August 29, 2013: Strategy Page
It appears than a NATO air campaign against Syria is imminent. The attack will apparently be led by the United States and the biggest risk here is the Syrian Air Defense system. While long touted as formidable, Israeli aircraft have attacked Syria five times this year without any loss. This was apparently accomplished by using long range missiles fired from Israeli warplanes outside of Syrian air space. This, it would appear, is what the U.S. is going to do, or certainly could do.
The U.S. has several long range guided bombs as well as cruise missiles for this sort of thing. The long range bombs include the JASSM and JSOW which are both basically GPS guided smart bombs. The original JDAM bomb kit (added to 500, 1,000 and 2,000 pound bombs) cost $26,000 each. The longer range JSOW (JDAM with wings and more powerful guidance system), cost $460,000 each. The even longer range JASSM cost $500,000 (the 400 kilometer version) to $930,000 (the 900 kilometer JASSM ER) each. Then there is the SDB (Small Diameter Bomb), a 130 kg (285 pound) JDAM that can also punch through concrete bunkers and other structures. These cost $75,000 each. The AGM-158 JASSM missiles are 1,045 kg (2,300 pound) weapons that are basically 455 kg (1,000 pound) JDAMS (GPS guided bombs) with a motor added. JASSM was designed to go after enemy air defense systems, or targets deep in heavily defended (against air attack) enemy territory. The reason for buying these is to have something to deal air defenses of a nation like China.
Then there is the 130 kg (285 pound) Small Diameter Bomb (SDB, also known as the GBU-39/B). These carry only 17 kg (38 pounds) of explosives, compared to 127 kg (280 pounds) in the 500 pound bomb. The SDB is basically an unpowered missile which can glide long distances. This makes the SDB even more compact, capable, and expensive (about $70,000 for SDB I and four times that for SDB II). The small wings allow the SDB to glide up to 70-80 kilometers (from high altitude). SDB also has a hard front end that can punch through nearly three meters (eight feet) of rock or concrete and a warhead that does less damage than the usual dumb bomb (explosives in a metal casing). The SDB is thus the next generation of smart bombs and the more compact design allows more to be carried. Thus F-15/16/18 type aircraft can carry 24 or more SDBs. The SDBs are carried on a special carriage which holds four of them. The carriage is mounted on a bomber just like a single larger (500, 1,000, or 2,000) pound bomb would be. However, this feature was rarely needed in combat situations. The most recent model, the SDB II, has an encrypted data link that enables the SDB to hit moving targets. This communications capability enables the SDB movement to be controlled via the air force's airborne Internet (Link 16).
Finally there’s the new Tomahawk. The RGM-109E Block IV Surface Ship Vertical Launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missile weighs 1.2 ton, is six meters (18 feet) long, has a range of 1,600 kilometers, getting there at a speed of 600-900 kilometers an hour, flying at an altitude of 17-32 meters (50-100 feet) and propelled by a jet engine generating only 600 pounds of thrust. Accuracy is on a par with JDAM (10 meters/ 31 feet). The Block IV Tomahawk can be reprogrammed in flight to hit another target and carries a vidcam to allow a missile to check on prospective targets. There’s also the new JMEW (Joint Multi-Effects Warhead System) warhead for the Tomahawk. This is a 450 kg (1,000 pound) warhead designed mainly for penetrating underground bunkers, but it will also provide excellent blast effect for less robust targets. Exact penetration was not revealed. JMEW uses laser terminal guidance, enabling it to hit within a few meters (ten feet) of its aiming point. JMEW can also hit moving targets.
Most major American and British (and several allied navies) warships are armed with Tomahawks. Many nuclear subs also have them. Four American Ohio class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) were converted to cruise missile submarines (SSGN) and entered service over the last seven years. One fired its missiles in combat for the first time two years ago off Libya. Each of these Ohio class boats carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles along with space for 66 commandos (usually SEALs) and their equipment.
Between the long range smart bombs and the cruise missiles the U.S. has the firepower to destroy the Syrian Air Force and air defenses within a few days (at most). Simultaneously the known chemical weapons storage sites can be hit along with the rocket and missile launchers that are used to deliver these chemical weapons. Targets, and damage, can be confirmed using satellite and high-altitude (above Syrian missile range) reconnaissance aircraft (like Global Hawks or U-2s).
Because of the Syrian threat (recently repeated) to launch missile attacks on Israel if air attacks are made on Syria there is a certain urgency to any attack plans. The U.S. might attempt an attack that would go after the Syrian “retaliation” capability first, then shut down the air force and air defenses and destroy remaining chemical weapons. Whatever the exact tactical plan is, the United States does have the resources to launch thousands of precision weapons against Syria without any American military personnel entering Syria. There’s not much Syria can do to defend against such an attack. Even the use of GPS jammers is problematic because many American GPS guided weapons are equipped with anti-jamming gear and even if that does not work there’s a backup (INS) guidance system which, while not as accurate as GPS, cannot be jammed. It’s not a good time to be in charge of defending Syrian air space.