What A Cruise Missile Attack On Syria Would Entail

If the United States were to launch an attack against Syria, how would the U.S. military do it, and what would be the target? Robert Siegel speaks with Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about one likely scenario — a cruise missile attack.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

No one in authority has said publicly for the record just what kind of airstrikes would be launched against Syria. But all of the off-the-record talk and the movement of warships in the Eastern Mediterranean indicate cruise missile strikes. And that raises several questions. How many cruise missiles make for a truly punitive, if limited, attack? What kind of targets would they likely be aimed at?

We're going to ask Michael Eisenstadt, who's director of military and security studies at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy now. Welcome to the program, Mr. Eisenstadt.

MICHAEL EISENSTADT: Good day.

SIEGEL: In 1993, when the U.S. punished the Iraqis for plotting an attempted assassination of former President George H. W. Bush, the U.S. said the Navy launched 23 Tomahawk missiles at Iraq. Five years later, when Iraq blocked weapons inspections, the U.S. and Britain staged airstrikes that involved 325 Tomahawks and another 90 heavier, air-launched cruise missiles. Where on that scale - from a couple of dozen to hundreds - do you think the strike against Syria will stand?

EISENSTADT: We're probably looking at toward the heavy end of that. We've got, right now, five destroyers off the coast of Syria. Each destroyer probably carries a few dozen of these cruise missiles. There is likely one or two submarines in addition there. Some of our submarines have up to 150 Tomahawks. So you're talking about anywhere from 200 to 400 Tomahawk missiles probably being launched if the forces in the Eastern Mediterranean remain at current levels.

SIEGEL: And are these the same Tomahawk missiles, essentially, that were used in the '90s, say?

EISENSTADT: Well, it's probably a mix. Some of them are probably the older type of Tomahawks that require targeting data to be put in before the strike. Some of them might include the newest Block IV version of the Tomahawk which can be updated in flight, and you can retarget it based on real-time intelligence.

The problem is, in order to do that, you need to either have people on the ground or reconnaissance aircraft flying over the targets, and it seems that the type of operation that the president has been talking about would preclude that option. So we're probably looking at the old Tomahawks.

In that case, it's possible that the information is several hours or maybe even a day or two old, and that raises all kinds of potential problems. The target may have moved by the time the Tomahawk gets there. Or even worse, they may have moved in civilians, and unwittingly, we might end up killing civilians.

SIEGEL: If the point here is, in some way, to punish Syria for the chemical weapons strike, and if the idea would be to deprive them of the capacity to launch another chemical weapons strike, what would be a logical set of targets to hit in that case?

EISENSTADT: My feeling, if you want to alter the risk calculus of the regime, you want to inflict casualties among senior personnel who are among the most loyal elements of the military, who are related to the senior civilian leadership of the regime. That will shake them up in a way that destroying air defenses or destroying aircraft or destroying artillery pieces will not.

And I would just go back in our history, Operation Desert Fox in 1998. We finally got it right in terms of our targeting. We hit elements of the Special Republican Guard, which were key to the survival of the regime, as well as units that were involved in concealing Saddam's WMD infrastructure. And that really shook up the regime. But the problem was Operation Desert Fox was a parting shot rather than an opening salvo. It really didn't have the impact it could have had. But that's the kind of operation you want to have because, actually...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

EISENSTADT: ...if you go in light at the outset, it's going to telegraph tentativeness.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, after 1998, those strikes, Operation Desert Fox, five years later, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and there were huge airstrikes to dismantle the very same systems, which...

EISENSTADT: Yes, yes.

SIEGEL: ...suggested perhaps the impact of all of those hundreds of cruise missiles wasn't all that lasting.

EISENSTADT: And that's always the danger of military engagement. The more you have invested in terms of your prestige and status and your credibility, the greater the motivation to remain engaged until you achieve your objective. And that's one of the dangers we have with getting involved here.

But the other danger is if we walk away and do nothing, it'll be a tremendous blow to our credibility, and it's possible that we could be facing crises with the Koreans and the Iranians and elsewhere as a result of our failure to make good on our word. So we're really, in a certain way, trapped here.

SIEGEL: Michael Eisenstadt, thank you very much for talking with us today.

EISENSTADT: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Michael Eisenstadt, director of military and security studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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