WASHINGTON — If the US goes ahead with plans to launch an attack on Syria, all signs point toward a short series of strikes based around the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missiles.
For the US Air Force, which prides itself on being the key to American air superiority, relying on ship-based missiles removes the most visible elements of the service — its fleet of fighters, tankers and bombers — from the equation.
Instead, the service is likely to play a vital background role in any military efforts, relying on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) skills its service members have honed over the past decade of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
“Don’t think the Air Force isn’t involved in this,” Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Research and a former special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff, said. “The ISR required to set these targets is not something the destroyers are doing in the Mediterranean. The Air Force has the big ISR picture, and there will be a lot of blue suit contributions in the background.”
Grant expects a mixture of space-based assets and more terrestrial platforms, potentially including the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, to help provide the overall ISR vision. But given the short time span between the Libyan operations of 2011 and potential strikes in Syria, the service is unlikely to bring in any brand new technologies.
“For the most part we’re looking at the same type of force structure as Libya, especially in the limited response options we are hearing discussed now,” she said. “The good news is you have a very battle-hardened force from all the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever is done is going to be something they’ve probably done before.”
The use of strategic strikes with military ISR is familiar to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who planned that mix in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. But he is concerned the focus on tactics in Syria is obscuring a lack of clear objectives.
“Everyone delves into targeting and weapons, but they don’t talk about what is the desired end state or outcome,” he said. “It should be ‘ends, ways, means,’ and so far the only discussion I’ve heard is means.”
While warning that the US must avoid taking sides in the Syrian civil war, Deptula is doubtful that the strikes being discussed will be enough to make sure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ceases the mass violence being perpetrated inside Syria.
“You have the Assad regime blatantly violating the laws of international armed conflict, not just with chemical weapons but with its indiscriminate use of force on civilians,” Deptula said. “So there needs to be a response, not only to put the Syrian leadership on notice that they will be held personally responsible, but to indicate what might happen to other evil actors who consider similar actions.”
“Attacks against a couple of ammo depots, storage or artillery units just aren’t going to cut it,” he added. “Assad will ignore those. He needs to feel that he is being held responsible.”
If the White House decides that targeted strikes are not enough to send that message, the Air Force would likely see its role increase, potentially by bringing in its fleet of B-2 bombers.
“I have no doubt there has been a lot of contingency planning,” Grant said. “If it doesn’t end with the strike, what next? We hear a lot of talk about [Tomahawks] but there is every possibility to see the B-2s used anyway.”
On the other hand, if the strikes against Syria go off as expected, it may shed light on how the US deals with adversarial, capable nations in the future.
“The kind of engagement we’re talking about — limited air and missile strikes — is exactly the kind of scenario we might anticipate more of in the future,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who served in a number of Pentagon roles. “Using our air power and space capabilities to punish an aggressor, someone who has done something that’s beyond the pale, I think this is very representative of the kinds of operations you may see in the future against states that have some advanced capabilities.”
That may be particularly true in the Asia-Pacific region, Gunzinger said.
“I don’t see where we would use a large ground force in the Pacific region in the near-term, except perhaps the defense of South Korea,” he said. “The trend is toward aerospace capabilities and naval capabilities to conduct these kinds of operations, assuming it’s a limited operation for limited objectives.”