The Cost of a Syrian Intervention

August 22, 2012 3:52 PM - Updated: February 5, 2013 2:16 PM

A Libya-style military intervention in Syria could take up to six times as many combat aircraft as last year’s Operation Odyssey Dawn, according to a recent analysis from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.The analysis comes as calls are increasing to intervene in the escalating civil war in Syria.

USS Barry (DDG 52) fires Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011. U.S. Navy Photo
USS Barry (DDG 52) fires Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011. U.S. Navy Photo

When Odyssey Dawn began in March 2011, it appeared to hail a new model for military interventions. The relatively swift, painless and low-cost application of offshore and aerial power against a hostile regime to protect a rising hub of Libyan resistance in Benghazi began the military unraveling of the Gadhafi regime. Today, as Syria’s own civil war intensifies and officials such as Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman call for military action, might another aerial and offshore campaign effectively establish a haven for the Syrian opposition and topple the Syrian government?

Brian Haggerty, doctoral candidate at MIT, recently released an extensive open-source analysis of what an aerial campaign to suppress Syrian air defenses and establish a safe zone would entail. While the operation is feasible, mitigating its significant risks would require a major campaign—one requiring at least 191 strike aircraft, at least six times the number of comparable aircraft in the opening phase of Odyssey Dawn, and perhaps several times more bombers and cruise missiles.

Discerning the capability of Syria’s integrated air defense system (IADS) is critical to that question. American officials, such as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stress the sophistication of Syria’s IADS relative to other countries in the region and particularly in comparison with Libya. Syria has faced American air power before, while the embarrassments of Israel defeating of its air force in the 1982 Lebanon War and destroying a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 left it acutely aware of the need to deter and defeat hostile air power.

Nevertheless, analysts such as Sam O’Connor, of IHS Jane’s, have asserted that with adequate resources, America and its allies could effectively defeat Syrian IADS and achieve air superiority for follow-on operations. Those could include decapitation strikes to directly target Syrian leadership, or the establishment of safe zones to create buffers between cities and the Syrian military.

Libya’s IADS relied on obsolete or aging Soviet-era weapons clustered along the coastline. Enjoying warming Western ties early in the 21st century, Libya did not invest heavily in a capability for defending against modern air power. Syria, in contrast, has sought to extensively upgrade its IADS in recent years. Seeking to counter the Israeli air force and concerned with its tense border with Turkey or an American attack, Syria’s IADS features much deeper and denser coverage, with newer and more effective weapon systems.

MIT’s Haggerty identifies nearly 450 likely targets for a suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) campaign, including more than 20 C2 (command and control) and early warning facilities, 150 surface-to-air (SAM) sites, 205 aircraft shelters, and 32 additional airfield-related targets, as well as dozens of additional surface-to-surface or anti-ship missile targets that could threaten bases or ships in the theater. Libya had only 31 comparable SAM sites, some of which were already in rebel-controlled territory, and just five airfields required serious strikes, because some were under rebel control. Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) appear to offer an easy solution to initial SEAD needs, but limitations exist.

First, stocks of TLAMs are limited, particularly in the aftermath of the Libyan effort. By 19 March, the United States and U.K. had launched roughly 100 TLAMs from surface ships and submarines. Within a week, they launched another 100 strikes. With America launching the vast majority of those strikes, Raytheon recently received a contract for an additional 361 TLAMs to replenish Libya-depleted stocks and meet FY2012 needs. Secondly, TLAMs are not always sufficient for destroying hard targets such as aircraft shelters. As Haggerty notes, precision strikes from bombers—likely B-2s, but potentially also B-1Bs or B-52s if SAM suppression is adequate—will likely need to drop multiple precision-guided munitions to destroy Syria’s air force on the ground.

The increased need for TLAMs, strategic bombers, and aircraft specialized for electronic warfare and SEAD missions for these initial strikes alone are all likely to shift the burden onto American forces, relative to both Odyssey Dawn and Allied Force. Not only that, but follow-on strikes will require a significantly larger number of strike aircraft and may require deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier, a commitment unneeded for the Libyan operation.

