The U.S. Navy has launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at a Syrian military airfield Thursday night, in retaliation for a Syrian chemical-weapons attack on its own civilians earlier this week. But make no mistake that this is a political move, not a decisive military one. Tomahawks are not the ideal weapon to do long-term damage to an airfield runway, like the one that launched the planes implicated in the chemical attack.
At approximately 8:40 p.m. EST (4:40 a.m local time) missiles from the USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) began striking Sharyat Air Base in central Syria. That’s the air base that sortied the warplanes that carried out the chemical attack—believed to be the nerve agent Sarin—which killed or wounded over 100 people in the city of Khan Sheikhun.
The gas attack came despite the work of the United Nations to make sure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had given them up entirely, which Assad claimed he did. Obviously, he did not.
The American military warned Russia in advance of the pending missile strike using the established deconfliction communication line, according to a Pentagon statement. The strike was designed to minimize potential casualties among Russian and Syrian forces who may have been present at the airfield.
At the same time, the American strikes avoided the ostensible object of their mission, the Sarin itself, to further minimize potential Russian casualties.
Targets at Sharyat Air Base, which is one of the largest and most active among the Syrian air force, included aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, fuel storage, radars, ammunition storage and air defense systems. But no mention of runways, which should have been targeted to deny use of the facility, even temporarily.
And that issue is primarily because the Tomahawk is not the right tool for the job. It’s a tool for plenty of jobs, sure, but it’s not a tool for every job. And it’s especially not a tool for what could knock an airfield out for a long time, which is runway destruction.
The Tomahawk, in service since the 1980s, is a long-range cruise missile, able to be launched from land, air, or sea from over 1,000 miles away. With its 1,000 pound explosive warhead, it’s effective at blowing things up like buildings (or in the case of the Tomahawk cluster bomb variant, people) from a far distance, without putting anyone from the attacking party in harm’s way.
But the problem with a runway—a vast, flat expanse of concrete—is that it’s pretty hard to render it inoperable for a long amount of time. Even if a Tomahawk directly impacted the runway, it would just make a big hole in the ground. And a hole in the ground is easily defeated by a few people with a bulldozer that can just fill it back up pretty quickly.
What you need to truly knock an airfield out of commission for a substantial amount of time is something like the French-made BLU-107 anti-runway penetration bomb, also known as the Matra Durandal. And the Durandal is very good at knocking a runway out, as GlobalSecurity.org explains:
Once the parachute-retarded low-level drop bomb attains a nose-down attitude, it fires a rocketbooster that penetrates the runway surface, and a delayed explosion buckles a portion of the runway. It can penetrate up to 40 centimeters of concrete, creating a 200 square meter crater causing damage more difficult to repair than the crater of a general-purpose bomb.
It not only creates a crater in the runway, it also completely messes up the concrete slabs of a runway themselves, which creates a much more painstaking repair process.
Since-retired weapons, like the British JP233, would also scatter land mines around the destroyed runway, making it hazardous for repair crews to even approach.
But these sorts of devices can’t be launched from a ship over 1,000 miles away. They need to be dropped from the air by a plane that gets in close.
That problem is a result of having no good military options available, other than to launch Tomahawks, that do not risk coming into direct confrontation with Russian military units stationed in Syria.
With advanced Russian aircraft and air defense systems present, there was absolutely no way America was going to deliver the type of ordnance required to put those runways out of service. JDAM bomb-equipped B-2 stealth bombers—of which the U.S. has only 20, and with “stealth” technology that might not actually be so stealthy anymore—would be an expensive and risky proposition to send in against the latest and greatest Russian air defense systems, especially if the intent were to actually knock the airfield out of commission and actually make a tangible statement. (And in that case, it would, unlike the Tomahawk strike.)
This time, the Russians outmaneuvered the West, and as a result Syrians are forced to cheer when foreign militaries bomb their own country in response to an atrocity committed by their own government.
How the Russians respond will be interesting. They arrived in Syria in the fall of 2015 to prop up the Assad regime, a longtime ally and have provided the military force to ensure Assad did not meet the same fate as another dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. The Russian mission is not altruistic, however, as Russia will greatly benefit from a stable Syria in its corner. Syria is a strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean, offering the use of Tartus naval base to Russian ships and Hmeimim Air Base is currently operated by the Russians. Plus, Russia has long sought a return to credibility in that region. Early Russian statements have labeled the cruise missile strike as “aggression against a sovereign country.”
The value of this attack will also be debated for some time. Targeting one airfield in Syria will not make that much of a difference. Even if the number of Syrian aircraft destroyed had been significant, the difference to the conflict will be minimal. At this point in the conflict, 59 Tomahawks are nothing more than a political statement, not a military one.
Russian media, of course, told a different story, as it often does. Sputnik described damage to the base as less than the U.S. claimed, and RT even disputed the number of missiles that actually struck.
The real significance of the U.S. missile attack is that for the first time since the Syrian Civil War began, the American military has directly confronted the Syrian military and government. Now, the Americans are fighting a third enemy within that county as the Syrian military joins ISIS and Al Qaeda as targets.
Three years ago, the consequence of American Tomahawks raining down on Syrian forces would have been much more important and substantial. Yes, the Tomahawk and its 1,000 pound warhead, or submunitions, have probably caused extensive damage to the Syrian airfield, but will it truly affect the Syrian government’s victimization of its citizens? More than likely it won’t.
More than 2,000 Tomahawk missiles have been fired in combat since 1991, with the most recent launch occurring last October when five Tomahawk missiles struck coastal radar sites in Yemen along the Red Sea which had been providing targeting information for attacks on U.S. Navy ships in the area. The Tomahawk, when used in most military scenarios, is a brutally effective weapon at doing certain things. However, when being used to send a message or provide a distraction, the Tomahawk does seem to lose its effectiveness, especially when the enemy was given a warning before the attack occurred.
As in the past, whether it be a collection of tents in Afghanistan, a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan or a retaliatory strike for a no-fly zone violation in Iraq, the Tomahawk cruise missile has become the punitive weapon of choice. It’s fired from a safe distance, risking no American lives, and presenting the appearance of someone doing something vital.
When you want to do nothing, but look like you are doing something, send a Tomahawk—or 59.
UPDATE: The airfield struck by the United States is already back in action:
Additional material from Mike Ballaban
Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.