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.