Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: This time it's Syria

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  • Matthew Poole,

    I’m in no doubt that the Syrian government has been using chemical weapons in populated areas

    Or, at the least, the Syrian military has been, if what's reported about communications intercepts is accurate.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to BenWilson,

    Chemical weapons are also utterly indiscriminate. Even aerial bombing has a clear destination and a limited blast radius. Chemical weapons, though, are play-things of the wind and environmental conditions, and they linger for hours, if not weeks. Toss in the slow death for people minimally exposed and they're describable only as pure evil.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Simon Grigg,

    Even that’s hard. A mixture of force dispersion and rotating aircraft into the air means that this is unlikely to happen.

    I'd be pretty amazed if they could maintain an effective airforce for more than a few hours against a concerted attack by the USA, if they do it the way they usually do, with massive overwhelming force built up over a month or so, all unleashed simultaneously. The place could become a no-fly zone like Iraq. But that would not really help the people on the ground, about whom any action would presumably be. There could be instant reprisals against anyone perceived to be against the regime on a massive scale, as has happened so many times in response to air attacks.

    I'm not saying they should do it. Just that they could.

    Assad has some 400 Migs and Sukhois with the most recent being easily a match for anything the US could throw at them.

    It's not just about numbers of aircraft, it's about the ability to effectively deploy them. If you destroy the airfields, that's the end of the jet fighters. And once air dominance is established, it's pretty much impossible to reverse. Even if the regime could scramble 400 MIGs into the air, if there's nothing for them to fight, and nowhere to land afterward, that's the end of that - they'll surrender and land, or bail out and ditch the aircraft. Simultaneously, they strike at every radar installation, taking out the ability of the military to even see what's coming at them. Anything at all that creates any kind of detectable emission becomes an instant target. If the aircraft stay on the ground they are simply destroyed, either in the open or in their hangars, or even bunkers. If they are hidden, they have to stay hidden, or their launch will be detected, the hidden airfield destroyed, so they are completely neutralized.

    We've seen this done before. Again, I don't think they should do it, but I'm pretty sure they have the capability.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen R,

    The Le Monde Article suggested the military were using gas to avoid having to assault strongpoints held by rebels. I can understand why they're keen to avoid FISH and CHIPS* and how gas might be attractive to the military. Low doses seem to be enough to get the rebels to retreat without even killing that many (or leaving that much evidence) - people who don't die quickly from Sarin appear to recover in a few days.

    It's possible the people who have to charge into buildings full of rebels might have different priorities about the use of chemical weapons to the people worried about US airstrikes on their HQ.


    *Fighting In Someone's House and Causing Havoc In People's Streets - The UK have much better acronyms than the US.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2009 • 259 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    It's disturbing that Syria is reported to have VX. If that's used it'll make the sarin attacks look like a family trip to Disneyland.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Matthew Poole,

    Even aerial bombing has a clear destination and a limited blast radius

    Depending on the kind of bomb, and the bombing pattern, of course. MOABs have huge radii, Fuel Air bombs work in a way that is a mix of blast and chemical anti-personnel effects, and firebombing deliberately seeks to create uncontrollable firestorms, whilst cluster bombs can leave debris that is dangerous for years afterwards, particularly to children. But yes there are the expensive targeted bombs too, which still manage to kill many bystanders.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to BenWilson,

    I’d be pretty amazed if they could maintain an effective airforce for more than a few hours against a concerted attack by the USA

    Syria is NOT Iraq or Lybia. Syria is relatively rich AND has spent a huge amount of it's wealth on arms - supplied mostly from USSR and now Russia. They have been "at war" with Isreal for decades (an actual declared war). Their military is constantly training for actual war. They have as modern a military as almost any country in the world.

    The US also has the problem of where they can launch their attacks. At the moment because of the political situation they would be mostly limited to carrier based launches from the fleet in the Med, that makes everything more difficult. While I suspect you are right that the US would wipe out the Syrian air force I strongly doubt it would happen as quickly as you suggest.

