Rock, hard place, Syria

Force depth: all gone.

Through his latest action, calling for a vote of Congress on a strike against the Assad regime – but not trying to make it happen quickly – Obama has crystallized the Syria dilemma to the fullest extent.

It is no longer necessary to predict that failure to make good on his promise about a “red line” will be fatal to American credibility.  The die is cast.  We have reached the limit of fate’s tolerance for indecision, and the verdict is in: Obama, and the West, couldn’t handle this one.

But hold that thought for a moment – call it the rock in this scenario – and let us consider the hard place, which has its own argument to make.  Those who have continued to press for a military response in Syria seem not to understand that the situation of the U.S. military is severely compromised, due to the very real effects of not spending on readiness.  We literally do not have the forces available to expand on any limited strikes we might undertake.  It is invalid to discuss the proposition as if we do.

That’s what I heard the panel doing on Fox News Sunday this morning: discussing Syria as if we can enlarge our military options there at will.  Or, let us say – to be specifically accurate – as if we can enlarge our military options responsibly, with proper consideration for the value of our troops’ lives and the people’s treasure versus the military objective.

The reality of degraded military readiness

The situation is this.  There are more forces we could bring to bear against Syria, beyond the four destroyers that are expected to remain on-station, ready to launch cruise missiles if ordered to.  But what we do not have is an overwhelming preponderance of force to bring to bear, such that expanded attacks on Syria would be a matter of rolling over Assad’s defenses with little risk to our forces.

The reason is what I outlined in a couple of posts earlier this year (see here and here) on the readiness effects of the 2013 defense budget, as modified by the sequester.  The effects of both spending measures count in our readiness picture, so sequester enthusiasts need to understand that the sequester is at fault as well as the baseline budget.  (I never opposed in principle letting the sequester kick in, but its disproportionate impact on the military is an unqualifiedly negative result.)

At the outset, Congress would have to authorize additional funds for a strike campaign.  Notably, even if the only element of it were the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles, replacement of those missiles is not programmed into the budget.  Obama could conduct the strike without proposing the spending to replace the missiles, but doing so would degrade the readiness postures considered necessary by the theater commanders (e.g., EUCOM, CENTCOM).

The real impact from this budgetary reality, however, is on any proposal or consequent necessity to go beyond a limited launch of cruise missiles.  For that, additional money must be requested.

Yet money can’t repair everything instantaneously.  And the situation in which we find ourselves today is one of compromised readiness: principally involving squadrons of front-line tactical aircraft that are not fully combat-ready because they haven’t been able to keep their qualifications or maintenance up in fiscal year 2012.

The U.S. Air Force has only two combat-ready strike-fighter squadrons in Europe, with the possibility of deploying up to three more from the United States.  The Navy has two carriers and carrier air wings deployed within rapid steaming range of the Eastern Mediterranean:  USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75)/CVW-3 and USS Nimitz (CVN-68)/CVW-11.  One must remain in CENTCOM to cover our obligations there (including air support in Afghanistan).  The other might be moved to the Mediterranean on short notice.

A very thin blue line today.
A very thin blue line today.

The number of aircraft per squadron is not uniform in this mix; adding up what the Navy and Air Force units typically have, given their status as of today, the maximum number of strike-fighters available for Syria would be in the neighborhood of 150, on “Day 1.” Deploying this many would mean leaving all other U.S. defense obligations with no reserve to call on.  To this could be added a limited number of bomber sorties: B-2s and B-52s.

 As defense officials have pointed out, it would cost billions just to fly them – along with their support aircraft (tankers, air control, reconnaissance, airlift support) – for longer than a few days.  But their condition, including that of the aircrew, and operations and maintenance crews on the ground or at sea, would also begin to degrade quickly.  This is true for the support aircraft – of which there would be far fewer – as well as for the strike-fighters.

