During the 1991 Gulf War, the US Navy fired 288 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets all over Iraq. Fast forward to 2017, 26 years later, not less than 59 tomahawk missiles were fired at Iraq’s neighbour Syria. But the difference was, that instead of hitting targets all over Syria, they were all fired at a single unfortunate target. The circumstances and the way these missiles were used raised several eyebrows, and in this article by Defencyclopedia, we will examine the advantages, practicality, and drawbacks of using dozens of cruise missiles against a single target spread over a small area.
ATTACKING AIRBASES: THE IDEAL-STRATEGY
An airbase is a fortified military airport with multiple runways, aircraft hangars, hardened aircraft shelters and underground storage areas for stockpiling bombs, missiles, and fuel along with hundreds of personnel maintaining them. The cumulative value of all the equipment in the base will be worth billions of dollars even in the smallest of bases. Hence these bases will have multiple layers of defense ranging from Surface to Air Missiles and anti-aircraft guns to fighter jets on air defense duty.
The ideal strategy to attack such a location would be with cruise missiles as the first barrage, followed up by airstrikes using fighter jets which would drop cluster bombs, bunker busters anti-runway bombs in large numbers over the softened target. The initial cruise missile strike would involve targeting the early warning radars and the SAM batteries and the subsequent fighter jet raid would take out fortified hangars, runways and fuel/weapons storage facilities.
THE ATTACK ON THE SYRIAN AIRBASE
This attack on the al-Shayratair base in Homs province is said to be a response to the usage of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against the civilian population. The targets were the fighter planes that dropped those chemical weapons and its support facilities. The below video shows the Tomahawk missiles being launched from US Navy warships.
THE TOMAHAWK MISSILE
The Tomahawk is a long-range cruise missile which can be launched from a variety of platforms, including most ships and submarines of the US Navy. It is equipped with a 1000 lb warhead and the missile’s accurate guidance system allows it to be launched at specific targets and take them out without destroying the surrounding ones. It is typically used to eliminate air defense systems, command systems and other high-value assets. A tomahawk strike is followed up by airstrikes to inflict further damage on the softened target.
- The US Military had a direct line of communication before they launched the attack to ensure that no Russian personnel or aircraft were affected by the attack
- A total of 59 Tomahawk missiles were ripple-fired in quick succession from USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) at the al-Shayratair air base in Syria
- The base was home to Syrian Air Force MiG-23 and Su-22 fighters. It also served as a forward operating base for Russian Air Force attack helicopters.
- The base had fighter jets on the open tarmac and under reinforced concrete bunkers.
- No defensive anti-aircraft fire was reported from the Syrian air base
THE CLAIMS ON BOTH SIDES
Secondly, soon after the strike was carried out, the US Military was quick to claim that all 59 Tomahawks hit their targets accurately. This is however completely incorrect as no cruise missile has a 100% success rate. For this particular strike, Russia claims that only 23 Tomahawks hit the base and the rest missed or never made it to the target. This adds up to a success rate of 38%, which is again a ridiculous claim.
When Russia launched their Kh-101 cruise missiles last year, they were said to have a success rate of around 85%. The American Tomahawks launched during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had a success rate of around 80%.
- So, if we go by logic and performance history, we can safely assume an 80% success rate in this scenario as well, in which around 46 Tomahawks would have hit their targets.
- If we go by the law of averages and take an average of the US and Russian claims, then we can assume that 41 Tomahawk missiles hit their targets.
- If we want a far more accurate number, we can take a mean of the 2 averages and come to the conclusion that it was a total of around 44 Tomahawks which hit the target in a practical scenario.
NO OPPOSITION TO THE ATTACK
- There is something dodgy in the way the strike went ahead unopposed by the Russian and Syrian militaries.
- We have seen reports that recently, the Syrian military fired surface to air missiles at Israeli fighter jets which violated Syrian airspace. this shows that the Syrian military air defense is still alive and kicking.
