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.
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 US 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.
Given that the strike was a
message, what was the point? We’ve
delivered many messages over the last few years, we’ve warned Syria 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.
The disturbing aspect of
this entire incident is that the US 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
- The US could have exposed the weapon’s existence on
the international stage and put immense pressure on Russia 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.
- The US 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.
- The 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.
- The 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.
- 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
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
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.