The Air Force and Navy plan for this with operations cycles, sufficient assets, and scheduling, so that there is staggered down time built into the operational plan.  A limited set of assets cannot be flown indefinitely.  The number “150” may sound like a lot to civilian ears, but would in fact be an extremely small number for a task whose scope could not remain predictably limited.*

What it means about risk

The meaningful way to understand this is to recognize that U.S. forces would be far closer to a situation of combat equivalence with the Assad regime’s capabilities than anything we have asked our forces to do since Vietnam.  We would be asking them to go into Syria without an overwhelming advantage, and without the virtual guarantee that we could minimize our risk – combat losses – to a level commensurate with the political significance of the objective.

It would be one thing to ask of our troops, in extremis, that they fight with lesser advantages to defend our homeland.  It is quite another to contemplate putting them in a comparatively evenly matched fight overseas, without a deep-roster back-up and the greatest training and technology edge we can give them, for the anti-WMD principle (or really for anything else) we propose to uphold in Syria.

This is the background for the warnings issued by Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in the last few days (emphasis added):

“As [Secretary of Defense Chuck] Hagel, Adm. [James] Winnefeld, and I have discussed before, we have a financial crisis in our military,” [Inhofe] said Thursday. “We have a starving military.”

Yet, Inhofe said, the Obama administration is laying out a broad array of options in the civil-war torn country — where it’s suspected Bashar Assad’s regime turned chemical weapons against its own people — without ever laying out “a single option” or providing “a time line, a strategy for Syria and the Middle East, or a plan for the funds to execute such an option.”

“Even Gen. [Martin] Dempsey (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) said we are putting our military on a path where the ‘force is so degraded and so unready’ that it would be ‘immoral to use the force,’” Inhofe said.

In July, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III had this to say about Syria:

Turning to the situation in Syria, Welsh said sequestration would make implementing a no-fly zone there difficult. “It would take some time to do it right,” he added, “because some of the units that we would use … haven’t been flying.”

F-16 Fighting Falcons at Aviano in 2011, when USAF readiness was higher
F-16 Fighting Falcons at Aviano in 2011, when USAF readiness was higher

Welsh spoke further a few days ago to Air Force Magazine:

He emphasized that sequestration tradeoffs, such as grounding tactical combat squadrons earlier this year, have had a real impact on readiness and the service’s ability to perform the full spectrum of combat missions. If the President decides to take action, the Air Force and the services will carry out their assigned missions—but “we are not going to be as ready as we would like,” said Welsh when discussing the Air Force’s part.

Welsh made the point that funding for sequestration-related work-arounds mandated by Congress to cover the tuition-assistance program had to come from one place—operations accounts, specifically flying hours.

In any air-campaign scenario involving Syria, he said, two capabilities likely needed would be F-16CJ Wild Weasels, which are specially configured for suppression of enemy air defenses, and F-22s.

Squadrons of both those capabilities were grounded earlier this year, save for Raptors on deployment to US Pacific Command’s area of responsibility, in order to pay the remainder of the service’s tuition-assistance bills.

The risk decision

For Congress, the important question to pose to the military is what level of risk we incur if we go into a moderate-size Syrian operation with the forces we have right now.  That is what the American people have the right to judge: whether we can accept the risk of a Syria operation, which will be qualitatively different from the level of risk we have accepted in any other operation since 1975.

The military commanders cannot make that judgment.  It isn’t theirs to make.  They give the expert advice on what the factors and relatives advantages are, but the people decide how much risk we are willing to accept for our forces in combat.  Ideally, our president has the same mindset as the people on this matter, neither more risk-averse nor more reckless than we are.  But we have reached the day when we cannot say with confidence that he does.  (Hence, the bad polls for an intervention, and the popular protests spreading across America, as well as Europe.)  Congress must form a judgment on our behalf.

Rock, hard place

That is the very hard place on the other side of the rock: Obama’s failure of will regarding Syria.  Make no mistake, as the president likes to say.  His failure of will is very bad.  Its exposure through an excruciating process of decision-avoidance has made things worse. It is by no means an unqualified victory for common sense that he has decided to punt on Syria; rather, it is the beginning of a new and dangerous reality of global insecurity.

