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August 31, 2013


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Can I ask for a reality check on myself?

I've always been under the impression that sending cruise missiles out to explode in the general vicinity of a target that might or might not be important and kill people who might or might not be missed by anyone except their friends and families, at little or no risk to Americans or allies, was the international equivalent of yelling "Your mother wears army boots!" from a safe distance.

Is this wrong? It makes a difference on whether I agree or not.

You've kind of loaded the question, David, so I'm not entirely sure what you're asking.

Cruise missiles did a pretty good number on military and multiple-use targets here in Kosovo. One of the high moments of the 1999 war (from an Albanian POV) was when a cruise missile strike took out the central police station. One shot, the building was rendered unusable, and no collateral damage beyond broken glass.


Doug M.

David, what Doug did was take issue with the assumptions in your question.

I still don't understand why you asked such a loaded question. The way you set it up, the answer is obvious. But that seems to be a rhetorical tool, rather than an inquiry.

Seriously, what is the question?

I'm asking for a reality check on a biased opinion.

Back in the Clinton administration, the US responded to some terrorists (al Qaeda, actually, IIRC) with a cruise missile strike. They blew some stuff up. Al Qaeda was not intimidated. According to some op-eds read years later, the targets were in fact not terrorist assets at all.

I concluded that someone in the administration said to the military "I want an option that starts quickly, is over quickly, relatively inexpensive, and most importantly ABSOLUTELY RISK FREE for American servicemen." The military responded "Cruise missile strikes? But they're only useful if the enemy has big targets that we have good intel on. We can't guarantee what we'll accomplish." And the administration said "Doesn't matter; it'll look great on the evening news."

Hence my opinion.

Doug has provided one excellent counter-example. What I'm asking is how likely it is that the US can do the same in Syria, or that we'll wind blowing up another fertilizer factory (IIRC, again).

I wouldn't mind learning that my opinion is outdated.

(Rereading the post, a clarification: I'm all in favor of not putting servicemen at risk. What I object to is foolish posturing.)

David, let me nuance my counter-example. While we made several impressive strikes in the Kosovo War, we very rapidly ran out of suitable targets for cruise missiles. By the third week of the war this was a big problem, and by the third month it was huge. There just aren't that many big, vulnerable, non-controversial fixed assets in a country, especially if you're trying to engage in limited war as opposed to WWII-style "burn or blow up everything". We ran out of appropriate targets long before the Serbs ran out of fight.

How does this apply to Syria? Well, I'd guess there are probably enough "good" targets in Syria to support several days of missile strikes. (We may want to throw some bombing in there too, though I have my doubts about the wisdom of that -- Assad still has a functioning air defense system.) So unless the strikes go beyond a few days -- and, good grief, why would they -- it shouldn't be a problem.

An interesting issue is those Russian "Onyx" antiship missiles. These have a short-ish range (about 300 km), so we can still stand well off in the Mediterranean and launch ship-based cruise missiles from 500+ km away. This should have only a modest effect on accuracy, because modern military avionics have gotten really good at delivering a payload to within a few meters of target. But I do wonder if someone won't be tempted to play chicken with those things. (Pack a destroyer with all the antimissile gear you can and then move it into range. It's a risk, but if you win you not only locate and obliterate the launch site, you get bragging rights and count coup on Russia. Probably not worth it, but you know they're running the numbers.)

Anyway, I would bet a large sum of money that they've been in active target selection mode for a while now. Mistakes may happen (remember the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade?) but they won't happen because nobody was thinking about the problem.

Doug M.

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