after all, much slower. The situation with the Tomahawk is multi-fold. It is smaller and presents a much smaller target if you are shooting at it. Wing area of an F/A-18 is many times that of a Tomahawk. Also the Tomahawk will be flying what is called knap-of-the-earth, very close to the ground, nestled among lots of ground clutter. Forget about taking out a Tomahawk with a radar-controlled missile. The radar will never even see it. A shoulder-fired infra-red-guided missile can, however, run a Tomahawk down and kill it. But for this to happen the missile has to fly practically right over the soldier launching the missile.
In his speech today Obama spoke of a mission of limited duration, and the TV analysts were using the words “48 hours.” That’s not long enough to suppress air defenses and launch precision attacks. The first suppression sweep is over in a few minutes, but following that you need to go in and clean up the assets the defender has kept hidden and is just now bringing out to shoot down your precision air strike. I seem to recall it requiring several days to adequately suppress air defenses in order to give our forces complete domination of the air. Recall Gulf War 1.
In the early hours we launched Hellfire missiles to knock out outlying defense radar stations, and we simultaneously launched fighters. We also launched Tomahawks to take out Iraqi systems in and around Baghdad. Only one fighter failed to come back that first night, and the pilot was never found.
So, is the U.S. likely to follow a similar pattern against al-Assad in the next few weeks? Could be, but what else? After suppressing Syrian air defenses, what next? Who do we kill?
My first choice would be all of al-Assad’s pretty houses and military command buildings. I have been told this will not happen. Decapitation, much as it would please me personally, will not happen. I am thinking al-Assad’s air force is next.
An air force represents a considerable array of valuable and vulnerable assets. American tax payers are shelling out a minimum of $20 million for one of these flying weapons systems, and I am guessing al-Assad is paying around the same levy for each of his. Al-Assad has four choices: He can bring them into the air and lose them to an onslaught of Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. He can leave them parked and pick up the pieces after we have left. He can hide them in hardened bunkers, rendering them useless for the duration. (Saddam buried his in the sand.) Or he can fly them to Iran or to Russia and save them for another day. I am thinking that if al-Assad ever brings them back there will be no place for them to land.
We can go after al-Assad’s army. A major component of the Syrian army is its tank corps. Syria has in recent years relied heavily on its mechanized divisions, and that part of its army is healthy, but notably lacking in military success except against civilians. Israeli forces scored heavily against Syrian tanks in their previous encounters. Tanks are mobile, but not that much so. You can only put so many miles on a tank before it has to be serviced. The primary means for getting tanks around are railroads and tank carriers. Railroads are sitting targets, and tank carriers are limited to movement on developed roads. Both of these factors make tanks an inviting target. Aside from deconstructing al-Assad’s air force, locating and grinding down his tank assets would send the kind of message that President Obama wants to send, namely that using chemical weapons was not such a good idea.
Whichever course of action President Obama choses, it’s generally considered he is hosed. His political career is over. He is never going to get anything good out of this mess. In the beginning he did not want to take sides and arm the rebels against al-Assad. Now the al-Qaeda forces, being better supplied by their friends in the region, have gained the upper hand in the rebellion, and the secular rebel forces are pissed at us for standing by wringing our hands while the Syrian army killed rebels and also civilians. President Obama does not want to topple al-Assad, because that would unleash al-Qaeda in Syria. The United Nations Security Council will never grant the OK to strike at Syria, because a unanimous vote is required, and Russia sits permanently on the Council. Vladimir Putin will veto any action against Syria. The British Parliament just voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for action against Syria, mainly because they are tired of hearing about “slam dunk” intelligence. If Obama does nothing, then al-Assad will truly know in his heart that it’s perfectly all right to use chemical weapons against civilians, because nobody is ever going to do anything about it.
My prediction: Congress is going to give the president the approval to do something. If they do not OK a strike, then the president is off the hook. He can blame Congress, and that is something the Republicans will not want to happen.
In the next few weeks look for some startling news out of Syria. Then come back and read this post again. We will all see if I called this one or if it’s time again for me to eat some more crow.