USS Barry launches a cruise missile at Libya in 2011. Navy photo

This Is How America Could Bombard Syria by Sea

Subs, ships, missiles & drones could lead the campaign

Smart cruise missiles blast into the air from secret, high-tech submarines submerged beneath the Mediterranean. Destroyers lob more of the multimillion-dollar robot missiles in another wave of attacks—all under the watchful gaze of ship-launched drones. Meanwhile nuclear-powered aircraft carriers take position to launch jet fighters laden with smart munitions of their own.

If the U.S. goes to war with Syria—one option reportedly on the table in the wake of alleged chemical attacks by Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad’s troops that claimed as many as 1,000 lives—a naval armada already forming in the Mediterranean and surrounding waters could lead the attack, heavily back by land-based air power.

There’s plenty of precedence for the naval gambit. The U.S.-supported intervention in Libya two years ago also began with submarine-launched missiles barrages bolstered by ship-based air raids. But unlike Libya, Syria possesses limited oceanfront amid some of the world’s tensest, densest and most militarized borders, deeply complicating the logistics of any American operation. Although vaunted for their flexibility, even naval forces could find Syria an extraordinarily difficult military problem.

As U.S. Pres. Barack Obama and his advisers continue mulling intervention, planners are hard at work. With all its complications, here’s how the sea-launched Syria intervention could go down.

USS Florida off Greece in May. Navy photo

Undersea missile arsenal

In the early 2000s the U.S. Navy took four old nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, removed their atomic rockets and transformed them into undersea arsenals, each packing up to 154 Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles that can be launched while the sub is still underwater.

These so-called “SSGN” submarines—two based on each U.S. coast—also carry Navy SEALS with their special mini-subs for infiltrating enemy coasts plus, it seems, small aerial drones. A mini-sub is visible on USS Florida’s back in the photo above.

It was Florida that opened up the Libya intervention two years ago, firing more than 90 cruise missiles to destroy dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses, clearing the way for NATO air strikes. “Never before in the history of the United States of America has one ship conducted that much land attack strikes, conventionally, in one short time period,” Rear Adm. Rick Breckenridge crowed.

As recently as this spring Florida was back in the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s patrol area, centered on the Mediterranean. The 560-foot vessel returned to her base in Georgia in June and her sister vessel USS Georgia apparently took her place on deployment. But then in July a Navy photograph depicted Florida departing base “for routine operations.” Meanwhile Georgia was last publicized patrolling the Indian Ocean.

In short, Georgia is within quick sailing distance of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, meaning she could be available to launch missiles against Syrian defenses. And if Florida is also being sent back to the Mediterranean, the Navy could have no fewer than 300 sub-launched Tomahawks lurking off the Syrian coast. And that’s not even counting other, smaller American submarines carrying smaller numbers of cruise missiles.

Their biggest problem could be space. Even close U.S. allies are uncomfortable allowing American missiles to fly over their territory en route to their targets: Saudi Arabia and Turkey both banned U.S. missile overflights in 2003. Red Sea firing positions would probably require Tomahawk missiles to fly over Jordan, necessitating that country’s permission.

By contrast, firing from the Med allows direct access to Syria. But with just 100 miles of coastline and more and more warships arriving, Syria’s waters could get real crowded real quick.

USS Barry fires her 5-inch gun in training. Navy photo


The U.S. Defense Department has specifically mentioned four vessels in connection with a possible assault on Syria—all of them 500-foot-long Arleigh Burke-class destroyers deployed with the Sixth Fleet. The USS Mahan, USS Gravely, USS Barry and USS Ramage, each packing a mix of 90 surface-to-air and cruises missiles, are all in the Med.

Barry fired cruise missiles at Libya in 2011.

But the Navy is by no means limited to those four surface warships. “The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. “That requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options, whatever option the president may choose.”

Indeed two of the Navy’s thousand-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are within a quick jaunt of Syria. The USS Nimitz and USS Harry S. Truman—each with around 70 jet fighters, support planes and helicopters plus several additional destroyers, cruisers and submarines—are both listed as being with the U.S. Fifth Fleet as of Aug. 23. The Fifth Fleet patrols the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Nimitz and Truman’s battle groups could, in theory, launch air and missile strikes from the Fifth Fleet area, again given overflight permission by Jordan or another allied country. The carriers likewise could pass through the Suez Canal into the Med for direct attacks. But a carrier group typically spreads out over hundreds of square miles. Packing into the Med, the flattops could run out of water fast.

