May 06, 2013

Israeli Bombs and American Qualms: Assessing Syria

The recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria, through which the
Israeli Air Force appears to target weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah, provoked
an important debate among those concerned about a U.S. military intervention in
Syria. Given the prominence of concerns about the requirements of establishing
air superiority over Syria not simply from civilians such as myself, but from
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the IAF’s successful raids prompt us to
recant some of our skepticism?

CFR’s Steven Cook recently wondered why there
was such contrast
between a reluctant U.S. military and a daring Israeli
one, asking:

does it seem that Israel’s air force can penetrate Syria’s alleged superior air
defense network at will and with impunity, but whenever the idea of using
American and allied air forces to help the rebellion comes up, the Syrians are
10 feet tall?

Undoubtedly some commentary and analysis has exaggerated the
Syrian air defenses. While dense and certainly more modern and comprehensive
than Libya’s relatively dilapidated Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), they
are hardly insurmountable. However, simply because something is operationally
feasible does not make it strategically wise. Strategy is not simply the sum of
tactical possibilities. What matters, when assessing Syria’s military is what kind
of costs and obstacles it poses for the objectives we want to undertake. Can
our tactical and operational capabilities deliver us strategic results in
proportion with the risks and costs?

Before I begin, I would like to note that Cook is absolutely
correct that there’s no reason to exclude him from the conversation simply
because he does not have military experience or a background in strategic
studies or related technical knowledge. However,
I do think civilians such as myself writing about the feasibility of military
operations do have some obligation to engage thoroughly with discussions about
. If we’re interested in answering why the Israelis conduct
raids with impunity but the U.S. is worried about imposing an NFZ, we need to
thoroughly examine the numerous military considerations and not simply
questions about political willpower. Cook believes arguments such as mine and
MIT PhD candidate Brian Haggerty’s boil down to five contentions, the first
four of which he finds  unconvincing “in
whole or in part.”

1)  Israel’s
brief incursions are different from the sustained campaign the United
States—and presumably allies—would have to undertake to establish a no-fly zone
(NFZ) in Syria.

2) Israel’s missions have been on the “periphery” of Syria and
have never had to contend with the dense network of air defenses  in and
around major population centers.

3) The Assad regime has placed air defenses within population
centers, putting both Syrian civilians and American aviators at risk during any
air campaign.

4) Intervention in Syria would be costly and detract from the
U.S. military’s ability to conduct operations in other areas.

5) Syria is complicated and military intervention may not help the
situation; in fact, it might make the situation for Syrians a good deal worse.

Cook’s objection to the first is that just because the U.S.’s imposition
of an NFZ would be more complex and comprehensive than Israeli raids in 2003 on
Islamic Jihad, 2007 on the Deir ez-Zor nuclear facility, and the three
airstrikes since the beginning of the Syrian civil war (as well as he 2003 and
2006 overflights of Assad palaces), “does not mean the United States should not
or cannot prevent Assad’s forces from flying.” That is true, but
examining how different these operations would be is necessary to understand
why Israeli strikes should not change the calculus of an NFZ.

First, let’s address the nature of the recent Israeli strikes. Several
sources report that the attack targeting Syrian surface-to-surface missiles,
possibly destined for Hezbollah,
came from munitions launched over Lebanese airspace
. The January attack on
a shipment of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) came from aircraft traveling
over Lebanese airspace, although they may have briefly penetrated Syria. The
most recent attack, supposedly conducted with “rockets,” likely used a similar
model of avoiding or only briefly penetrating Syrian airspace, particularly if the
IAF used an air-to-surface missile such as the Popeye (although “lofting” guided
bombs could achieve similar results).

The point here is that the IAF is engaging ground targets with stand-off
weaponry. Because they have extremely limited target sets located near the
fringes of Syrian airspace, Israel can target them without the need to destroy
Syrian air defenses, let alone achieve persistent air superiority. This relates
to Cook’s refutation of the second generic talking point about Israeli air
strikes, that they were at the “periphery.” As Cook rightly points out, Latakia
is not at the periphery of Syrian air defense capability. Israeli over-flights
of Assad’s summer residence, however, were conducted at extremely low altitude
and supersonic speeds, and because Latakia is on the coast, Israel could
conduct most of the operation from international airspace with the brief
exception of over-flying the palace itself, significantly reducing the window
of practical and political vulnerability to Syrian air defenses. As for the
Israeli airstrike in Deir ez-Zor, like all these other raids, its goal was to
minimize windows of vulnerability through an extremely limited target set,
minimal sorties at high speed and low altitude, in addition to the relatively
novel and extensive use of electronic warfare and computer network attacks to
temporarily blind or misdirect Syrian radar in the area.