The unseemly display we have witnessed in the last week carries an unmistakable message of weakness and incompetence.  Few of us alive today have ever seen anything like it; even Neville Chamberlain proclaiming “Peace in our time” in 1938 was not really this.  Chamberlain was at least making orderly, if foolish, concessions to a known quantity: a live, armed Nazi dictator.  Obama is just making concessions, wildly, like the wicked who flee when none pursueth.  There is simply no telling what American and allied interests he will be willing to play political games with.

The limitation on what we all may have to fight over has just shifted: from what the United States is willing to defend, to what the enemies of liberty, consensual order, and the human spirit are willing to demand.  That is our new reality.  Its possibilities will be tested by our antagonists.

But we do not have the viable alternative pundits and politicians seem to think we do, of simply mounting a military operation in Syria – even if only to save face – and not worrying about the consequences.  That too is our reality, deliberately chosen with our cumulative decisions, over time, to not gain positive control of our national spending. 

There is a way out, but it does not involve going back down the path we came on.  If we let either the rock or the hard place dictate to us, in the meantime, we could be inviting a disaster from which we have no prospect of recovering, in the sense that we would have to give up our national identity and idea in order to adjust and deal with it.

Our ship of state is dead in the water at the moment.  The good news is that, properly speaking, we have the freedom to choose a new course from here.  The bad news is that we have a president whose judgment and purposes we cannot trust.  The hard fact is that we cannot go on as things have been, in the post-1945, post-1991, Pax Americana world.  We have reached the end of this road.

* Compare, for example, with the more than 1,000 NATO aircraft which participated in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in March-June 1999, one of the closest recent analogies to the operational conditions to be expected in Syria.

To scope an operation at the level of the Libya intervention in 2011 would require 350 strike-fighter and bomber aircraft (not counting the support platforms) – and different air-combat conditions; i.e., virtually no threat to friendly aircraft.

In larger operations, more than 1,800 U.S. aircraft took part in Desert Storm, an operation augmented by over 450 allied aircraft as well.  Over 1,200 U.S. aircraft flew in Operation Iraqi Freedom, with nearly 600 more from the allies.


J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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29 thoughts on “Rock, hard place, Syria”

  1. No mas.

    Ten days of congressional debate will destroy any credibility that the USA has, no matter who is in the WH. It’s not like our Congress can agree on anything, let alone conduct a debate in the Queen’s English.

    Tuition assistance? really?

    fwiw, France’s sole carrier, the DeGaulle, is en route.

    and the F35JSF is the future solution????

    1. The F-35 is a tragic drain… It should never have gone beyond the initial concept (almost 20 years ago now) for being the replacement aircraft for the F-16. Now it’s a money pit will suck up all of the available cash for combat aircraft… just before it gets cancelled with nothing in the ’till to pay for F-15 Silent Eagles, F-18E,F, and G’s that would tide us over until someone smart could re-ignite the F-22 program…

      But that’s the way it runs… the Peaceniks like waging war as long as it’s war that costs nothing other than money…Utilitarianism practiced as diplomatic artifice.

      We are rapidly approaching a “Parade Army, and Bathtub Navy”…

      Of course the Buzz Bomb’s and Drones are perfect tools for the delusional who expect to get something for nothing.

      Syria is a mess because The Regime was too hairbrained, amateurish, and unfocused to stay the heck away from it. Bad people do bad things with nasty weapons…. If they threaten you and your friends then there is an issue…. If they are doing it to their own people, and both sides are irredeemable then it’s always the best policy to cordon off the mess and let it burn itself out… without getting involved.

      The problem is not now, nor ever has it been Syria. The problem is Iran, and as I have said before, The Regime foolishly and fecklessly threw away our hard won bases, assets, and leverage to do anything about it.

      Air Doctrine is a failure. As Cousin Vinnie says… blowing up powdered milk plants, empty tents, and ibuprofen factories threaten to widen the conflict to uncontrollable levels without doing a thing.

