Trump’s Cruise Missile Strike Could Be a Sign of Weakness
Don't rush to declare Tomahawk strikes a success
The Trump administration’s bombing of Syria’s Shayrat airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, in response to a Syrian chemical attack less than 72 hours before, is comparable to the Clinton administration’s heavy reliance on such weapons.
Clinton used the Tomahawks, along with air strikes, to reprimand Saddam for his violations of U.S.-imposed no-fly zones over Iraq and non-compliance with U.N. weapons inspections. Clinton also launched a similar barrage of these missiles against Baghdad in retaliation for an alleged Iraqi assassination attempt against his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, during his first year in office.
Then, as now, a policy which relies heavily on such weapons to punish adversaries is bound to have major shortcomings.
Take Operation Desert Strike as a prime example. When Saddam made an incursion into Kurdistan—in the middle of the Kurdish Civil War in the summer of 1996—U.S. aircraft did nothing to target his ground forces. Instead air and sea launched Tomahawks targeted the remnants of his air defense system in Iraq’s south, far from the actual battlefield in a rather futile retaliation—especially given Saddam’s reliance on ground forces to achieve his objectives.
To add insult to injury—in a manner reminiscent of the present reports that aircraft continued flying operations from Shayrat less than 24 hours after Trump’s massive Tomahawk bombardment—Iraq reportedly began rebuilding the Iraqi surface-to-air missiles Clinton’s Tomahawks had hit. This was after Saddam’s forces carried out a purge of Iraqi opposition members in Kurdistan and swiftly withdrew after completing their mission.
Above—the destroyer USS ‘Lagoon’ launches on Iraq in 1996. U.S. Navy photo. At top—Shayrat after Trump’s Tomahawk strike. DoD photo
“At first blush it appeared to be a great American victory, but on second thought it doesn’t seem very impressive at all,” political commentator Larry Sabato wrote at the time about the Desert Strike raids. “To the contrary, it’s looking more and more like Saddam Hussein won.”
“The apparent unwillingness of the United States to send its troops in harm’s way, but instead dispatch robotic munitions to do its bidding, did little to convince Saddam Hussein of a commitment to defend the Kurds,” Michael Russell Rip and James Hasik wrote in The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare.
Clinton had his own domestic reasons for relying on these pilotless flying bombs to confront Saddam. The American public were not overly concerned about U.S. engagement abroad when American troops did not have skin in the game.
A Kurdish member of the opposition to Saddam at that time—Najmaldin Karim, the current governor of Kirkuk—criticized reliance on pinprick air and missile strikes alone to contain Saddam. Referring to his profession as a physician Karim remarked that: “You don’t die by bleeding from a pinprick.”
Following the extensive use of air power to pulverize Iraq’s military and infrastructure in the 1991 Persian Gulf War scholar Elliot Cohen summed up how to employ modern air power to ensure it’s effective.
“American air power has a mystique that it is in America’s interest to retain,” he wrote. “When presidents use it, they should either hurl it with devastating lethality against a few targets (say, a full-scale meeting of an enemy war cabinet or senior-level military staff) or extensively enough to cause sharp and lasting pain to a military and a society.”
Trump’s attack, the launching of an enormous array of missiles at a single target, certainly wasn’t extensive. If it’s true that Syrian warplanes are continuing to operate from Shayrat then the raid failed to completely pulverize, or even severely disable, its sole target.
Mohammed Alloush, a senior Syrian opposition negotiator, supported Trump’s strike but bluntly said in a tweet that: “One airbase is not enough. There are 26 airbases that target civilians.”
Tomahawks are quite useful when used as part of a combined arms attack on an adversary. They are also useful for attacking targets deep – such as air defense systems—in enemy territory, where the risk of manned aircraft getting shot down is too high. The Obama administration used Tomahawks early in the campaign against Islamic State in Syria to hit the shady Khorasan group.
Assad, however, could violate Trump’s declared red-line on chemicals by using, say, mobile artillery guns in the future instead of a fixed base of operations. Then, as was the case with Saddam in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1996, Assad could frequently challenge Trump’s red-line while remaining elusive to targeted tit-for-tat retaliatory air or cruise missile strikes.
When Russia condemned Friday’s strike it declared it is freezing the “deconfliction line” with the United States to avoid aerial clashes. This comes at a time when risks of clashes between the two are already a serious risk with this line in place. According to the Washington Post, U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighters are back to flying above “stack” formations, using their powerful radars to “keep track of incoming aircraft and direct other coalition planes to shift out of the way of incoming Russian aircraft.”
If Assad never uses chemical weapons again, then the air strikes might turn out to be a success. But without careful coordination with the Russians, the White House may find it harder to enforce its red-line against Assad. This, coupled with the aforementioned reports about aircraft continuing to operate from Shayrat, may actually indicate weakness on the part of the Trump administration rather than the intended projection of unequivocal resolve and strength.