The problem is, none of these
techniques apply to the essential conduct of a NFZ – patrols to establish and
maintain control of Syrian airspace You cannot create a
persistent NFZ through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these
raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air
combat. NFZs, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite. You want your
aircraft to spend as much time as practically possible over the airspace you
are patrolling in order to deny enemy aircraft windows of opportunity to operate. This
renders your aircraft vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, which
is why destroying hostile IADS, commonly referred to as suppression of enemy
air defense (or SEAD) is such a vital prerequisite to NFZs (and would involve, as in many other cases, massive amounts of standoff fire and more direct attacks by specialized SEAD strike aircraft).

Rather than comparing Israel
skirting around the task of SEAD, or using temporary SEAD techniques such as EW
and computer network operations, to a Syrian NFZ, it would be better to examine
Israel’s Operation Mole Cricket 19. During the 1982 Lebanon War, Israeli air
operations faced Syrian forward deployment of SAM sites in the Bekaa Valley and
along the Syrian border. In order to establish air superiority (in this case to
facilitate air support to Israeli ground forces), Israel launched an ambitious
operation, involving roughly one hundred aircraft, extensive use of
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and remotely-piloted
aircraft to engage seventeen out of the nineteen SAM targets and hundreds of
Syrian aircraft. While the raid was a brilliant demonstration of effective
SEAD and air-to-air combat, it also highlights precisely why even an extremely successful SEAD
operation is an onerous undertaking compared to the raid operations that seek to avoid it entirely.

According to estimates, SEAD operations destroyed
52 of 70 air defense targets in Bosnia and 33 of 35 air defense targets in
Operations Northern and Southern Watch
over Iraq. As in Mole Cricket 19,
achieving air superiority over a conflict zone requires comprehensive SEAD, and
even then, these operations often fail to break the will of enemy air defenses.
Within months of Mole Cricket 19, Syrian batteries targeted and fired upon U.S.
reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, provoking an airstrike that saw two U.S. planes downed.
Even more directly, Iraq continued throughout years of U.S. NFZs over northern
and southern Iraq to provoke or attempt to engage U.S. aircraft, and even
rebuilt damaged sites. In the Kosovo War, U.S. SEAD efforts met continual
challenge from Serbian forces despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority.

Avoiding the problem of
destroying Syrian air defenses by trying to use shoot-and-scoot raids with the
assistance of electronic warfare is utterly impractical for enforcing a
comprehensive NFZ. Electronic warfare aircraft are not easy to come by and
could not maintain the sortie generation ratio necessary to protect combat air
patrols over Syria indefinitely, so short of a massive SEAD operation, a U.S.
NFZ is simply not going to happen. Even dilapidated air defense systems must be
thoroughly reduced in order for the U.S. to maintain effective air coverage to deny
Syrian airspace.

Now, Cook argues that because
the U.S. has the operational capability to impose an NFZ on Syria, the only
relevant issue is whether or not a NFZ would improve the situation or not. It seems clear, however, that the scale of costs should influence what degree of prospective improvement justifies action. The U.S., as the strongest military power on earth, has the capability
to undertake military operations of enormous scale. The question that a
strategist must ask is whether or not the U.S. can realize such an operation in a way that improves the situation in Syria,
but whether that improvement, and its advancement of American policy goals, is commensurate
with the costs of the operation itself

In this sense, it actually
matters an immense deal that Israeli airstrikes require only a handful of jets,
but a SEAD effort in Syria would require
perhaps around six times as many aircraft as did NATO operations in Libya
. It
matters quite a lot that few of the tricks the Israelis used to conduct their
raids will allow us to avoid the major task of what will likely be a long and
onerous campaign. Here, Cook’s dismissal of the fourth contention, that a
Syrian NFZ could seriously distract from other fronts, rings especially hollow:
“the last time I checked, the U.S. armed forces
were designed to fight on multiple fronts.”

Yes, and it is wise to limit
to that multiplier, especially when the wear of a decade of war and fiscal
constraints on deployments, operations, and maintenance come into consideration.
The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has security considerations
in the Persian Gulf vastly more central to its interests than what is occurring
in Syria. America has security guarantees of far greater gravity and value to
South Korea and Japan. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Mark Welsh, remarked,
deploying, say, the F-22 to Syria could detract from “a
concern in the Pacific somewhere, there aren’t many airplanes. In this
business, quantity does have a quality all its own.”
(An infamous
RAND briefing
on the dynamics of U.S. air combat in the Pacific reached a
very similar conclusion.) Much the
same could be said about electronic warfare aircraft such as the B-2, EA-18G
Growler, ISR aircraft, along standoff precision-guided munitions, which take
part in everything from deterrence
missions in Korea
to intercepting
and disrupting insurgent communications
in Afghanistan. The cost a NFZ
imposes on the U.S. increases as it drags on and imposes further constraints on
redeployments and lag-times for combat readiness in other theaters.

