For those who have been living under a rock for the past week, the United States on Thursday night (Friday AM local time in Syria) launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian air base in Ash Shayrat, near the besieged city of Homs. According to the DoD, only one missile failed out of an attempted 60, but according to the Russian military, only 23 of the 59 missiles reached the Shayrat air base.
There has been an uproar across the internet, with many claiming that this strike did a great job of sending a message, with many others criticizing President Trump for going against his campaign promises, and involving the US in yet another unwinnable war in the Middle East. In addition to the he-said/she-said out of the US and Russian defense departments, it leaves you rather confused as to what the attack actually accomplished, and whether or not it was really worth it in the end.
So, in the end, was it worth it? It depends on who you ask… but let’s attempt to look at the attack’s efficacy from a tactical perspective. To determine that, you need to first sort through all the chatter and misinformation, and see what the attack’s price tag was, and what it accomplished.
First, you need to analyze how much the missiles themselves cost. The BGM-109 Tomahawk is the mainstay of the US Navy’s cruise missile fleet. Originally designed as a nuclear deterrent carrying thermonuclear weapons, it was also redeveloped with conventional warheads carrying 1,000lb munitions. They are capable of being launched from both surface ships as well as submarines, and the military currently employs a variety of different types of missiles, with varying price tags.
So while you could just look at a unit cost of “$1.6 million” and come up with a strike value of just under $100 million, it is pivotal to know which types of missiles were used. According to Marketwatch, the Tomahawk missiles were likely older variants, with a price tag of “around $1 million” each:
It could cost about $60 million to replace the cruise missiles that the U.S. military rained on Syrian targets Thursday night.
Each Tomahawk missile, made by Raytheon Co. likely cost $1 million, according to experts.
The missiles used on Thursday likely cost the U.S. military around $1 million, but the latest versions of the missile that would replace those could be more costly, depending on size of the order and other factors, said Loren Thompson, a consultant and chief operating officer of nonprofit Lexington Institute.
Demand for Tomahawks never seems to go down, said Tom Karako, a director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Karako estimated a replacement cost for each Tomahawk of around $1 million.
The Navy’s 2017 budget has the future missiles at a unit cost of $1.5 million, higher than previous years, but that is probably because the Navy is winding down the program and does not plan, at least for now, on buying more Tomahawks after this year, said Todd Harrison, also a director with CSIS.
Noting the last paragraph, it is important to look at the current inventory of missiles, and what the future plans are of the weapons program. Defense One noted that the Navy has a substantial inventory of Tomahawk missiles, about 4,000 at last count, and plans to eventually buy a different cruise missile altogether for future purchases:
The venerable Tomahawk cruise missile, used in conflicts big and small since 1991, took center stage once again in an April 7 strike that rained some five dozen of the weapons upon a Syrian airfield believed to have launched a chemical attack. But its end is in sight, if not exactly imminent.
The U.S. Navy, which currently has some 4,000 Tomahawks, plans to stop buying the venerable weapon in the next few years. Service leaders haven’t fully articulated their plans to replace it, but they have started talking about the need for a “Next Generation Land Attack Weapon” slated to enter service more than a decade hence.
In 2014, then-Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley (now the Navy’s acting secretary) told the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee that the next-generation weapon could be an upgraded Tomahawk or a different weapon.
“[W]e are moving forward with development of what has been referred to as next-generation land-attack weapon,” Stackley said. “And the key elements of that weapon will be its increased lethality, survivability beyond what Tomahawk brings today.”
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.
Moving on to the targets themselves, there is again conflicting reports of the efficacy of the Tomahawk strikes. The airbase in question housed MiG-21, MiG-23, and Su-22 jets. While they are dated Soviet-era multi-role and ground attack, and not as capable as the Su-24s and MiG-29s in the Syrian Air Force inventory, they are still plenty capable of providing air support and dropping a variety of munitions (chemical or otherwise) on anti-regime forces. And, given the extensive losses the Syrian Air Force has already faced over the course of the country’s civil war, and the poor state of repair many of the jets remain in, they need all the help they can get, late-model or otherwise.
Note that the Russians have taken issue with the US Navy claims of 59 successful Tomahawk impacts, claiming that only 23 reached their targets. This is fairly difficult to believe, given how effective the Tomahawk weapons system has been over the years. It seems the Russians are echoing these claims after the US made similar (though far better founded) claims that Russian cruise missile strikes in Syria in prior years had a high failure rate, making a veiled attempt to place a similar level of embarrassment upon the US Navy.
