Did The 2018 Syrian Cruise Missile Strike Have Any Tangible Military Benefit?

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Just over one year after President Trump launched a cruise missile attack against a Syrian airfield believed to be responsible for a chemical attack, Trump launched another cruise missile attack, this time designated at three specific targets allegedly tied to the use of chemical weapons.

While many reactionary right-wing “personalities” declared themselves “off the Trump train” following the strike, myself and the rest of the FMShooter team decided to take a more nuanced and reasonable approach, choosing to investigate the strikes with another “cost-benefit” analysis focusing on the military utility of both the weapons used and targets struck.

So from a military perspective alone, was the “cost-benefit” of the 2018 strike in Syria worth it?  The simple answer is – probably not – but that answer comes with caveats, some of which will likely never be revealed to the general public.

It is pertinent to begin by investigating the weaponry and delivery systems used, as they were far more substantial than last year’s strike.  Last year, the US solely used 60 BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles fired from Navy vessels.  This year, the US fired 66 Tomahawks from Navy vessels and 19 AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) cruise missiles fired from B-1B bomber jets, ostensibly launched from out of range of Syrian (and Russian) air defense systems.  However this time, the British and French chipped in to the tune of 20 Storm Shadow / SCALP-EG missiles, with 17 launched from various attack aircraft and 3 of the MdCN Naval variant being fired by French frigates.


Storm Shadow / Scalp EG Missile – Image Credit David Monniaux

By using previously noted calculations, the US used approximately 1.7% of its Tomahawk inventory in this strike – a very small overall number.  As previously noted, the Tomahawks are very much a dated delivery system that needs to be used before they become obsolete:

So the Navy used 1.5% of its Tomahawk missile inventory in this strike, and the Navy already plans to replace the entire inventory the next 10-20 years.  While the price tag of $60 million sure wasn’t cheap, it certainly seems that the Navy doubts the future efficacy of the Tomahawk platform, and likely views the missiles as a “use them or lose them” sunk cost that only “cost” so much, in terms of available capability.

Furthermore, the Navy has used about 2,000 Tomahawks since they were introduced in Desert Storm, a campaign where the Navy used just under 300 of the missiles.  So whether you agree with spending defense dollars on cruise missiles or not, the fact of the matter is, the current US Navy inventory of Tomahawks is double what was used in the last 20 years.  The money has already been spent, so expending a tiny percentage of the inventory is hardly a setback.

However, the same cannot be said about the JASSM – a far newer and presumably stealthier system – which has a lower unit cost than its Tomahawk cousin, in spite of the missile’s costly development problems:

The $3 billion program was plagued with launch failures, poor performance and reliability issues. In 2007, the Pentagon was forced to lay out $68 million in additional funds to rectify these problems. Lockheed Martin has delivered a total of 2,000 JASSMs and JASSM-ERs to the US military, and has sold the missile to Australia, Finland and Poland.

With 2018’s addition of manned bombers and other manned/unmanned support assets, the costs to the US military were undoubtedly higher this year, even with the British and French footing some of the bill.  The added costs add to the importance of whatever targets were hit in the strike.  Confirmed by The War Zone and other various sources, the three targets hit were the Barzeh chemical weapons site, and two alleged Him Shinshar chemical weapons storage sites.

Of pivotal importance to the “cost-benefit” assessment are unambiguous statements made by US military personnel describing the operation:

– Lieutenant General McKenzie said the Syrians attempted to shoot down incoming missiles with 40 surface-to-air missiles using a “ballistic trajectory” and “without guidance.”

– He added that those missiles “had to come down somewhere” and posed a danger to innocent bystanders.

– Dana White stressed that the operation was different from the strike on Syria’s Shayrat Air Base and focused on neutering Assad’s chemical weapons production capability rather than delivery platforms.

– Dana White declined repeatedly to elaborate on any evidence the United States had that the Syrian government had conducted the chemical weapon attack in Douma and what agents it used and said the U.S. government was still assessing the situation.

The only military assets that were targeted were undoubtedly facilities with a military purpose – the 2017 strike targeted assets without the significant and visually-recognizable anti-air assets clearly launched and acknowledged by all parties in 2018.  While the validity of the US claims regarding chemical weapons remains skeptical, there’s no question that the assets struck this year were far more heavily defended than the ones struck in 2017.  

It seems unlikely that the military value of destroying three facilities in 2018 outweighs the cost of destroying as much as 20% of the Syrian Air Force in 2017.  In addition and the cost of striking said facilities was likely far higher than the 2017 Syrian Air Force aircraft.  So from a “cost-benefit” perspective, this strike does not seem as though it was worth it.

This opinion comes with one major caveat – the fact that most people (including myself) do not know the significance of the assets targeted.  Someone with more intimate military knowledge and access to classified information would be able to provide a far more definitive and credible conclusion.  However, said conclusion will likely never become available to the general public, due to the sensitive military value of such knowledge.

Additionally, it is difficult to take Syrian (and Russian) claims of intercepted cruise missiles seriously.  The Russian military has already been exposed lying about the efficacy of the Tomahawks in 2017, claiming that only 23 out of 59 missiles reached their targets, in spite of the attacked air bases deploying no visual air defense systems.  While the Russian government again had advance notice of the attack via the deconfliction hotline

He said: “We used the normal deconfliction channel to deconflict airspace, we did not coordinate targets.”

Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Moscow, said: “Before we took action the United States communicated with the Russian Federation to reduce the danger of any Russian or civilian casualties.

…the US clearly took care to avoid threatening or being threatened by the more advanced S-400 systems operated by Russia at their Syrian bases in Hmeimim and Tartus.  The Syrians claimed to shoot down 71 missiles, of which 66 were older Tomahawks, with the remaining 39 being more advanced “stealth” cruise missiles.  While it remains possible some cruise missiles were intercepted, it seems rather unlikely that advanced cruise missiles were defeated by antiquated Syrian air defenses.  Remnants of those missiles would have to land somewhere, as noted by a Pentagon spokesman:

McKenzie added that the Syrian government responded by recklessly firing 40 missiles, none of which struck military targets or intercepted the coalition’s missiles. “The Syrian response was ineffective in all domains,” he said. Not only was the Syrian counterattack ineffective, the US said the regime actually endangered its own people by firing the missiles blindly.

“When you shoot iron into the air without guidance, it’s going to come down somewhere,” McKenzie said.

Given the Russian and Syrian history of dubious claims, it is difficult to take their claims of intercepts seriously, without any remains of the intercepted missiles recovered away from the targeted buildings.  Of note, these recovered fragments should be of the US or allied weapons, and not a Soviet-era system:

The above example should serve as a reminder to always take the claims of reactionary “e-celebrities” with a large grain of salt, and wait patiently for their claims to be confirmed as factual rather than be blown apart as just another hoax.

All claims and counter-claims regarding the nature of the strike and its justification, the US military has effectively proven that it can easily and effectively defeat dated air defense systems to strike high value targets.  If and when President Trump or any other US leaders decides to draw a different “red line” in Syria or anywhere else in the world, this military capability will be an extremely useful tool to implement and enforce any military campaign used to enforce any US policy, questionable or otherwise.