Hence it is impossible that the strike went undetected by both Syrian and Russian radars in the region.
Since Russia has an interest in that air base, they would not have just allowed the attack to happen.
EARLY WARNING WAS AVAILABLE
- Since the missiles were launched from the US Navy destroyers off the coast of Syria, Russian warships would have definitely been monitoring any communications which would suggest an impending attack.
- They could also provide early warning of the missile launches for the Syrian and Russian air defenses to spring into action. But none of that happened and the strike went ahead unopposed.
- This lack of opposition shows that the Russians and Syrians had nothing much to lose since they had already vacated their important assets from the base.
- The airspace over Syria is pretty crowded with military jets as all major powers are vying for a chance to drop their bombs.
- When you fire 59 cruise missiles into a country like that, you need to inform the parties flying jets inside Syrian airspace in advance so that your Tomahawk doesn’t go and smash into a Russian Su-35 or an Israeli F-15.
- You need not inform anyone when the whole country is your target, but Syria is filled with targets, allies, and Russians.
- To avoid an incident such as a mid-air collision, the US government would have surely informed the Russians and Israelis in advance so that they can keep their planes grounded and out of harm’s way.
- This fact was later confirmed by the US govt that they had informed the Russians earlier so that they could evacuate any of their personnel from there.
- Any notice like this would be enough for the Russians to tip off the Syrian Air Force to vacate the target base by getting their planes airborne. In that case, any attack would not have had much effect.
THE S400 AIR DEFENCE SYSTEM
- The S400 air defense system did not engage the incoming missiles. This created a furore all over the internet and anti-Russian sites were quick to declare the system as a dud, stating that it wasn’t able to detect the Tomahawks, mush less engage them.
- But that is far from the truth as the S400 has been deployed at the Khmeimim Air Base for the protection of Russian and Syrian assets at that base.
- Even if that base itself was ever attacked by cruise missiles, it would be engaged by Pantsyr S1 and Su-30 fighter and not the S400 system, which would be reserved for longer range and higher value targets.
- Also, an S400 battery has around 36-48 ready to fire missiles and it wouldn’t be possible for it to intercept a barrage of incoming cruise missiles since it isn’t designed to do that economically unless equipped with the shorter range 9M96 missiles which are very unlikely.
THE DAMAGE CAUSED BY THE ATTACK
As per official reports, around 9 Syrian Air Force planes, fuel and ammunition depots, a radar station and a few more structures at the base were completely destroyed. The reinforced concrete hangars, runway and other parts of the base suffered minor damage and the base was up and running a few hours after the attack. Here is the post-attack footage from the IR camera of a Russian drone.
You may wonder why those 9 aircraft were even destroyed since the Russians were informed in advance and the Syrians could have easily evacuated all their aircraft by flying them away. But in every air base, there are a few aircraft which would have been undergoing maintenance and repairs with their engines and other critical parts removed. So, these few aircraft would not be airworthy at that time and it would not have been possible for the Syrians to fly them away.
Pictures show that a couple of aircraft in concrete bunkers were destroyed whereas the others were left untouched. This is again the result of a poorly executed attack because if the US had to make an impact, all those bunkers with the aircraft had to be busted. Just taking out a single bunker won’t do much at all.
- The strike using 90 million $ worth of cruise missiles was not the best way to disable an air base or deter the Syrian military from carrying out missions in the future.
- The US is more intent on creating headlines than making an actual difference.
- All 3 parties, USA, Russia, and Syria are engaging in questionable activities
- The Americans and Russians are wasting their time trying to outdo each other and make headlines instead of countering the actual terror threat in Syria.
- Unless a common solution is reached, Syria will turn into post-war Iraq (It’s almost there).
- Finally, always take American and Russian claims with a huge lump of salt. If they claim success, divide by 2 and if they claim failure, multiply by 2 and you get the actual figures.
If you enjoyed this article, do rate it below!