      Needless to say, the John Lindsey Gramnesty-McCainiacs of the world can’t figure out that they are demanding that we support our enemies in their attempts to put themselves in a better position to kill us more.

      National Defense Republicans are lost… They are completely paranoid and defensive beyond rational thought. McCain must be auditioning for the part of Col Flagg…

      Congress can stop this ridiculous mess from proceeding with its stamp of approval. Somehow if Congress says ‘no’, I don’t see the Regime continuing to beat its coffee can and innertube war drum…. It will do its level best to blame the GOP, but it will still quietly slink away. We will look bad but at least we won’t be tied up in a civil war between a madman and madmen.


  2. Just launch a couple of cruise missiles, take out the Lacto-Sarin infant formula factory, hit a camel in the butt, and call it good. –Bill

  3. I’ll put it differently.

    We aren’t between a rock and a hard place.

    We are acting like a ROGUE state backed into a corner.

  4. Looked at from outside the beltway.

    It is not American credibility that is on the line but that of our Fearless Leader. American credibility is based on far more than the inept handling of events by one administration. Other world players realize this. They are not stupid, we are (for now). They will quietly give us the leeway, without us having to lose face, to chart a course out of the Syrian dilemma. Assuming, they are given the opportunity of course. That’s why it’s important for the diplomats to work overtime behind the scene this week.

    One disturbing point. Aside from beginning to behave like a rogue state. Questions are beginning to arise as to whether the administration is a rational actor and Obama is fully in command of the situation..

  5. Great article and many insightful follow-up comments.

    As usual, this crisis was created, unnecessarily, by Barry and is now all about him. And it’s being spun in classic Barry fashion, per yesterday’s NY Times: are you for Barry’s proposal (whatever that is) or are you for letting a mass murderer get away with it? See also, the false dichotomies throughout Barry’s career (e.g., are you for Barry’s version of health care reform or are you in favor of children dying?).

    But OptiCon’s points are the critical ones. It would be reckless, at this point in time, for us to let Barry lead us into whatever the heck he has in mind re Syria. Let’s see if the R’s can find the courage to reach that conclusion as well.

    BTW, OptiCon, I found your assessment of our weakened military forces disturbing re our ability, if any, to do anything militarily to stop Iran from creating nukes. Could you comment further?

    1. Darkness, I wrote about that very topic — our declining readiness and the Iran nuke problem — back in February:

      Basically, nothing in our situation has improved since then, so the concerns and warnings are all still valid. We continue to be on the cusp of seeing even further declines in readiness in fiscal 2014.

  6. Copying this from the Johnny Football post, for those who don’t make it back to the comments section of that one.

    Naval forces update:

    Most of TOC’s highly informed readers no doubt know that USS Nimitz and USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) are headed for the Red Sea. Of course, as we have discussed, USS San Antonio (LPD-17), from the Kearsarge amphibious ready group, is already in EASTMED.

    The Nimitz movement is not a surprise in the sense that it was likely Obama would want a carrier air wing option for any Syria operation. It does surprise me that Nimitz was the carrier dispatched for this. Truman is in CENTCOM, and as an East coast carrier, she and her air wing have spent more time training to Mediterranean problem sets and studying the intel and targeting data on Syria. Truman also just got to the theater, and has months left in her deployment. All things being equal, it’s not clear to me why Nimitz, the West coast carrier at the end of her deployment, was sent on this transit.

    Kearsarge will not have a role in a Syria strike, per se. Period. She’s the wrong asset for the job.

    Kearsarge ARG and 24 MEU have been deployed since March, and that’s why she’s headed toward the Med from CENTCOM. Kearsarge probably has about 6 weeks left in theater; ARG deployments have been running to 8 months or so rather than the old standard of 6. San Antonio was on her way to an AFRICOM exercise after her port visit in Souda Bay when she was put on standby in EASTMED. She too is ultimately on the way home. The third amphibious ship in the ARG, USS Carter Hall (LSD-50), started a port visit in the Seychelles (Indian Ocean) on 26 August.