Haggerty estimates more than 200 remaining targets for strike-aircraft sorties. Simply for delivering adequate munitions, at least 191 strike aircraft would participate, with about 105 additional support aircraft contributing to the air campaign. This lower bound number is roughly equivalent to Operation Allied Force over Kosovo, but neutralizing Syrian IADS will likely require higher numbers of sorties from electronic warfare (EW) aircraft and other specialized platforms.

By comparison, in Libya, the U.S. contributed ten F-15Es and eight F-16CJs to efforts associated with SEAD. NATO forces added an additional 28 F-16s, 11 F-18 variants from Canada and Spain, 8 Rafales, 4 Mirages, and 10 Tornados (including 2 Italian SEAD variants). Besides strike aircraft, the United States contributed three B-2s and two B-1 bombers. A NATO effort in Syria would clearly be a much larger effort, in terms of both strategic bombing, TLAM strikes, and strike aircraft. While it would be within the realm of possibility, complicating factors remain.

Although reporting likely exaggerated the degree of ordnance-stock depletion during Libya, the large number of sorties that smaller countries such as Denmark undertook will shift the burden onto larger air forces, such as the United States, U.K., and France. Mitigating that, fortunately, would be presumed Turkish participation in a Syrian air campaign, bringing to bear the world’s third-largest F-16 operator. That said, given the potential susceptibility of Turkish aircraft to insufficiently degraded Syrian IADS, the burden they can bear in initial strikes is unclear. While Turkey has a clear stake in Syria, the political will for participating in another aerial campaign is also questionable.

While European countries, especially France, were enthusiastic about intervention in Libya, for Syria there seems no comparable fervor. Even under the aegis of a NATO operation, it is unlikely Germany—sadly, given its advanced SEAD capabilities—would participate, and other countries, such as Britain, France, and Italy, may not be as forthcoming with their aerial support. Yet the Phase 1 of any air campaign in Syria—the reduction of its IADS—is likely to be a massive undertaking, significantly larger in scale than Libya, and in some ways more sophisticated in its technical challenges than the campaign in Kosovo.

Important questions remain, however. The ability of Phase 1 SEAD operations to clear the way for a broader campaign targeting the regime, enforcement of a “safe zone” against concentrated Syrian regime forces, or both, is partially dependent on the response of Syrian forces to initial SEAD efforts. In Libya, the regime had little in the way of mobile or semi-mobile SAMs, and even less cohesion or preparation for doing so. However, despite the inability of Libyans to respond to Odyssey Dawn’s overwhelming force, the will of the Libyan armed forces to resist remained unbroken.

Were Syria to judiciously disperse and delay use of its IADS, as Serbia did in 1999, it would severely limit Allied freedom of action. A persistent, dispersed, and mobile Syrian IADS capability would significantly complicate Allied attempts to enforce a no-fly zone, safe zone, or conduct other strikes against the regime. The threat of hidden or elusive SAMs would lower the rate of follow-on strike sorties and likely significantly increase the cost and potential casualties for the intervening force.

Several commentators, noting the efficacy of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes in U.S. counterterrorism, have suggested using them in lieu of a broader campaign, but past campaigns demonstrate SEAD’s essential role. While UAVs are nigh invulnerable against insurgent groups without antiaircraft weapons, against well-equipped government, this omnipotence evaporates. In 1999, the U.S. Air Force sent five MQ-1 Predators to Serbia, which shot three down. A fourth crashed. In Libya, Predator strikes only began in April, after SEAD operations. Because combat UAVs are more vulnerable to hostile attack than manned aircraft, SEAD is a vital prerequisite.

While Syria is hardly invincible, Haggerty’s analysis is a stark reminder of the requirements simply for clearing the way for any kind of military campaign. The United States and its allies make unfettered access to aerial battlespace an integral part of their military operations. Given the cost of fighting without assured IADS suppression and air superiority, they will need to spare no expense in resourcing and prosecuting a comprehensive SEAD campaign over Syria. Though not insurmountable, a sober reading of the military challenges and resources available to meet them suggest that a Syrian air campaign—if it is to be painless—will not come cheaply.

Daniel Trombly

Daniel Trombly

Daniel Trombly is an analyst and writer on international affairs and strategy. He blogs Slouching Toward Columbia.

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