After months of toeing the "red line" set by US president Obama regarding the use of chemical weapons against his own civilian population, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime has seemingly been caught killing more than 300 Syrian civilians and sickening over 1000 more in a suspected sarin nerve gas attack. The US has already considered its air strike options. There won't be an attack for now, but here's how the US could do it if the time comes.
How close are we?
Australia, France, Britain, Turkey and other NATO allies have already damned al-Assad's government as the sarin attack's perpetrators, with France last weekend demanding that UN inspectors be allowed immediate access to the alleged site of the attack. "The solution is obvious. There is a United Nations team on the ground, just a few kilometers away. It must very quickly be allowed to go to the site to carry out the necessary tests without hindrance," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Reuters last Saturday.
That independent UN team did receive access to the site — five days after sustained and heavy artillery shelling by pro-Assad forces — and came under sniper fire while there. And according to a CBS news report, the President Obama spent most of this past Saturday poring over evidence of the attack with his national security team, putting together "a near air-tight circumstantial case that the Syrian regime was behind it."
CBS News further explains:
There was no debate at the Saturday meeting that a military response is necessary. Obama ordered up legal justifications for a military strike, should he order one, outside of the United Nations Security Council. That process is well underway, and particular emphasis is being placed on alleged violations of the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
An external military intervention in Syria's two-year-plus civil war is coming, whether the Russians like it or not. Here's what America's role in an allied assault it will probably involve.
Between the Arab Spring uprisings, the saber-rattling of outgoing hardliner Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the chaos following the fall of Libyan and Egyptian tyrants, the Middle East has been an global military and political focal point for more than three years now. And wherever the US military casts its gaze, fleets of warships are bound to follow.
We've already got a sizable armada patrolling region in the Fifth and Sixth Fleets. The US Fifth Fleet, which is reportedly currently patrolling the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, includes two of our biggest, baddest carriers: USS Nimitz and USS Harry S. Truman. Each of these 300m, 106,000-tonne floating military bases is powered by a pair of Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors, giving them unlimited range and nearly limitless power.
These carriers are equipped with nominal defenses — basic electronic and torpedo countermeasures — and light offensive capabilities — a few Sea Sparrows and other miscellaneous missiles — namely because they're packed with roughly 90 heavily armed fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Each. That's not even including the swarms of support ships, destroyers, cruisers and submarines that make up a US Navy Carrier Strike Group.
The Fifth Fleet wouldn't even really need to travel into the Mediterranean to strike military targets in Syria. With the proper clearances from NATO allies like Jordan and Turkey, the Fifth could sit comfortably in the Red Sea and lob cruise missiles over allied airspace into the conflict zone.
The Sixth Fleet, on the other hand, is already currently on patrol in the Mediterranean. Interestingly, since the news of an impending strike broke, the DoD has been careful to specifically mention its four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers: the USS Mahan, USS Gravely, USS Barry and USS Ramage. Each of these 500-foot, integrated propulsion warships is stuffed with more than 90 Surface-to-Air missiles, ASROC anti-submarine missiles, and Tomahawk and Harpoon cruise missiles. They also sport two 5-inch guns, a pair of M242 Bushmaster autocannons, a host of Mk-50 torpedoes, and later builds carry a pair of MH-60R LAMPS III helicopters as well.
But the most devastating weapons of the Sixth Fleet are rarely seen — at least above the ocean's surface. The USS Florida and USS Georgia Ohio-class SSGN cruise missile submarines are no stranger to recent Mideast incursions. The Florida reportedly fired nearly a hundred cruise missiles during the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, decimating Libyan air defenses and paving the way for further NATO airstrikes. "Never before in the history of the United States of America has one ship conducted that much land attack strikes, conventionally, in one short time period," explained Rear Admiral Rick Breckenridge in a DoD press statement.
