This is not a political blog but I do occasionally touch on politics as they directly impact naval matters. Such is the case for today’s post. I’m going to examine a limited political aspect of the recent Syrian strike and how it relates to the Navy.
The obvious question is, why was the strike conducted? What was the purpose of the strike?
The strike apparently did a significant amount of damage to the airfield but did not completely destroy it nor did it attempt to. Hangars, some aircraft, and peripheral buildings were damaged or destroyed. The runways, the chemical weapons storage (I’m accepting the chemical weapons claims by the President at face value for the purpose of this discussion), and other vital facilities were left untouched. In other words, the strike was a half-hearted effort at attacking the airfield. It could just as easily have been a full fledged destruction with no more effort than the launch of some more missiles.
It seems clear, then, that the attack was meant as a message rather than serious retaliation or, more reasonably, an attack to eliminate the threat of chemical weapons. The message, presumably, was a warning not to use chemical weapons again and the strike itself was intended to prove that the
would take military action if it happens again. The
significant aspect of the strike was that the chemical weapons were left
untouched and intact, ready to be used again. US
Given that the strike was a message, what was the point? We’ve delivered many messages over the last few years, we’ve warned
about chemical weapons repeatedly. We’ve drawn red lines in the sand and then
watched while they were ignored. Is one
more warning going to somehow make a difference? It seems to me that we’re long past the point
of warnings. It’s time to either shut up
or take effective action. Syria
The disturbing aspect of this entire incident is that the
clearly knew about the existence and location of the
chemical weapons long before they were used.
In the Pentagon’s description of the Tomahawk strike, they specifically
mention that the chemical storage facility was not targeted. That means that they knew of its existence
and location. This raises an ugly question: if we knew that chemical weapons existed and
were in the hands of a madman who had used them [reportedly] multiple times in
the past, why didn’t we take action to destroy the weapons before they could be
could have exposed the weapon’s existence on the international stage and put immense pressure on US to explain why they didn’t remove and destroy the chemicals as they promised to do and claimed they did. This would have been a major embarrassment for Russia . Russia
could have conducted a Tomahawk strike at any time to destroy the weapons. The airfield is in an isolated location and release of the chemicals would have had little or no effect other than, perhaps, on some Syrian troops which we not shed any tears over. In fact, it is quite likely that a fuel-air explosive or some similar weapon could have destroyed the chemicals with no release. I’m not an explosives/chemistry expert so I’ll leave that one to those who are but I note that the disposal method for the chemicals is incineration which is exactly what certain bomb types do. US
could have conducted a raid to seize and secure the chemical weapons. The airfield was isolated and minimally manned according to the Pentagon with reports of 12-100 personnel on site. This is exactly the kind of action that the vaunted Marine MEU/MAGTF/SPMAGTF/whatever should be able to execute. US
could have conducted covert destruction of the chemical weapons by SEAL forces. Again, the airfield was an ideal target for this type of action, being isolated and lightly manned. US
- The airfield and weapons could have been seized by the Army which has units dedicated to airfield seizure.
So, there were a number of options to have dealt with the existence of the chemical weapons prior to their use. Instead, we waited until they were actually used. If we were that horrified by their use why didn’t we take proactive action? Seriously and cynically, how outraged are we, really, if we didn’t bother to take any action prior to the weapon’s usage?
At this point, we also have to note that the bulk of responsibility for all of this lies with former President Obama. President Trump has simply not been in office long enough to have had much chance to deal with this.
In summary, we could have acted preemptively but opted, instead, to wait until the weapons were actually used and then we sent a message via Tomahawk. If we are so horrified by chemical weapons use, why didn’t our message include the destruction of the chemicals? Instead, the chemicals still exist and can be used yet again. What will we do then? Send another message? This is hypocritical on our part. By all accounts, the worst that could have happened if we had destroyed the chemical weapons would have been exposure of a small number of Syrian and Russian troops – the very troops responsible for using the chemicals. Do we really care if the troops using chemical weapons are exposed to the chemicals? Sounds kind of fitting to me.
Clearly, we were okay with the existence of chemical weapons in the hands of a madman. We didn’t care enough about the people who were attacked by chemicals to take any preemptive action. I’m not going to express an opinion about whether we should or should not have taken action but to claim to be horrified by something we knew was eventually going to happen, and could have prevented, is completely hypocritical.
The selection of Navy Tomahawks as the strike weapon was, no doubt, from a desire to avoid the possibility of downed and captured pilots. However, I suspect that it was also due to a lack of options. While the various Marine and Army units/capabilities that I cited as options theoretically exist, I strongly suspect that we have allowed our forces to degrade and become hollow to the point that their use is not really a viable option. I'm pretty sure that none of the optional forces have been aggressively training and equipping for their assigned roles. Note, this is just reasonably informed speculation on my part but, if true, leads to the obvious question, what's the point of maintaining the units if they aren't fully mission capable?
The Navy has been put in the position of delivering the hypocritical message and possibly suffering the backlash, if any materializes. This is an ill use of the Navy in pursuit of a hypocritical and only marginally effective policy.