So, while the Russians state the only aircraft lost were six MiG-23s, the US Navy has stated that 20 aircraft were destroyed in the strike. If you take the midpoint, and call it 13 destroyed aircraft, estimating the replacement value of the lost aircraft at ~$20 million each… you come up with a $260 million “write-off” for the Syrian Air Force. Bear in mind… if the US were to lose 20 aircraft in an airstrike, it would be a big deal, but the inventory is so large that it could be overcome.
Even if Putin were to gift them some older cast-offs from the Russian Air Force, they still need to arrive and be prepared for combat, and who knows what kinds of “favors” the Russians would extract from Assad for their generosity. The Syrians no longer have the staying power after years of conflict to be incurring those kinds of losses to their combat aircraft.
Some have stated that the US would have been better off using manned stealth aircraft that could have carried a far bigger payload than the Tomahawks would have been capable of, but those claims seem to be poorly thought out. Tyler Rogoway of The War Zone made a convincing, if limited, argument:
A trio of B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, with their ability to sling 16 2,000lb “bunker buster” JDAMs or up to 80 500lb JDAMs each would have left that airfield, its runway, its hardened aircraft shelters and air defenses in ruins. This is why the B-2 was used to go after Libya’s key airfields during operation Odyssey Dawn, not some of the nearly 200 TLAMs fired during that military excursion. If you are going to go after a highly limited target like a single airfield, which is a very questionable decision in itself, at least get the job done. Not just that, but B-2s could have also done the job also at very low risk, and could have approached the target from the east, instead of having to fly over Russia’s air defenses along the Syrian coast. F-22s would have given the B-2s proper counter-air cover, if even that was needed which is unlikely.
This analysis omits several key factors. First, the cost of flying three B-2 bombers from their home base in Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri on a non-stop flight to Syria to drop some bombs and back is substantial. Considering such a mission could be upwards of 30 flight hours, with a $135,000 per hour cost to operate, not counting the munitions and cost to fly the F-22s for air cover… the “cost” savings would have been cheaper, but not by much, and that doesn’t factor in the need to use the inventory of Tomahawks as detailed above.
Of course, none of this puts into question the risks to the aircraft and pilots themselves flying a manned mission over enemy territory. Currently, Russia has advanced S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries which cover a significant portion of Syrian airspace, including the Shayrat airbase. The risk of lobbing a bunch of cruise missiles is fairly close to zero – the same cannot be said about flying our most expensive military assets on a bombing run of questionable significance, as Rogoway again fails to point out, while overestimating the cost of the strike itself:
…seeing the US throw 59 $1.5 million Tomahawks at an old and tired Syrian satellite airfield with little effect makes us look weak and stupid, not strong. Also, if Assad and Russia have missile capabilities that not even the B-2 and all of America’s electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, and cyber intrusion capabilities can deal with than what can these assets do against a major peer-state competitor? Once again, the choice of how to destroy the target has hurt America’s military credibility, not helped it.
Yes, the Obama administration used the B-2, but it was a first step of a larger air campaign in Libya. Importantly, the far more advanced Russian military was not present to witness just how stealthy our top-end assets looked on the radar screens. Why would the US take an unnecessary risk, and potentially give the Russian military a glimpse into American airpower that it didn’t have before, even if a cruise missile launch wouldn’t work quite as well?
Finally, all of this doesn’t even factor in the real purpose of the cruise missile strike – not just to degrade Assad’s air force at a time where he can ill afford it, but to demonstrate to him that this nation has both the temerity and gumption to do far more damage the next time around if he doesn’t want to play by our rules. Bear in mind, the US warned Russia in advance of this attack, knowing full well that they would in turn warn Syria, giving them time to remove their top assets from the base. Next time, there might be no such warning, and the US Navy may choose to strike the most valuable Syrian jets and attack helicopters with a larger barrage of Tomahawk missiles that our Navy clearly has more than enough of already.
While Assad may be laughing at the US for “wasting” its missiles on low grade targets, the message was certainly communicated there may not be many surviving aircraft in the Syrian Air Force if the US executes another Tomahawk cruise missile strike in the future.
(Note: This article is merely meant as a tactical analysis on the type of military action used against Syria. Whether or not the US should be spending as much as it does on cruise missiles, bombing nations indiscriminately that are not currently a direct threat, or continuing to meddle in the Middle East via military intervention, are arguments for another day and another article.)