Navy EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft can be used to suppress Syrian air defense systems. (Navy)
When Libya was embroiled in a civil war in 2011, NATO forces stepped in and, operating under the legal sanction of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, instituted a no-fly zone over the country. Though the goal of that intervention was to protect civilians and not institute regime change, the government of Muammar Qaddafi nevertheless fell seven month later.
Syria’s civilian population now faces an even worse humanitarian crisis than what the people of Libya had experienced. The death toll in Syria has surpassed 100,000, according to the U.N., and in the aftermath of a suspected chemical attack by the military on civilians, the U.S. is poised to strike the Syrian regime. However, this time around, there is no British ally, no Security Council resolution, and no call for a no-fly zone.
Accordingly, an attack on Syria will be brief, with limited targets: command and control centers, military headquarters and artillery units — maybe even aircraft on the ground. To support the kinetics, the U.S. can deploy electronic jamming aircraft, such as the EA-18G Growler and EC-130H Compass Call, and high-flying ISR systems. (Medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles might sit this one out.)
Operation Odyssey Dawn, the U.S.-led phase of NATO’s Libyan intervention, lasted only 12 days. In the first day or so, fighter jets, B-2 stealth bombers and cruise missiles had shattered most of Qaddafi’s fixed surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. The U.S. will likely take the same approach with Syria. Indeed, media reports put U.S. submarines and five guided-missile destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean.
Syrian leader Basher Assad has a more robust military than did Qaddafi, Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a May brief. Still, the Syrian network is a grab bag of Soviet-era SAMs, like the S-125 Pechora and S-75 Dvina, and more modern, short-range systems and shoulder-fired missiles — none of which has prevented the Israeli Air Force (IAF) from invading Syrian airspace multiple times this year.
Following the IAF strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007, some had speculated that the Israelis had hacked the Syrian radar network with an airborne cyberwarfare system akin to the U.S. Air Force’s Suter technology. Developed under the Big Safari program, Suter spoofs the processing element of the network and can even hijack the radar’s operation.
According to Richard Gasparre at the Air Force Technology news site, the takeover function of Suter has already been integrated on the EC-130H Compass Call aircraft. Compass Call is already designed to jam enemy radio signals and has been employed in Libya to degrade the regime’s command-and-control capabilities. Expect to see it in a Syrian campaign.
Along with Compass Call, the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft can be used to suppress enemy air defense systems — critical if a campaign includes manned strike aircraft as well as long-range cruise missiles. The Growler carries ALQ-99 tactical jamming pods, and despite the fact that a Government Accountability Office report has cited the pod for its “poor reliability” — the Next Generation Jammer will replace it in 2020 — ALQ-99 has held up against legacy systems.
Aside from air defense sites, the U.S. will likely strike a few other targets: some command-and-control centers, intelligence and military headquarters, and possibly the artillery unit that allegedly fired chemical weapons (but not the chemical weapon stockpiles themselves, so as not to disperse the agents). Finally, parked Syrian aircraft may also be hit to limit future government attacks on civilians.
MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft operate pretty freely in the uncontested skies above Afghanistan. However, Syria won’t be as hospitable an environment in the first few days of a campaign, so depending on how long the it runs, medium-altitude UAS might not be employed. Remember, Predators did not fly in Libya until Operation Unified Protector, the follow-on phase of Odyssey Dawn, began.
Likewise, given the strong radical Islamic contingent among the Syrian rebels, it would seem extremely risky to have CIA agents on the ground directing air strikes. (Training friendly rebels in Turkey and Jordan is another story.) That leaves high-flying aircraft, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS, the manned U-2 spy plane and and E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, which saw service in Libya, to provide supporting ISR in Syria.
All in all, the limited political options afforded to the U.S. means that an operation against Syria will likely be brief and conducted from a standoff range — and that will be reflected in the C4ISR assets used.