Syrian Strikes

“They had three buildings there [Barzah scientific research center] and a parking deck,” McKenzie said.
“Now they don’t.” via USNI.

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French frigate firing off one of the three MdCN cruise missiles that were part of the strike. Source: Marine Nationale

As information about yesterday’s strikes against targets in Syria has been slowly to trickling out throughout the weekend, it is by now possible to piece together a picture of the raid. Perhaps the single most informative piece was the press briefing held by Pentagon.

In short, the following units were involved:

Armée de l’Air

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Two-seater Rafale B launching with twin SCALP EG cruise missiles under the wings. Source: French MoD

5x Dassault Rafale, launching 9 SCALP EG cruise missiles

4x Mirage 2000-5, escort

E-3FR AWACS and KC-135R/C-135F aerial refuelling aircraft

All aircraft operated out of bases in France

Royal Air Force

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Tornado GR.4 sporting two Storm Shadow cruise missiles under the fuselage. Source: British MoD / © Crown copyright 2013 (unmodified news item)

4x Tornado GR.4, launching 8 Storm Shadow cruise missiles

?x Typhoon FGR.4, escort

Operating out of RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus

USAF

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B-1B preparing to launch for the raid from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Source: US AFCENT

2x B-1B, launching 19 AGM-158A JASSM cruise missiles

?x F-16, escort

?x F-15, escort

?x F-22 Raptors, escort

Numerous supporting assets, including RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV’s for intelligence gathering, E-3 AWACS, KC-135 and KC-10 aerial refuelling aircraft, and likely a single E-11B relay aircraft

Bombers operating out of Al Udeid AB in Qatar, fighters from both Al Udeid and European bases

Edit: updated information corrected the JASSM version from -ER to the baseline version which is also in Finnish use, and included the presence of F-22’s as escort.

USMC

VMAQ-2 Transits Souda Bay
No image of the EA-6B from VMAQ-2 which was part of the raid has been released as far as I know. Here is a similar aircraft from the same squadron during a stopover in Crete, Greece, back in 2007. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mr. Paul Farley via Wikimedia Commons

1x EA-6B Prowler, ECM escort

Operated out of Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait

Marine National

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FREMM-class frigate Aquitaine (D650), likely the vessel that fired the MdCN missiles. Source: Marine National

1x FREMM-class frigate, launching 3 MdCN

Operating in the Mediterranean

US Navy

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Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Monterey (CG-61) launching TLAM missiles from the Red Sea. Source: US Navy via USNI

1x Ticonderoga-class cruiser

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer

Operating in the Red Sea, launching a total of 37 TLAM cruise missiles

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USS Higgins (DDG 76) which launched the strikes from the Persian Gulf. Source: US Navy/Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Frederick McCahan

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, launching 23 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Persian Gulf

USS California at sea during sea trials.
Virgina-class SSN underway. Source: Chris Oxley/U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

1x Virgina-class attack submarine, launching 6 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Mediterranean

Alert readers will note that the total amount given is 105 cruise missiles (36 air-launched, 63 ship-launched, and 6 sub-launched), coming in two above the 103 given by Russian sources. The missiles hit the following targets:

Barzah/Barzeh Scientific Research Center

Situated in the western parts of Damascus, the center was hit by 57 TLAM and 19 JASSM missiles.

Sputnik published a video reportedly shot at the scene, which seems to match the location below. It also matches the description given by the Pentagon, in that three large buildings have been completely destroyed.

Interestingly, the dual weapons used says something about the nature of the target. While the TLAM has a rather standard 1,000 lb (454 kg) class blast/fragmentation warhead (i.e. it explodes and creates shrapnel), the JASSM sports what Lockheed Martin calls a “2,000-pound [908 kg] class weapon with a dual-mode penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead” (i.e. it is made to penetrate hardened structures such as bunker before then exploding and creating shrapnel). Another thing to note is that the number 57 does not correspond to any possible combination of the salvos from individual ships, meaning that at least one vessel targeted two different sites.

Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage facility

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BDA pictures of the Him Shinshar. Source: Pentagon

The bunkers and facilities used for storing chemical weapons were hit by 22 weapons, these being 9 TLAM, 8 Storm Shadow, 2 SCALP EG, and 3 MdCN. This clearly shows the different nature of the target compared to the research center, as the number of missiles is much smaller, but also the fact that 13 out of 20 missiles were bunker-busting Storm Shadow/SCALP EG/MdCN (which are simply different local designations for the same missile, with MdCN being the ship-launched version). The Pentagon briefing described the target as ‘destroyed’, and while it is harder to verify when it comes to underground installations, significant damage is visible in the satellite imagery posted since.

Him Shinshar command facility

The final target was a command facility associated with the Him Shinshar site. This was hit by the last 7 SCALP EG. Pentagon described the facility as having taken ‘damage’, as opposed to the two others which were rated as ‘destroyed’. It is unclear if this is a failure, or simply representative of the different nature of the target. Command facilities might be able to continue to function to some extent even if key buildings are wiped out, which is not the case with a storage facility in which the storage buildings are hit.

In any case, satellite imagery shows what looks like two larger and one smaller hardened building having been targeted and destroyed.

Conclusions

Despite wild claims of the majority of the missiles having been intercepted and the rest having missed, it is clear that the raid was an unequivocal success on the tactical level. The targeted sites have all suffered heavy damage. If the description of the nature of the targets is correct, it is highly possible that the use of sarin has been made harder by the strikes. Obviously, this does not stop the regime from using a whole number of other ghastly weapons and tactics, including barrel bombs, starvation through sieges, and quite possibly industry grade chlorine (which has been featured in numerous attacks in Syria).

