The Complex

No, We Don’t Need Britain's Help To Bomb Assad

Britain, America's closest ally in the world, just decided that it will not participate in any strikes punishing the regime of Bashar al-Assad for killing hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons. While there may be political fallout from Britain's decision not to participate in an offensive U.S. military campaign for the first time in two decades, the loss of its military muscle won't severely hamper America's ability to hit Assad.

Yes, the Royal Navy could send a submarine to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian targets as it did to help oust Muammar al-Qaddafi from Libya in 2011. But let's put things in perspective: HMS Triumph fired six Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya during the month of March. Meanwhile, the American guided missile submarine USS Florida fired more than 90 Tomahawks at Libyan air defenses, clearing the path for American, British and French jets to drop bombs on Libya without fear of being shot down.

Speaking of aircraft, British Typhoon and Tornado strike fighter jets -- the former being one the of the world's most advanced fighters -- did destroy targets throughout the Libyan campaign. In fact, European fighter jets took the lead in bombing Qaddafi's forces in the months after the Americans kicked down the doors to Libya with Tomahawks and strikes by B-2 stealth bombers. Still, the U.S. had to provide its allies with $24 million worth of ammunition and spare parts after it was revealed that NATO forces were running out of guided munitions in the middle of the campaign. The French were even dropping GPS-guided concrete training bombs at one point in Libya. (These weapons were found to be very useful at taking out tanks through sheer kinetic energy. The French claimed the non-exploding concrete bombs lowered the risk killing innocent civilians who were near their targets.)

The Libyan campaign was a seven-month long campaign designed to neutralize Qaddafi's air force and protect the Libyan rebels from his ground forces. That meant that a large, international coalition was extremely helpful to a U.S. military that was largely focused on the surge in Afghanistan at the time.

Any strikes against Syria, on the other hand, are likely going to be very limited -- described by U.S. President Barack Obama as a warning shot across Assad's bow aimed at scaring him into never using chemical weapons again.

If the U.S. really is planning on simply wrapping Assad's knuckles, it can likely do this with the U.S. Navy's four Arleigh Burke class destroyers that are sitting in the Eastern Mediterranean. Each of those ships can carry about 90 Tomahawk guided missiles. Even if these ships aren't armed with their full payloads of 90 Tomahawks apiece, this small armada still carries plenty of firepower for a shot across Assad's bow.

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The Complex

Were Syria’s Nerve Gas Rockets Based on an American Design?

For weeks now, photos have been showing up online showing a mysterious rocket found at the scene of alleged chemical attacks in Syria. While no one knows for sure, one former chemical weapons inspector says the weapons found in Syria appear to based a particularly brutal American design from the Cold War.

Ordinarily, this might be a mere curiosity for weapons geeks. But these rockets have now became a cornerstone of the West's case that the Syrian military was behind the nerve gas massacre of more than a thousands people in the Damascus suburbs last week. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice tweeted earlier in the week that only the Assad regime "has capacity to launch CW [chemical weapons] with rockets." An American intelligence official told Foreign Policy on Tuesday that the rockets found at the scene of the attack on the East Ghouta region were a strong indicator that the strike involved chemical weapons. The rockets were largely intact -- rather than completely destroyed, as they would be if they been carrying high-explosive warheads.

"Why is there so much rocket left? There shouldn't be so much rocket left" if it were a conventional weapon, the official said.

The video above shows what looks like the rockets found at the sites of chemcial attacks being loaded and fired by men wearing red-beret topped camoflage uniforms consistent with the Sryian Republican Guard and military police, according to the Brown Moses Blog, a running catalogue of the weapons used in the Syrian conflict. The video purports to show the rockets being fired from the Daraya district of Damascus to the northeast of the Al-Mezzeh military airfield. While last week's chemical attacks occured at night and this video is clearly shot during the daytime, Daraya sits very close to Muadhamiya, one of the Damascus suburbs affected by last week's chemcial attack. (The weapons shown in the video could be a conventional version of the suspected chemical munitions.)

