The U.S. Air Force Prepared to Attack Syria Much Earlier Than We Thought
Spy planes searched for air defenses as personnel planned for strikes in early 2012
On Sept. 23 the U.S. Air Force launched the first wave of air strikes against Islamic militants in Syria. But the flying branch had prepared to attack the Middle Eastern nation two years before—and the regime in Damascus was the target.
The preparations for possible air strikes in 2012 were more extensive—and took place months earlier—than the public has been aware until now. War Is Boring obtained, via the Freedom of Information Act, an official Air Force history detailing the planning and reconnaissance.
By 2012, the Syrian civil war was already well on its way to becoming the brutal stalemate it is today. U.S. president Barack Obama was ready to attack Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, especially if his regime used chemical weapons.
“We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support efforts to protect the Syrian people, end the violence and ensure regional stability—including potential military options if necessary,” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told senators that March.
Dempsey’s comments were the first admission that the Pentagon was planning for another war in the region. But the Joint Chiefs had already issued a “Syria WARNORD”—a warning order—two months earlier in January, according to the heavily redacted historical document.
A warning order gives commanders advance notice of upcoming missions. This alert gives officers time to get their troops ready.
The Pentagon—and the Air Force, in particular—started planning for “Syria Instability” and a broad crisis in the “Levant/Syria” region, according to the annual history. Air Combat Command, which oversees the flying branch’s fighter jets and attack planes, was among the organizations to get the order.
At the time, the the flying branch already had F-15E fighter-bombers and F-22 stealth fighters at bases in Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The F-15E are still a go-to weapon in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
As the world has seen more recently, Washington’s bombers and drones could easily have rushed to the area, as well. High-tech B-2 bombers might have dropped special 30,000-pound bombs on Al Assad’s chemical stockpile while stealthy RQ-170 drones circled overhead.
And the Air Force’s spy planes appear to have actively aided in the preparations, too.
Between April and September 2012, RC-135U Combat Sents flew 45 separate patrols from airfields in Europe, as one table in the history details.
To be fair, we don’t know exactly where the Combat Sents flew. But the airliner-size spies scan for enemy radar activity—making them especially useful for mapping out a future air war. The aircraft could have collected information on Syria’s air defenses.
Similar RC-135V/W Rivet Joints, which scoop of enemy radio chatter, also flew dozens of missions from bases in the U.K. and Greece. As early as 2007, the Rivet Joints had been snooping on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, among other tasks.
Some of these large and high-flying spy planes could have flown near Syria’s borders, trying to pick up chatter from regime air-defense gunners. A Rivet Joint “usually has about a dozen linguists that listen to live tactical communications,” notes Tim Brown, a senior fellow with the military reference Website GlobalSecurity.org.
But the Pentagon was still so concerned about Damascus’ deadly surface-to-air arsenal that, two year later, it sent radar-evading F-22s and expendable cruise missiles against militant targets in close proximity to regime defenses. Some of the American jets in the following waves carried special weapons specifically for blowing up enemy radars.
The Air Force brass was worried about pilots being able to show the right “initiative” in such a hostile environment after years of flying in the benign air space over Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, the flying branch required aircrews to follow complex procedures to prevent civilian casualties in those countries.
“We have a couple generations of airmen who have never dropped a bomb or shot a bullet without getting elaborate permission,” said Lt. Gen. William Rew, the Air Combat Command’s number-two officer—this according to the official history.
“This will likely not be the case in … Syria or any other environment where our air operations would be contested,” Rew pointed out.
Air Combat Command provided regular updates on the Syria situation and the air-war planning well into August, the official history shows.
In the same time frame, there were cursory press reports, later confirmed, that the regime had gassed civilians and rebels. “There where be consequences, and you will be held accountable,” Obama warned the Syrian government at the end of 2012.
Despite all the preparations, the Pentagon never launched the attacks it spent months planning. Al Assad eventually agreed to hand over his chemical caches and Washington’s threat faded.
Today America is bombing Syria, but with an entirely different goal. The attacks are meant to push back Sunni militants threatening the whole region, including the Syrian regime.
“Yes, Assad derives some benefit [from the air raids],” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was forced to admit in October.