A Navy Fire Scout drone. Navy photo

Eyes in the sky

The subs, destroyers and carrier-launched planes—the “shooters”—are the most visible facet of a possible attack on Syria, but hardly the most important. The Navy could also play a key role in gathering vital intelligence to support any intervention.

Navy SEALs, deployable from SSGNs and surface ships and by air, lately have gathered intelligence in hot spots including Somalia, but they could find Syria’s densely-populated, built-up coast a bit too crowded for quiet infiltration. Drones are probably a better choice for spotting targets.

The Navy has outfitted at least one of its submarines, the secretive USS Jimmy Carter, with aerial ‘bots—possibly the catapult-launched Scan Eagle model. The sailing branch also tested the 40-pound Scan Eagle aboard the SSGNs, although it’s not clear whether Florida and Georgia currently carry the camera-equipped flying robots.

Amphibious ships and destroyers definitely can carry Scan Eagles. And some American surface warships are also outfitted to support the Fire Scout drone helicopter, which can be armed with guided missiles. A Fire Scout based on the frigate USS Halyburton was shot down while scouting targets over Libya in 2011.

The Navy also maintains two giant Global Hawk spy drones in the Fifth Fleet. With the wingspan of a 737 airliner, a Global Hawk can fly at 60,000 feet, scanning the surface below with radar and cameras.

Admittedly, the U.S. Air Force possesses more and arguably better spy drones. When it comes to developing the intelligence for a possible Syria intervention, the Navy would certainly not act alone. By the same token, Navy strikes might only open routes for heavier and more sustained attacks by Air Force warplanes deployed on land in Jordan, Turkey or other allied countries.

But that’s not to say clearing the way would be easy in Syria’s crowded sea and air space.

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Next Story — To Beat China, the Navy Could Launch Tiny Spy Drones From Submarines
Currently Reading - To Beat China, the Navy Could Launch Tiny Spy Drones From Submarines

A U.S. submarine launches a cruise missile in a 2003 test. Navy photo

To Beat China, the Navy Could Launch Tiny Spy Drones From Submarines

Three-inch robot could spot targets for cruise missiles


One of the biggest problems with submarines is that they’re, well, submarines. Spending most of their time alone and underwater, there’s no easy way for subs to communicate with other forces to get the latest updates on the enemy’s location.

Undersea vessels’ stealth and firepower make them by far the most powerful warships for full-scale war. Solve the comms problem and they become even deadlier.

Hence the Navy’s new three-year science project. The Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS Against Mobile Targets program—a.k.a. “Awesum”—is developing a small Unmanned Aerial System that can be launched from below the waves and fly for up to an hour, spotting targets and relaying their coordinates back to the sub via a special radio signal aimed at the sub’s above-water mast.

Rear Adm. David Johnson, who oversees U.S. sub production, detailed Awesum in an October presentation in Virginia.

In testing until 2015, Awesum is meant to provide “target solution for over-the-horizon, third-party strike” in an “anti-access, area-denial environment,” according to Johnson.

Translated into English, that means the tiny robot should be able to sneak hundreds of miles through enemy air defenses and pinpoint the bad guys so that the submarine can take them out with cruise missiles. All without the sub breaking cover.

Awesum, a three-inch wide, cylindrical drone with a tiny battery-powered propeller and pop-out wings, is launched through the water and into the air via the same small tubes that subs use to deploy underwater noisemaker decoys. Flying for up to an hour, guided by GPS, the ‘bot beams back data to the launching vessel’s OE-538 radio mast, which the sub crew can poke just above the surface for short periods of time.

Navy art

According to Johnson, Awesum drones can be launched in succession along the same path to form a “daisy chain,” each tiny drone relaying radio signals from the one ahead of it in order to bend the datalink over the horizon back to the sub.