These mystery rockets have been documented for weeks by Brown Moses, who first pointed out that their uniform design and assembly made it unlikely they were homemade weapons built by the Syrian rebels. That they had to be from the arsenal of the Syrian military.

If these are indeed Assad's rockets, they appear to be a painful example of how a design meant to save American lives on the battlefield has been converted to a weapon of mass destruction turned against civilians.

The Surface Launch Unit-Fuel Air Explosive or SLUFAE (shown below), is a 1970s-vintage American weapon designed to clear minefields. SLUFAE was what's known as a fuel air explosive (FAE) or thermobaric munition. These weapons are designed to destroy targets with the massive amounts of air pressure generated by their explosions rather than with flames and shrapnel. The U.S. Army and Navy developed SLUFAE as a prototype weapons system meant to be fired into minefields ahead of advancing U.S. troops with the intention of using SLUFAE's tremendous explosive force to safely detonate mines.

SLUFAEs were 5 inch-wide, Zuni rockets with a 13.5 inch-wide, 100-pound, barrel-shaped warhead filled with explosive gas mounted on the front. The whole contraption was about 8-feet long. As you can see by the image above, the rear end of SLUFAE bears an uncanny resemblance to the weapons found in Syria. The front-ends of of the mystery rockets also appear to have been large, barrel-shaped warheads that were destroyed or disfigured upon detonation and impact with the ground. 

One former inspector with the U.N.'s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, says the the weapons in Syria could well be a knock off of the SLUFAE design, but with the warhead filled with chemical weapons instead of the pressurized explosive gas found in FAEs. 

SLUFAE's "design would make it useful for chemical weapons delivery," said the ex-inspector in an email.

"This type of rocket, with a similar warhead design, has been seen before as a FAE weapon," he added, describing SLUFAE. "These were typically filled with a pressurized gas, I believe the U.S. used Ethylene trioxide."

This gas would be expelled from SULFAE's warhead when it was just above the target and then explode "a split second later," according to the ex-inspector. "This gas explosion did not normally burn anything, but the detonation caused significant overpressure. This was found to be very deadly for people and animals."

People and animals unlucky enough to be near a thermobaric explosion have their internal organs crushed by waves of air pressure instead of suffering shrapnel wounds or burns.

The U.S. abandoned the SLUFAE effort before it was ever fielded. However, in the decades since it was tested, several countries have built similar weapons loosely based on SLUFAE, according to the inspector.

In fact, "a very similar munition was found 3-5 years ago, during one of the Israeli excursions," into Southern Lebanon, said the former weapons inspector. That weapon turned out to be Israel's CARPET thermobaric mine-clearing weapon (see the PDF below.)

"While it is not the same munition, you can see the similarities," adds the ex inspector.

When asked by Killer Apps about the likelihood of an actual SLUFAE prototype from the 1970s falling into Assad's hands, he replied, "I'd say about zero."  

"There are only a few floating around, most in museums and I've got one here," he added.  "But the concept was kept afloat. You can see what the Israelis did with it, and the Russians were not above copying something that they liked. They had one about the same size as the Israeli piece."

Without on site inspections by experts, it's impossible to know for sure if the rockets appearing online were used the chemical deaths of hundreds of Syrians over the last month.

Still, "the weapon is certainly capable of carrying chemical weapons, we saw worse designs from Iraq that were filled and fielded," the inspector said.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't be skeptical of the chemical claims associated with this particular type of rocket. Video recently surfaced showing UN inspection in Syria teams looking at what might be a Soviet-made BM-14 rocket, a known chemical delivery system.

One thing to give anyone pause about thinking the mystery rockets are being used to deliver chemical weapons is the complete lack of fear shown by everyone posing in the photos with the weapons.

"I am a little conflicted in that too many are being photographed with everyone in the photos wandering around with no protective gear and apparently no concern," the inspector noted. "Most people have a deep underlying fear of chemical weapons. If you truly believed and had witnessed others affected, I would expect to see a little more worry."


CARPET Brochure %281%29 (1) by jreedFP

U.S. Army, Imgur, Brown Moses