    In addition Syria has significant air defence capability, designed to defend against the Isreali air force. Flying US planes over Syria would be a risky proposition with significant losses. I really don't think it's as easy an option as you suggest.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to BenWilson,

    Fuel Air bombs work in a way that is a mix of blast and chemical anti-personnel effects

    Got a citation for that? The whole point of an FAB is that it combusts its entire payload resulting in a massive negative-pressure effect which results in barometric damage to structures and people. If they work properly there's nothing left behind from the weapon.

    As for the rest, yes conventional weapons can be somewhat indiscriminate, but not over the same kind of uncontrollably large area as chemical weapons. Even cluster bombs have a discrete blast radius and dispersal area.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I really don’t think it’s as easy an option as you suggest.

    Probably not, but if the US were to deploy penetrating and cluster munitions from cruise missiles against Syrian air force runways it would be disruptive. If they could coordinate it with operations to lure large numbers of Syrian aircraft into the air it might even play out somewhat as Ben suggests.
    Like you, though, I wouldn't want to put money on it, and it certainly wouldn't work more than once.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Simon Grigg, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I really don’t think it’s as easy an option as you suggest.

    Agree. Also the large Mig-23 and Mig-29 forces don't require airfields – a road with a shed to refuel will do the trick.

    Just another klong... • Since Nov 2006 • 3283 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    Also there's an asymmetry --- Syrian regime doesn't need to achieve or even attempt air superiority, just needs to make US attempts to do so costly. Not to mention, loss of air superiority is fatal to like, no government ever. That's a much easier role, and presumably one that Syria has prioritized.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1452 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Syria is relatively rich AND has spent a huge amount of it’s wealth on arms – supplied mostly from USSR and now Russia. They have been “at war” with Isreal for decades (an actual declared war). Their military is constantly training for actual war. They have as modern a military as almost any country in the world.

    I'm predicating my claim around the US not going in with a steadily building force, a fighter here, a helicopter there, but instead with a blitzkrieg, as they have each time in the last engagements with any forces capable of even token resistance. There is a steady build up of massive force from every side they can come from, along with a diplomatic assault, seeking to build some kind of international consensus, but also just buying time, building up intel on every target, planning every mission, and issuing ultimatums to the target regime. They're imaging the entire country from satellites, to find everything that moves. They're collaborating with the Israeli intelligence which is most likely very substantial. They're dropping in special forces on the ground, they're circling with drones that are constantly feeding back imagery on every wavelength they can. They're violating airspace around the borders constantly, hoping to provoke some kind of incident to gain proof of "aggression", as casus belli. They're probably capturing people constantly, torturing them for installation intel.

    When the assault comes it's as much an anticipated stage-managed event as an actual war, the timing of it known, and the outcome inevitable.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Matthew Poole,

    Got a citation for that?

    Yup

    A Human Rights Watch report of 1 February 2000[27] quotes a study made by the US Defense Intelligence Agency:

    The [blast] kill mechanism against living targets is unique–and unpleasant.... What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs.... If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    Syrian regime doesn’t need to achieve or even attempt air superiority, just needs to make US attempts to do so costly.

    As a deterrent, that makes sense. But once the shooting actually starts, it's curtains for their air force.

    Agree. Also the large Mig-23 and Mig-29 forces don’t require airfields – a road with a shed to refuel will do the trick.

    In which they are totally defenseless. If they take off, they will be tracked to their landing point, which can be attacked remotely without even risking any US lives. So they each get one mission, during which they might possibly not be shot down, so long as they don't actually confront what would most likely be a massive response. Then they get out of their plane and run for their lives, if they haven't just used it to hand themselves over without a fight.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    Not to mention, loss of air superiority is fatal to like, no government ever.

    Not immediately fatal, anyway.

    Again, I'm not saying the US should do this. But let's not kid ourselves that they couldn't do it. They have huge practice at it. They have demonstrated not only the capability but also the intention, several times.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    Eh I think on own never fatal (although am just relying on Farley here.)