This stealthy targeting wasn’t possible before. For decades subs have carried long-range cruise missiles for destroying targets on land. But there was no elegant way for an undersea vessel to figure out where to aim the weapons.

A sub usually entered a war zone with targets’ coordinates pre-loaded. To get an update, an undersea boat had to spend vulnerable minutes with its mast above water, receiving large amounts of info from friendly ships, planes or satellites.

To remain hidden in enemy waters, subs need to be able to gather targeting data on their own—and discreetly.

The targeting problem has become more acute in recent years as Washington shifts its naval forces to the Pacific to confront an increasingly belligerent and heavily-armed China. Beijing’s sophisticated complex of mobile radars and long-range missiles form a kind of no-go zone for American ships and planes that extends a thousand miles or more from the Chinese coast.

Only submarines are stealthy enough to get close to these land-based defenses and take them out, clearing a way for other U.S. forces to attack. But to find these on-the-move Chinese defenders, subs need drones. Robots “will provide submarines a fully organic capability to detect, identify, precisely locate and quickly strike,” Owen Cote, a submarine expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a 2011 paper.

If Awesum works as advertised, the Navy could add them to its roughly 50 attack submarines starting in just a few years, transforming the subs into free-ranging cruise-missile strikers. And with bigger and better subs being planned, bigger and better sub-launched drones might not be far behind.

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Next Story — China Is Trying to Copy America’s Naval Radar Plane
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E-2 landing. Wikimedia Commons photo

China Is Trying to Copy America’s Naval Radar Plane

Taiwanese spies caught helping Beijing build E-2 clone


China’s building a second aircraft carrier—a bigger, more capable flattop to take over from Liaoning, a refurbished Russian vessel that Beijing is using to learn naval aviation fundamentals.

And the new carrier could have a powerful new radar plane, thanks to China’s efforts to copy—and steal—details of the America’s own E-2 Hawkeye early-warning aircraft.

In late October, authorities in Taipei revealed that a major in the Taiwanese air force—part of a ring of up to 20 turncoats—had been caught trying to sell technical data on the E-2 to Chinese agents. Taiwan operates six of the twin-engine E-2s, which feature a large rotating radar dish atop their fuselages for detecting ships and airplanes hundreds of miles away.

Taiwan flies its Hawkeyes from land, but the U.S. and French navies use their own E-2s aboard aircraft carriers. The Northrop Grumman-built radar planes are among the most important aircraft on a flattop. Crewed by “battle managers,” they spot targets and help plot courses for jet fighters and other planes.

Rugged, compact and optimized for short takeoffs and landings, the E-2 is ideal for shipboard use. But it requires a catapult to boost it off a carrier’s deck. China’s rebuilt first flattop Liaoning does not have a catapult and therefore cannot operate large, heavy planes like the Hawkeye. But the second carrier, currently under construction, does have a catapult—if a few blurry photos are any indication.

A “cat”-equipped second carrier could carry radar planes, giving its air wing many of the same capabilities that currently only the Americans and French possess. Chinese state industry has been hard at work on a basic airframe similar in layout to the E-2. The first photos appeared in 2011—and in 2012 a miniature Hawkeye-style plane was displayed incongruously on an official-looking scale model of Liaoning.


That JZY-01 radar plane prototype appeared in high-resolution photos in July 2012. But it was unclear then—and remains unclear today—what kinds of internal electronic systems are installed on the JZY-01. That Beijing is trying to acquire data on Taiwan’s E-2s seems to imply that the Chinese need that information to improve the JZY-01.

Taipei is still assessing how much information the spy ring gave away and how damaging it might be. To be sure, China’s theft of the E-2 specs is consistent with the country’s wide-ranging espionage campaign targeting Western warplane development. Chinese hackers stole data from Lockheed Martin related to that firm’s F-35 stealth fighter.

That information may have contributed to Beijing’s recent production of a new stealth fighter prototype.

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Next Story — Now We Know What the Navy’s Next Submarine Will Look Like
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U.S. Navy art

Now We Know What the Navy’s Next Submarine Will Look Like

Admiral reveals five possible future sub designs 


For several years now the U.S. Navy has been planning to replace older attack and cruise-missile submarines with an improved version of the cutting-edge Virginia-class undersea boat. And in late October, Adm. David Johnson, the sailing branch’s top sub-builder, finally unveiled the new vessel’s possible configurations during a conference in Virginia.

