If President Obama orders the strike on Syria that Congress is considering, the U.S. Navy will be at the forefront of a cruise missile attack that has the unusual objective of degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities without striking at the heart of the program.
The mission is among the most complex the U.S. military has launched in recent history because Syria will have had weeks to shield its most vulnerable targets from a widely anticipated volley of Tomahawk missiles launched from four Navy destroyers stationed on the eastern Mediterranean.
As lawmakers continue to discuss the scope and risks of a strike, military planners are fine-tuning a plan to blast dozens of targets that include air defense infrastructure, long-range missiles, rocket depots and airfields, according to defense officials and military analysts. With roughly three dozen Tomahawk missiles loaded onto each of the four destroyers, a U.S. strike could inflict significant damage on government forces, which remain capable, albeit weakened after a 2½-year-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The Pentagon said the goal of the operation is to dissuade Syrian President Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons, following an alleged sarin attack last month that U.S. officials say was carried out by the regime and killed more than 1,400 people.
The administration is not contemplating blasting suspected chemical weapons sites because doing so could unleash deadly chemicals into densely populated areas. While regime change is not the goal of the operation, U.S. officials recognize that if the strikes are successful, they could pave the way for rebel advances but they are billing them as mainly a punitive measure.
“If I were in the Syrian military right now, facing the prospects of U.S. military action … I think it would make me think twice about using chemical weapons again,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said this week.
The six air bases the Syrian government is currently using to carry out the bulk of its military operations and its roughly two dozen stationary radars are likely targets of cruise missile strikes, according to military analysts who have studied Syria’s armed forces. Military and intelligence headquarters could also be struck if the risk of civilian casualties is deemed low.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers last week that the strikes would likely hit Syrian long-range missile and rocket depots because the weapons can be used to protect — and deliver — chemical weapons.
Dempsey said the Assad regime has begun taking steps to shield its most vulnerable targets, in some instances moving prisoners to would-be targets. “Our intelligence is keeping up with that movement,” he said.
The advance warning poses significant challenges for military planners. But it is also degrading the Syrian military’s capabilities because Assad is likely dispersing troops and equipment, said former Navy planner Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
“The downside for Assad is that when he disperses forces, it’s more difficult to attack the rebels,” Harmer said.