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.
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.”
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.