The Complex

Here's a map of the 23 places the U.S. will bomb if there's a Syria no-fly zone

View Syrian air force bases in a larger map


Forget the small arms. If the White House really wants to alter the course of the Syrian civil war, it may well need to impose a no-fly zone. The good news is it probably won't be too hard to pull off, given the battered state of Assad's air defenses. The bad news is it could drag the U.S. into a wider war.

Bashar al-Assad's air force that has conducted between 115 and 141 air strikes a month from January through April of this year, largely with old Czechoslovakian-made L-39 Delfin trainer jets and helicopters such as the Soviet-designed Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-24.

The weapons may be old, but many analysts believe that they've made a crucial difference as pro-regime troops have seized the momentum in Syria's civil war. Some in the U.S. government are pushing for a total no-fly zone similar to the one imposed on Libya in 2011 in order to take out that air force.

(The map above shows the location of Assad's main air bases - the prime targets of any American campaign to limit Assad's power to strike from the sky.Let us know if we're missing any.)

On Friday, Anthony Cordesman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies said that anything less than (a pretty darn expensive) no-fly zone that totally grounds Assad's air force would be a "half-pregnant" solution similar to "supplying too few arms of too few lethality," as the U.S. and other nations have been said to be doing secretly for months without giving the rebels enough of an advantage to overthrow Assad.

A full-on no-fly zone would involve the U.S. and any other nations launching a high end assault with everything from B-2 stealth bombers to submarine and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at destroying Assad's radars, missile sites and air defense control networks. It'd be similar to what was done at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn, only bigger due to the fact that Syria has a much better air defense network than Libya did. Once these door-kickers have taken out the most dangerous elements of Syria's air defenses, other strike fighters such as U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Vipers -- some of which are already in neighboring Jordan --, and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F/A-18 Hornets would then be relatively free to hunt down and destroy Assad's aircraft on the ground or in the air.

As Cordesman points out, all of these jets would need to be flown off at least one aircraft carrier. The attack would also involve aircraft based in nearby Turkey, perhaps in  Jordan, as well as in other Middle East nations that host American warplanes. The strike jets would have to be supported by aerial refueling tankers, AWACS and possibly JSTARS radar planes, EA-18G Growler and EA-6B Prowler radar jamming jets, reconnaissance drones and other intelligence-gathering jets. A huge undertaking that would cost a ton and take a long time to achieve full effect. Remember, the U.S. and NATO patrolled the Libyan skies from March 2011 through October 2011, when Muammar al-Qaddafi.

However, as Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of war points out, Assad's high-end air defenses are stationary - making them easy targets for rebel ground attack and have likely been seriously degraded by months of fighting.

"The fixed site portion of the Syrian [air defenses] - the heavy radar, heavy [surface to air missiles], etc., belong to the Syrian Air Force, and in my opinion, have suffered significantly in the fighting," said Harmer. "They can't get out of the way of the rebels; more problematic, these old Soviet legacy systems are maintenance and training intensive.  My guess is the Syrian Air Force has lost significant capability on its heavy, fixed site IADS due to a lack of maintenance, repair, and training."

He also points out that even Syria's most modern air defense weapons - mobile, Russian-made SA-17s and SA-22s -- don't have the reach to shoot down U.S. planes, which fire off long-range missiles like the Joint Stand-off Weapon. Nor can the defenses hope to stop American ships launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Furthermore, America's radar jamming EA-18Gs and EA-6Bs "can overwhelm the relatively low power radar of the SA-17 and SA-22; any fixed site (heavy power output) radar that starts to illuminate, we'll just put an (AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile) into it. Game over for them," said Harmer. SA-17 and SA-22 are capable weapon systems, but our ability to defeat those weapons systems is far greater than the Syrians ability to interdict our air power."

There is one air defense system that could make life much more difficult for U.S. pilots, the Russian-made S-300 surface to air missiles. But the S-300 is not yet in country, despite the fact that Assad has ordered them from Russia. Those orders just got a lot more urgent, now that the U.S. is getting more directly involved in the Syrian civil war.

The Complex

We might have to bar contractors from top secrets, says leading senator

Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein today told reporters she is considering drafting legislation that would limit the Intelligence Community's virtual army of private contractors' access to "highly classified technical data."

The California Democrat's comments were made to reporters following a closed-door briefing on the leak of top secret documents revealing the NSA's collection of telephone and Internet traffic metadata on U.S. soil. The leaker, as the world now knows, was Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee turned IT contractor to the NSA.

Feinstein and 46 other senators were briefed on Capitol Hill by NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Intelligence Community General Council Robert Litt and one other unnamed official.

The senator also said that specific information on the "dozens" of terrorist attacks that Alexander claimed have potentially been foiled by the NSA's surveillance programs revealed by Snowden might be released on Monday.

Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, (a big fan of defense giant Lockheed Martin -- a firm that does loads of work in the intelligence and cyber world) told reporters he's not sure that legislation barring contractors from accessing highly-secret material is necessary.

"I think there are some changes that we're gonna look at, but I don't know that it needs to be done legislatively," he added.

Still, Chambliss admitted that the government needs to do a better job screening process people holding the highest security clearances.

"I think it's pretty clear that we've got to do a better job of making sure that a top secret clearance would go to only those people that deserve it and that we monitor all of those people who have a top secret clearance from time to time and we review their cases to determine whether there's any reason to suspect they may have compromised U.S. intelligence in some way," said Chambliss, largely describing procedures the government is already supposed to follow.

Earlier today, House intelligence chair Rep. Mike Rogers said Snowden was a "low-level individual, but because of his position in the IT system, had access to information that, candidly, he did not understand or have the full scope of what these programs were."

Much like the U.S. military has relied on hundreds of thousands of private security operators in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do everything from flying special operations teams on missions to guarding high-level diplomats (think the company formerly known as Blackwater) the U.S. Intelligence Community leans heavily on contractors to do everything from running IT security to high-end intelligence analysis and collection.

How heavily? Up to 70-percent of the Intelligence Community's budget is believed to go to contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton (Snowden's employer when he spilled NSA secrets to The Guardian and The Washington Post.)

Firms like Booz focus almost exclusively on grabbing federal government contracts.

"In my office, there were probably three Booz Allen [employees] to every one civil servant," a former private spy who worked for Booz at the NSA and also served several tours in Iraq and the Pentagon as a U.S. military intelligence officer told Killer Apps earlier this week.

"They can get clearances for everything," he added.

In fact, 22-percent of U.S. security clearance holders were contractors in 2012.

These clearances are vital to Booz Allen's business with 76-percent of the company's nearly 25,000 employees possessing security clearances, according to this May 2013 SEC filing by the firm.  "Persons with the highest security clearance, Top Secret, have access to information that would cause ‘exceptionally grave damage' to national security if disclosed to the public" the company brags about the caliber of its people.

Still, Army Private Bradley Manning on trial for providing classified diplomatic cables to Wikileaks was a government employee, not a contractor.  "Fundamentally this is not a contractor problem," The Washington Post quoted Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA, as saying. "It's a broader cultural problem, it's a vetting problem and it's how does somebody so junior" get access to top intelligence.

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