Each submarine is equipped with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles — that's over 300 total potentially pointing at al-Assad's forces in total from just these two ships. These $US1.4 million a pop guided missiles were developed from German V-1 technology, and have become a major component of the US arsenal. They are capable of delivering a large, 450kg warhead long distances with an exceedingly high degree of accuracy, often at high sub- to low supersonic speeds while following self-guided NOE routes.
Even more deadly than the Tomahawks is the contingent of Navy Seals deployed on these submarines. They can easily slip ashore (if they haven't already) aboard a mini-sub or fast-attack surface pontoons. Although, unlike their tactical invasion during the Second Iraq War, our SEALS won't be able to infiltrate Syria's well-developed and densely populated coastline nearly as easily, not to mention the political implications of putting troops on the ground. We're better off sending in the drones for recon duties instead.
And, yes, the Fifth and Sixth Fleets have drone capabilities. The US Navy already operates a pair of 737-sized Global Hawks, and there are unconfirmed reports that a few destroyers in the Fifth Fleet could be outfitted with Fire Scout assault drones as well.
The $US131 million Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is one of our biggest and best unmanned surveillance platforms. With a 40m wingspan and 33,806Nm Rolls-Royce F137-RR-100 turbofan engine, the Global Hawk can loiter at 18,000m for 28 hours at a time, capturing every detail of the battles below using its suite of synthetic aperture radar (SAR), EO, and IR sensors.
The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout, on the other hand, is an unmanned helicopter platform designed for lower-altitude ISR and land assault missions. The MQ-8B operates for up to eight hours with a 6000m service ceiling while scanning with its EO-IR sensor gimbal or hunting targets with its newly-deployed Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System aka laser-guided 70mm rockets.
I mean, if even the Coast Guard is getting Scan Eagles — the low-cost, 18kg catapult-launched surveillance craft Iran supposedly shot down last year — there's a good chance they're also being deployed to active combat areas. They may not be riding aboard the USS Florida or USS Georgia, but you can bet they're aboard the Seawolf-class USS Jimmy Carter.
This the third and final submarine in her class, the Jimmy Carter measures nearly 30m longer than her predecessors thanks to the installation of the Multi-Mission Platform (MMP). This platform allows for the launch and recovery of Navy SEAL mini-subs, underwater ROVs, mines and aerial surveillance drones.
Depending on how aggressively the international community intends to strike, the US could very easily escalate the attack from just cruise missiles to include fixed-wing aircraft as well — such as the US-based B-2 strategic bombers (we flew them to South Korea and back without stopping; they can reach Syria as well) and the B-1 bombers based at Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base.
"In such an operation, the United States would be able to carry out standoff attacks beyond the range of Syrian air defenses, while B-2 bombers could stealthily penetrate the Syrian integrated air defence network to drop bunker-busting bombs with minimal risk," an analysis by intelligence firm Statfor declares.
Standoff attacks would be carried out with the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), a semi-stealth missile with a 900kg warhead — twice the destructive power of a Tomahawk. These $US1.37 million, GPS-guided long-range cruise missiles built by Lockheed can be launched from any number of US aircraft including the B-2 Spirit, F-15E Strike Eagle, the F/A-18(E/F) Hornet and Super Hornets, and the new F-35 Lightning II. As for the bunker busters, well, who can forget the MOP?
As for the list of potential targets, there are many. According to reports from the Washington Free Beacon, Free Syrian Army Commander Salim Idris fingered the Al Mazzah Military Airport outside of Damascus as the launch site of the SAMs used in the chemical attack. Say goodbye to that airport. Other targets could include reputed chemical weapons storage facilities and artillery batteries.
The biggest question of all, of course, is whether this show of solidarity with the Syrian rebels will end reasonably peacefully, like Libya, quiet down for a bit before exploding in chaos again, like Egypt, or start World War III. We'll see in the coming days. [DoD, US Navy, US Navy, Medium, The Age, Gawker, NY Times, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, CBS News, Washington Free Beacon, CDC, LA Times]
Pictures: AP Images, Al Jazeera, Raytheon, US Department of Defense