The legal basis for the establishment of a no-fly zone over northern and northwestern Syria is no longer a matter for discussion. Yesterday’s deliberate attack by a Syrian fighter-bomber on a civilian neighborhood in Aleppo underscored the reality that the Assad regime is engaged in genocide. This is no different than what Slobodan Milosevic was doing in Kosovo in 1998 when NATO intervened and worse than the violence Gaddafi was engaged in when the Alliance became involved in Libya last year. What is different, apparently, is the courage of the man in the Oval Office who declared in May 2011 that “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
What has NATO and the Obama Administration deterred from acting to protect the innocent millions in Syria is not the risk of a wider conflict or that Al Qaeda may come to power in a post-Assad Syria. That risk was just as real in Libya. The problem is Syria’s air defenses. The Assad regime has one of the more formidable air defense systems in the world, actually better than that which the U.S. faced in 1991 and 2003 over Iraq. The Syrian Air Defense Forces consist of some twenty-five air defense brigades, each with six surface-to-air (SAM) batteries. Overall it deploys some 650 fixed, long-range surface-to-air missile launchers (SA-2, SA-3 and SA-5), 250 mobile low-to-medium altitude SAM launchers (SA-6, SA-8, SA-10 and SA-11) and 4, 000 pieces of anti-aircraft artillery. There are also 12 batteries of the advanced, mobile, SA-22, the missile that shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet over the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, the Syrian Air Force can put into the air about 400 interceptor aircraft. Most of this defensive capability is deployed to guard western and northwestern Syria, precisely where the international community would want a no-fly zone.
Creating a no-fly zone over the contested portion of Syria would mean destroying the bulk of these air defenses, shooting down hundreds of Syrian fighters and striking many dozen other targets such as radar installation, command and control centers and airfields. It would require an intense aerial campaign along the lines of the air war that preceded Desert Storm. NATO would need air bases close to Syria and over flight rights from a number of countries.
There is no question that the United States and its allies have the capabilities to do what would be necessary to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. Israel penetrated these same defenses when it destroyed the al-Kibar nuclear weapons site in 2007. The combination of sea and air-launched cruise missiles, B-2s with precision weapons, carrier-based F/A-18s and EA-18 Growlers, and Air Force F-15s and F-16s would devastate the Syrian air defense forces. But it would not be easy, quick or without costs.
The problem posed by Syria’s air defenses today are a harbinger of a more severe strategic challenge on the horizon. This is the so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat. A2/AD encompasses a broad array of capabilities and activities that prospective adversaries could employ to deny the U.S. the ability to concentrate forces against them and operate in their air, sea and land spaces. The Syrian air defense system is an example of an early form of A2/AD. Most of Syria’s SAM systems and fighter aircraft are older equipment, designed and even built by the now defunct Soviet Union. Even then, the more modern systems such as the SA-10 and SA-22 would pose a serious threat to U.S. and NATO aircraft. In addition, Syria could use its large arsenal of theater ballistic missiles to strike at NATO airfields in nearby countries.
Future A2/AD challenges are likely to be more stressing than that deployed by Syria today. Future adversaries are likely to have better radar and sensor systems (and more of them), more capable, longer range SAMs, fourth and even fifth-generation interceptor aircraft and improved command, control and communication capabilities. China is developing an integrated A2/AD capability that includes attack submarines with anti-ship cruise missiles, land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles, modern sea mines, high-performance SAMs and fifth-generation fighters. Other prospective adversaries are looking to acquire advanced defensive systems from Russia, China and even U.S. allies.
The challenge posed by Syria’s current air defenses is a powerful argument for continuing investments by the U.S. in advanced aircraft and weapons systems. First among these must be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a platform specifically designed to conduct air-to-ground operations in an intensive air defense environment. Another critical capability is the Next Generation Jammer which will replace existing electronic warfare systems on the Growler. A third are improved cruise missiles and advanced air-to-ground munitions. Another critical investment is next-generation, stealthy unmanned aerial systems such as the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system.