Notable is also the fact that several of the weapons and systems used were making their combat debuts. These include the JASSM and MdCN, as well as the Virgina-class SSN. From a Finnish viewpoint, the combat launch of JASSM (albeit not in the exact version used by the Finnish Air Force) was certainly of interest. However, it should be noted that ‘damaging’ a single command facility virtually undefended by air defences required 7 missiles of the same class as the JASSM, something which puts the Finnish acquisition of (a maximum) of 70 JASSM into perspective.

When it comes to the defences, it is clear that the talk of the S-400 deployment in Syria creating an impenetrable A2/AD-bubble stopping western strikes was not correct. While many of the earlier Israeli strikes had taken place in areas which present difficulties for the S-400 (and supporting shorter-ranged systems) to see and intercept the targets, the strike waves approaching over the eastern Mediterranean would be more or less the perfect scenario for long-ranged SAM-systems, and is very similar to the setup of systems operating from Kaliningrad which often are described as being able to deny NATO access to the Baltic Sea. While it likely was political will that stopped the Russian air defence systems from being activated, the Syrians did their best, with around 40 missiles having been reported by Pentagon as fired. While it is not impossible that some of the cruise missiles were intercepted, it is clear from the pictures linked above that even this barrage of air defence missiles was unable to serious lessen the damage suffered by the Syrians. A significant issue was likely that all missiles struck their targets within an extremely short time span, leaving the individual air defence batteries saturated.

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Ballistic Missile Defence for Pohjanmaa?

As was noted earlier Finland has requested the export of quad-packed ESSM surface-to-air missiles for fitting in the Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS). In itself the request was rather unsurprising, but I did find it odd that the Navy was asking about the canister designed for the Mk 41 and not the dedicated Mk 56 ESSM VLS.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is the multi-national coalition effort to liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate IraqÕs weapons of mass destruction, and end the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Mk 41 Strike length launchers in action, as the destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) fires a TLAM cruise missile against Iraqi targets in 2003. Source: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

This week a key part of the answer was revealed, as the DCSA report for the Mk 41’s themselves was released. The Finnish request is for four 8-cell Mk 41, of the full-long ‘Strike length’ version. This is the same as carried by US Navy (and Japanese) destroyers and cruisers, as well as by a number of NATO frigates. The options for the strike length launcher include a large variety of US-built surface-to-air missiles, as well as the TLAM (Tomahawk) long-range cruise missile and the VL-ASROC anti-submarine weapon (a rocket which carries a parachute-retarded anti-submarine torpedo out to a considerable range). The downside is the size. To fit the large missiles, the cells are 7.6 m long. The logical choice if one want to fit Mk 41 solely for use with ESSM’s into a corvette is the 5.2 m Self-defense module. In between the two is the 6.7 m Tactical length cells, which add the SM-2 long-range SAM and the ASROC, but is unable to fit the TLAM or the SM-6/SM-3/SM-2 Blk IV (SM-2 with a booster). The SM-2 Blk IV and SM-3 are able to target ballistic missiles, while the SM-6 is a longer-range missile against airborne targets.

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Concept render showing the key combat systems of the vessel. Note the placement of the surface-to-air missiles. Source: Finnish MoD

Now, as late as last week I said in a discussion that it is not possible to fit the Strike length cells on the Pohjanmaa-class, as they are too long for a corvette. In all renders so far the VLS cells have been fitted in front of the superstructure, on deck level. Considering the low draft of the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes, just over 3 meters, it is doubtful whether the cells can be fitted within the confines of the bow. However, if the single cell is mounted along the centreline as opposed to across it, and if it gets a stepped platform a’la Type 26, it just might be doable (or a reshuffle with the Mk 41’s moving into the superstructure and the SSM’s moving to the foredeck/mission bay/further forward/aft/somewhere else).

So why would the Navy be interested in a cell that is two sizes larger than the missile they are planning on pairing it with? The answer is likely that they want to keep all options open. While I very much doubt that the ASROC would fit Finnish doctrine, the TLAM could open up new possibilities. However, if the Defence Forces want more cruise missiles, buying more of whatever will replace the JASSM on the winner of the HX-program is likely the better option (or alternatively buying a long-range weapon for the M270 MLRS). However, the possibility to provide some measure of protection against ballistic missiles might be of interest. While it certainly would be a major undertaking, the vessels will be in service for a long time and “fitted for but not with” is a time-honored tradition when it comes to naval shipbuilding. It should be noted that all kinds of ballistic missile defences are politically highly sensitive. Analysts have noted the similarities to the acquisition of the multirole F/A-18 Hornet back in the day, where even if the fighters were capable of flying ground attack missions, political considerations meant that the capability was only taken into use at a later stage, with the MLU2 mid-life upgrade.

The strike length cells also open up the possibility to fit some interesting anti-ship missiles in the future, as both the LRASM and the JSM are currently being tested in configurations suitable for launch from the Mk 41. Being able to swap out a number of SAM’s for more anti-ship missiles might be an interesting option at some point down the road (or at least interesting enough that the Navy doesn’t want to close the door just yet).

I will admit that the latest development have taken me by surprise. However, it does seem like the Navy is serious about fitting the vessels with systems that will allow them to field firepower to rival some significantly larger vessels. The question is whether the budget will live up to the ambitions?