    Has the US demonstrated capability of exerting air superiority against maintained modern fighters without allied support over hostile territory using carrier based forces? I don't think they have, not since Korea/Vietnam, at best.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1452 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to BenWilson,

    If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate ... undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.

    That's not exactly a design effect. The design is thermobaric trauma, not poisoning.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    Eh I think on own never fatal (although am just relying on Farley here.)

    Not on it's own, but it's a pretty important step, especially when wanting to minimize your own casualties, to take out the air power of the other side. For that reason it's tempting to see it as a way of protecting others on the ground. But it's effectiveness at that is highly circumstantial.

    I would say that air support did help the Libyan resistance to Gaddafi. They still did the work on the ground, but the US didn't need to supply anything else to ensure Gaddafi was finished. The problem in Syria is that the battle on the ground is nothing much like in Libya. They're up against a much more effective military.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Matthew Poole,

    The design is thermobaric trauma, not poisoning.

    It's a pretty horrible way to die, particularly for anyone on the fringe of the blast, which is a substantially larger area than those who are humanely vaporized at the epicenter.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

  • Simon Grigg, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    So they each get one mission, during which they might possibly not be shot down, so long as they don’t actually confront what would most likely be a massive response.

    I think you are overestimating the airborne assets the US has in the region.

    They also don’t need to land at the same place they took off from. The roads as airstrips strategy, as developed by the Swiss and the Swedish in the 1960s, makes an airforce almost invulnerable on the ground. The US would need to keep several hundred aircraft in the air the whole time to counter it. They don’t have that many available, and certainly not to loiter dangerously over a very hostile environment.

    Has the US demonstrated capability of exerting air superiority against maintained modern fighters without allied support over hostile territory using carrier based forces? I don’t think they have, not since Korea/Vietnam, at best.

    Not since Korea. Vietnam was when they met their match and that was mostly against old Mig-17s.

    The US fleet fighters have also regularly lost airborne practice brawls against similar aircraft to those in the Syrian fleet, which is the only time they've ever really fronted them. Fact is, the Russian built fighters are the best dogfighters in the world, which is a primary reason there is so much discomfort with the impeding F-35 as it’s nowhere near a match for the much cheaper Russian and Chinese built fighters.

    Just another klong... • Since Nov 2006 • 3283 posts Report Reply

  • Simon Grigg, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    Also there’s an asymmetry — Syrian regime doesn’t need to achieve or even attempt air superiority, just needs to make US attempts to do so costly.

    Quite. And they very likely will. This then plays out on evening news in the US over and over - dead or captured pilots to a casualty adverse US public. Obama might not be up for re-election but plenty of Congressmen and women are.

    Just another klong... • Since Nov 2006 • 3283 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to Simon Grigg,

    which is a primary reason there is so much discomfort with the impeding F-35 as it’s nowhere near a match for the much cheaper Russian and Chinese built fighters.

    It's nowhere near a match for pretty much anything. Long-ish article, but a fascinating insight into how a decades-old grudge held by the US Marine Corps and a complete inability to learn from procurement fuck-up history has left the US with a single all-purpose airframe which "can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run" - and can't hide if it's meant to be carrying any significant weapons payload.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to BenWilson,

    The design is thermobaric trauma, not poisoning.

    It’s a pretty horrible way to die, particularly for anyone on the fringe of the blast, which is a substantially larger area than those who are humanely vaporized at the epicenter.

    Sure, never said it wasn't, but it's still not the design to poison people.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Kumara Republic,

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5441 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Simon Grigg,

    Quite. And they very likely will. This then plays out on evening news in the US over and over – dead or captured pilots to a casualty adverse US public. Obama might not be up for re-election but plenty of Congressmen and women are.

    I'd rate it about 50:50 that Syrians killing Americans would lead to a general US mood of pulling out, or going into all-out war. That's a hell of a risk, and the Syrians have a lot more to lose. I don't know where this idea has come from that the US public are pacifists and the congress won't support their commander-in-chief. It's certainly not borne out by any recent history. They're as likely to go wild as they are to back down.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report Reply

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