By now, you all know that the
launched a cruise missile attack against a Syrian
airfield in retaliation for a chemical weapon attack by Syrian forces. I’m not going to address the quality of the
evidence for the chemical weapon usage or the geopolitical aspects of the
retaliation. What I’m going to address
is the military lessons that can be gleaned from the open source information
about the cruise missile attack itself. US
Defense News website has the best writeup that I’ve found so far (1). USNI News website has some additional information and some bomb damage assessment photos (2).
The Navy's Tomahawk missile strike from two Burke class destroyers, Ross (Flt I) and Porter (Flt II), offers some insights into modern naval strike warfare.
VLS Mix. The destroyers did not have time to return to a home port and load missiles. Therefore, the missiles were part of the standard VLS missile mix. Assuming the missiles were split equally among the two destroyers, that means each had at least 30 missiles in their mix. Ross has 90 VLS cells while Porter has 96. Thus, the 30 Tomahawk missiles represent 33% and 31% of the VLS load, respectively. This gives us some insight as to the “standard” VLS missile mix. Of course, there is nothing that says the destroyers used all their Tomahawk missiles. The may have had more and the mix may be greater. In fact, one extra missile was fired so clearly at least one of the ships did not use all its missiles.
Reliability. The initial missile launch involved 60 attempted launches. One launch failed and a replacement missile launched. Thus, 61 launches were attempted with 60 being successful. One missile plunged into the sea during flight so only 59 missiles reached the target area. Thus, of 61 launches, 59 successfully reached the target area which is 96.7%. It is unknown how many actually hit their intended targets.
SAM Defense. There were surface-to-air (SAM) missile defenses around the airfield but none, apparently, engaged the Tomahawk missiles. Reports suggest that the Russians were operating the SAMs, were pre-warned by the
about the attack, and opted not to engage. Thus, we cannot learn anything about the
viability of Tomahawks versus a modern, peer SAM defensive system. US
Airfield Weapon Density. The
launched 60 Tomahawks at a single, relatively small
airfield. That seems like a lot of
missiles especially when the runways were deliberately not targeted and other
structures were deliberately avoided that would likely have been targeted in an
all out attack. Still, this gives us
some idea of the weapon density the US believes necessary to destroy a single, small
base. Of course, the US may not have known whether the SAM defenses would
engage and the seemingly large number of Tomahawks may have been what planners
felt was needed in order to overcome a defense.
Either way, it offers some insight into the number of Tomahawks needed
to attack an airbase. It’s a bit more
than I would have thought. US
BDA. The bomb damage photos that have been released do not seem to show 59 hits. Note, however, that I am the farthest thing from a bomb damage assessment (BDA) photo analyst! It may be that several missiles were targeted on a single hardened hangar and there appear to have been several of those so that may account for a significant chunk of missiles. If so, that also suggests what planners think of the resilience of a hardened hangar versus the destructive power of a Tomahawk.
Had this been an all out attack to totally destroy the airfield, presumably many more missiles would have been used. This gives us some insight into the Tomahawk weapon density needed to take out a facility. It’s higher than I would have thought. Given that our total Tomahawk inventory is somewhere around 4000 missiles, that should tell us something about our ability to wage an all out war and how long our inventory would last. This has to be worrisome given that Tomahawks cannot be quickly replaced from the manufacturer.
This should also tell us how useful (or useless, as the case may be) our
class submarines that carry only 12 Tomahawks will
be – not very. It would have required
five subs to carry out this attack and this was only a partial attack against a
small airfield. Those who believe that
our subs will constitute a significant land strike capability are
mistaken. The subs are more likely to be
used as snipers, taking out smaller, undefended targets. The retirement without replacement of our
four SSGNs which each carried 154 Tomahawks may come to be viewed as a mistake. Virginia
Setting aside the geopolitics, this incident has proven to be instructive as regards modern naval strike warfare.
(1)Defense News website, “The Pentagon’s Play-By-Play of the Syria Strikes”, Aaron Mehta,
(2)USNI News website, “How the U.S. Planned and Executed the Tomahawk Strike Against Syria”, Megan Eckstein,