The United States launched a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base at Shayrat in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians during that country’s long civil war. What is unclear is if this strike was a one-off punitive raid or the beginning of a more elaborate air campaign to overthrow the Syrian regime. If the United States decides to escalate, then it will have to mount a campaign to defeat Syrian air defenses.
Here is a sample of some of the weapons that could be used.
Tomahawk Cruise Missile:
As we saw a few days ago, Tomahawk cruise missiles are often the weapons of choice when attacking heavily defended targets—especially when the United States does not want to risk the lives of it airmen. For the U.S. Navy, the Tomahawk—which has effective ranges between 900nm and 1350nm depending on the version—is its primary weapons for the first day of a conflict. Surface ships and submarines will launch waves of the cruise missiles to not only eliminate air defense and command and control facilities, but the missiles can also destroy strategically important targets. Indeed, most naval planners envision using waves of cruise missiles to roll-back enemy air defenses to create a corridor for its aviation assets to operate within.
Long range and stealthy, the B-2 strategic bomber is designed to penetrate into the densest air defenses to release its payload of precision-guided weapons. There are only 20 B-2s in the United States Air Force’s inventory, but the bombers are almost inevitably part of the first wave of any American air campaign. Like the cruise missiles, the B-2 is often to hit the most valuable targets inside the most heavily defended airspace. B-2s were in the first wave of both the Iraq and Libya campaigns—launching from the continental United States to hit their targets.
Stealthy, fast and high-flying, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor was originally designed to be an air superiority fighter. However, the Air Force realized during the Raptor’s prolonged development that it was an ideal weapons to defeat advanced Russian surface-to-air missile defenses that were starting to emerge during the 1990s and early 2000s. Thus, the jet was modified to give it a potent capability to defeat enemy surface-to-air missile defenses in addition to its air superiority capabilities. With the presence of advanced Russian-made air defenses and fighters such as the Su-35 in Syria, the Air Force would likely keep the Raptor in the air just in case.
Arleigh Burke-class Destroyers:
The U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are the backbone of the service’s battle fleet. Armed with 96 missile tubes which can be armed with a variety of weapons, the Burkes are multimission vessels that are not only capable of defending the high value capital ships such as aircraft carriers, but are also capable of striking at land-targets using Tomahawk cruise missiles. Indeed, it was USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) that conducted the recent raid on Syria.
While destroyers are capable of carrying cruise missiles, when surprise is necessary the U.S. Navy’s attack and guided missile submarines are the platform of choice to launch Tomahawks. During the Libya campaign in 2011, USS Florida (SSGN-728)—formerly a ballistic missile submarine—launched 93 cruise missiles at Gadhafi regime targets. Florida and the three other converted Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines can carry a total of 160 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Smaller attack submarines such as the Virginia-class can carry 12 Tomahawk in vertical launch tubes and a mix of 38 additional weapons in their torpedo tubes—some of which are cruise missiles. Eventually, the Block V Virginia-class submarines will have an extended hull that will enable to carry 40 Tomahawk missiles in their vertical launch tubes when those vessels are built.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.