That the U.S. capability to
impose an NFZ in Syria would require hundreds of aircraft and  thousands of precision guided munitions that its
air defense capabilities, then, deserves much more emphasis than the fact that
the Israelis were able to execute a completely different and more limited
mission set without such a commitment. 
While Syria’s air defenses could not indefinitely hold off the USAF,
USN, or IAF in a pitched battle, that they can still challenge the air forces  such as Turkey’s, and that its smaller allies
lack the ability to scale up their deployments from their performance in Libya will
mean the U.S. will face poor prospects for mitigating or spreading the costs of
its operations with its allies. Do any of these considerations make an NFZ
impossible? No, but these operational considerations complicate the answer
enough that simply saying we have the capability to impose a NFZ on Syria is
woefully insufficient for analyzing an intervention’s practicality and

I personally agree with Cook
about the third concern in the abstract – civilian casualties from U.S. strikes
are an inevitable outcome of imposing an NFZ in virtually any situation, and
must be weighed against the danger of Assad’s air force. That said, it does
matter that U.S. forces would be in danger of inflicting larger numbers of
civilian casualties if a Syrian NFZ expanded to a bombing campaign against
regime ground forces as the campaign in Libya did almost immediately (Cook does
not make this argument in his post, but some proponents who want “safe zones,”
such as John McCain, have objectives that imply striking ground forces and not
simply aircraft). Given that Assad’s forces are greatly more numerous than
Gaddafi’s and engaging in overwhelmingly urban combat, and in an environment
where tactical intelligence for targeting purposes will
not likely be as forthcoming

Ultimately, Cook argues that
the only salient objection is whether “military intervention might not
attenuate the civil war or might make things worse and, I would add, the
American people do not want to become involved in another Middle Eastern
imbroglio.” Yet failing to weight the cost of exercising a capability
makes assessing the actual risks and benefits of a campaign impossible. For
example, interventions that provide minor or discrete but not decisive advancement
to our objectives in a conflict can often be very sensible if they require a
limited amount of force at low risk, but far more questionable when limited
gains come at massive expense even when the risk is low.

If anything, the Israeli
strikes provide a useful insight into everything a NFZ will not or cannot be.
The Israeli strikes aim at specific, identifiable direct threats to vital
Israeli interests and use the smallest force and lowest risk possible to
eliminate those threats. The Israelis may not be able to solve the problem of
potential arms transfers to Hezbollah writ large, but standoff strikes against
discrete targets do not tie down Israeli forces enough to make it a distracting

A NFZ, on the other hand, massive
amounts of aircraft and munitions in both standoff and air superiority roles to
even deliver the basic goal of grounding the Syrian air force. A Syrian NFZ
presents an even larger operation than the Libyan air campaign, and one that is
likely to be even less effective, especially if it is a pure NFZ that refrains
from the additional aircraft, munitions, and ground/intelligence efforts that
would be necessary to support a campaign to target the Syrian army. Syria’s mix
of ground forces and paramilitary groups appear far more combat effective than
their Libyan regime equivalents, and, even without air cover, would not be
operating at crippling loss without their air force (Syrian aircraft appear far
more competent at terror bombing than tight close-air support).

Whereas Israel can pick and
choose which targets to engage and which raids to forgo, a NFZ is an open-ended
commitment that requires a major aerial (and likely naval) presence until the
Syrian government capitulates. Even if the U.S. is operationally capable of
imposing such an outcome, it is entirely fair to argue the requirements of such
an operation would make such a minor improvement in the Syrian situation
insufficient to grant that capability a strategic logic. The operational
requirements of a NFZ are great and yet they only seem to ameliorate U.S.
concerns about Assad-rebel fighting, but provide only nebulous and indirect
ways of addressing other key concerns in the region. Syria’s military may be
puny on its own, but launching a massive operation for the sake of stripping
away one instrument in a civil war while the U.S. is limited in its fiscal
means and faced with far more direct challenges (if ones less immediately
violent) to its interests elsewhere merits scrutiny of the means required.
Large aerial operations against third world militaries were attractive and
appealing in the 1990s when the U.S. enjoyed greater flexibility and little
fatigue or fiscal trouble in its armed forces, policymakers must now make
harder choices.

The fifth objection that Cook
recognizes as legitimate – concerns about the efficacy or potential harmfulness
of intervention – is not independent of the other four. The requirements of
dismantling rather than evading Syrian air defenses and the opportunity costs
of expending those resources absolutely weigh upon whether an intervention’s
effect on a conflict makes for good strategy and policy. Through parsing why the
Israeli strikes are so different from U.S. operations, the disproportionate ratio of requirements to outcomes, the dubious clarity of objectives, murky parameters for action all become even more obvious in contrast.