Options for the so-called “Block V” Virginias range from a nearly 480-foot-long behemoth to a simpler model that’s just 450 feet from bow to stern. But all five proposed designs are longer than today’s standard Virginias, which measure just 380 feet.

And for a good reason. The Block Vs—the Navy wants to build 10 of them between 2019 and 2023—are expected to include a structural plug, known as a “payload module,” inserted in the middle of the standard nuclear-powered Virginia design. The module is meant to accommodate four vertical tubes that open to the water and can be accessed from inside the ship.

These payload tubes could carry sea-launched robots, divers or—most significantly—seven Tomahawk cruise missiles apiece. Combined with the six-round tubes already installed in the bow of a standard Virginia, a fully missile-loaded module would boost a sub’s Tomahawk count to an impressive 40 missiles. Each maneuverable, GPS-guided Tomahawk can fly a thousand miles at low level and hit a target with pinpoint accuracy.

The Navy wants the missile-heavy Block V subs to replace the current fleet of four dedicated cruise-missile submarines. The SSGNs, as they’re known, were modified in the early 2000s from surplus “boomer” boats carrying nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Each SSGN packs up to 154 Tomahawks. In 2011 the USS Florida cruise-missile sub fired at least 90 Tomahawks at targets in Libya, clearing the way for follow-on attacks by warplanes.

The SSGNs are all already nearly 30 years old and will retire in the mid-2020s, resulting in a precipitous decline in the Navy’s overall cruise-missile capacity. A force of 10 Block V Virginias would make up for around half of the missile shortfall. Subsequent Block VI and Block VII submarines could restore the other half.

General Dynamics Electric Boat in Connecticut, the Navy’s main submarine-builder, sketched out a basic, 94-foot payload module a few years ago. Last year, amid worsening budget uncertainty, the module options ballooned to five.

The longest three—97, 91 and 88 feet—differ in their precise layout and the number of new bulkhead walls they add to the baseline Virginia design. But they all preserve the sub’s 34-foot-diameter outline, “allow[ing] the platform to perform within key performance parameters,” according to Electric Boat vice president John Holmander

Two shorter and simpler options with 70-foot module plugs include humps on the sub’s hull allowing for slightly taller and therefore more voluminous tubes. But this “turtleback” arrangement comes with “attendant hydrodynamic and potential acoustic problems, especially at the higher speeds,” retired Capt. Karl Hasslinger and John Pavlos wrote in the Navy’s official Undersea Warfare magazine.

It’s costing $500 million just to develop the Block V design. Today’s Virginias cost slightly more than $2 billion apiece to build—and with the Block V module that unit price could rise by hundreds of millions of dollars. Whichever Block V layout the Navy chooses in coming years, it won’t come cheap.

But new submarines are among the sailing branch’s top priorities—and rightly so. Stealthy and heavily armed, undersea boats are by far the most powerful warships for full-scale warfare. With their planned extensions and more missiles, the Block V subs could be the deadliest yet.

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Next Story — It Took 5,000 Years to Build Aleppo—And Two Years to Destroy It
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Juma Al Qassim photo

It Took 5,000 Years to Build Aleppo—And Two Years to Destroy It

Syrian civil war devastates ancient city


The city of Aleppo in northern Syria lies at the historical crossroads of the world’s greatest civilizations. Ruled in turn by the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks, Ottomans and Syrians, the city’s ancient center bears the imprint of each group. Its towers, churches and markets are architectural treasures.

Juma Al Qassim photo

But the Syrian civil war could erase everything. For two years Aleppo has been a battleground: rebels battling each other and the regime of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad plus Al Assad’s allies from Iran and Lebanon. “The old city witnessed some of the conflict’s most brutal destruction,” the Syrian government reported to the U.N.

Juma Al Qassim photo

Photographer Juma Al Qassim slipped into the ancient city in late October. He found destruction. But mostly he found silence—a once teeming historic city emptied of life.

Juma Al Qassim photo
Juma Al Qassim photo
Juma Al Qassim photo

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