    Slowly positioning for her homeward-bound journey to the East coast, it is opportune for Kearsarge and the MEU elements on her and San Antonio to be on standby for a NEO (evacuation contingency) for Americans in the Levant and Egypt, should there be blowback from a strike on Syria.

    I have yet to see Obama break an ARG away from tasking elsewhere to deploy it to a hot spot. In each case up to and including this one, the ARG was always headed for or in proximity to the problem area for another reason anyway. Civilians are routinely making too much of every ARG movement, and it’s a virtual certainty they are making too much of this one too.

    The same has largely been true of carrier movements. Obama didn’t deploy a carrier away from prior tasking for Libya, in 2011. Carriers have occasionally wandered through the problem areas that have erupted, because they were previously scheduled to. The Nimitz movement toward the Red Sea right now is the first time I can remember Obama actually retasking a carrier.

    That said, everyone keeps trying to read tea leaves from military movements, and Obama keeps changing the game on us. It’s kind of a fool’s errand right now.

  7. Barry n’ Bibi lit up a couple of post 4th of July skyrockets in the MED for Congress to gaze at..Guess they are out of vials with white powder.

    We are going to war in Syrian folks.

    They are turning the vote into a “who supports Israel’s security more” contest.

    We will never learn…

    1. PS

      Speaking of rogue state behavior, didn’t we all get into a huff about that pudgy Hangook lighting off fireworks by himself?

      Of course the MED fireworks display was under adult supervision, if you can consider Obama an adult that is.

    2. A very stupid move, that. It’s the kind of provocative move US commanders prepare to react to in rules-of-engagement table-tops.

      As tensions rise, yeah, definitely launch some missiles into the situation.

      “Announce your presence with authority…” Obama is Nuke Lalouche.

      1. Public opinion is against war in Syria

        The Brass is against war in Syria

        The Troops are against war in Syria

        The president’s ego and credibility aren’t worth going off to another totally unnecessary conflict. A man made a mistake, going off at the mouth, about “red lines”. Now we have to pay for that in lives? It’s insane.

        Faced with those facts, you would think even those spineless, unethical for the most part, special interest money addicted “representatives” of the American people would do something..If only out of self interest. But they probably won’t. There is no consequence, no war crime tribunal awaits them. Therefore, no fear of sending citizens off to die and kill for Fearless Leader’s current reputation and future legacy and not for the security and defense of the United States.

      2. TOC: “Nuke” Laloosh without “Crash” Davis by his side to call him “Meat”?

        If only the Gibbs head-slap had also been immortalized in “Bull Durham”


    1. To Doriangrey:

      After the administration’s participation in Benghazi, Egypt and the whole nine yards of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’; but, even more so, after this latest demonstration of seeming incompetence in Syria by the man who we should always remember actually holds what is perceived as ‘the most powerful position in the World’, I buy that theory.

      Nobody that wins the presidency is that stupid or that incompetent. If that premise were true, if ‘Dummy’, having actually been elected to the presidency of the United States of America, was that stupid, what would that make us as a nation and as a people…? Nah…I’m with you, Doriangrey, all of it must be done on purpose and following some agenda/plan which will never be allowed to see the light of day even by ‘the most transparent administration ever’.

      The AlQaeda candidate perhaps…?

  8. If my vote counts, put me in the NO column.

    But, there is something which can be done which saves face, walks us/US back from the edge of the abyss, and allows the tail to stop waging the dog:

    Indictment of Assad.

    Then let the various Intel organizations build their case, let the national and international arms of justice, e.g. FBI, INTERPOL, etc, build the dossiers of evidence, box Assad into a corner.

    Then Congress can get back to focusing on, oh:
    Fast and Furious
    and any of a dozen other issues.

    Assad and his butchers or the opposition cannibals try anything further, then in a deliberate fashion we & the international community can respond in a kinetic manner, if warranted.

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