The confirmation hearing for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey before the Senate Armed Services Committee was unusual for both its intensity and illumination. The General and members of the committee sparred over a number of issues including the Syrian civil war, the coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and what follows post 2014, sequestration, sexual assault in the military and the character of civil-military relations in the Obama Administration. The discussion became particularly heated when Senator John McCain pressed General Dempsey regarding his views on U.S. military intervention in Syria. In response to SASC Chairman Senator Carl Levin’s questions at the hearing, the JCS Chairman sent a letter that laid out five generic options ranging from train, advise and assist the Syrian rebels through ever-intensifying military operations up to the establishment of a buffer zone inside Syria. Senators McCain and Levin then sent a letter to General Dempsey with a series of very specific questions regarding the costs, risks and benefits of the military options for Syria.
The McCain/Levin letter asked a very interesting question. The Senators wanted to know “does the United States have the capacity, using stand-off weaponry that would not require destruction of Syria’s air defenses, to significantly diminish or limit the Assad regime’s ability to use air power, ballistic missiles and heavy artillery, particularly against areas of Syria under opposition control?” Among the options General Dempsey identified were two that focused on the use of airpower alone: conduct limited standoff strikes and establish a no-fly zone. Both of these would require the employment of hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, intelligence and electronic warfare enablers and aerial refueling tankers in a campaign to attack hundreds of targets. As the Chairman noted in his description of military options, any decision involving the deployment of U.S. ground forces would also require implementation of one or the other airpower option, if not both.
The Senators’ question goes to the heart of the current debate over the future of the U.S. military, in general, the utility of operational concepts such as AirSea battle and, ultimately, the role of airpower in future conflicts. For the past several years, Pentagon officials, military leaders and civilian defense experts have been warning of the growing problem posed by potential adversaries deploying so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. A key A2/AD threat is a capable air defense system. Syria has an extremely capable and dense air defense network, with more modern systems than those available to Iraq and Libya at the time the U.S. intervened in those countries. Syria has a contract with Russia to buy the advanced S-300 air defense missile system, a threat that U.S. aircraft has never had to face before.
So, the Senators want to know if the U.S. has the capability to defeat Syrian air defenses without having to destroy them, or what is known in military planning as rolling back the defenses. Such a capability would be significant both operationally and strategically. From an operational perspective, this would mean that the U.S. could conduct a more rapid, more limited and lower cost air campaign focused on the targets of interest, Syrian tactical air assets, armor, artillery and ballistic missiles. Strategically, such a capability would mean that the massive investment by potential adversaries such as Iran, North Korea and, let’s say it, China, has been for naught.
Unfortunately, at present, the Chairman may have to admit that the U.S. military lacks the capability that would allow him to answer the Senators’ question in the affirmative. Today, the U.S. is limited in its ability to fight around as distinct from against modern air defenses. There is the small fleet of B-2 bombers, less than 200 F-22s with limited air-to-ground capability and an inventory of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles that themselves will be vulnerable to air defense systems such as the S-300. In essence, the Chairman will have to admit that the only path to degradation of those Syrian military assets that are winning the civil war is through, not around, that country’s air defenses.
But the U.S. military has been working hard to develop just such a capability. The F-35, in particular, is designed precisely for the air-to-ground mission in a hostile air defense environment. With its stealth features, advanced sensors, onboard jamming capability and data networking, a force of F-35s will be able to maneuver around Syrian-type air defenses. Similarly, the most important feature of the Air Force’s planned long-range strike system is to be able to defeat future air defenses. When these platforms and the array of ships and submarines capable of firing cruise missiles are equipped with advanced munitions and supported by advanced electronic warfare systems such as the F-18 Growler equipped with the Next Generation Jammer, a future Chairman should be able to answer the Senators’ question in the affirmative.
Find Archived Articles: