Members of Congress questioned top U.S. leaders Tuesday afternoon about the virtue of launching missiles at Syria, while experts in the use of such surgical attacks say the U.S. has already lost most of its tactical advantage.
By simply announcing his desire to launch a Tomahawk cruise missile strike, President Barack Obama has afforded the Bashar Assad regime time to prepare itself and the military both mechanically and psychologically, experts say. The fighting force that for more than two years has waged war against the homegrown rebellion also has experience at evading the devastation of something like a cruise missile attack.
Recent developments, including reports that the Russians have sent spy ships to keep tabs on the U.S. Navy vessels in the Mediterranean, further dampen U.S. hopes of walking away from the situation with a "win."
"Unless you do something really massive, it's going to be hard to significantly make a difference in terms of Assad's military capability to fight a civil war," says Theodore Postol, a professor at MIT and expert on the use of missiles in battle.
The Navy has confirmed it had moved four warships into position in the Mediterranean. It does not disclose specifics on the armaments aboard its vessels, but this group likely has roughly 200 Tomahawk missiles available, according to a recent report from the Institute for the Study of War.
"They may hit command centers. That will help do damage. They may destroy primary facilities at airfields. That will help. But in terms of truly crippling the regime, I think they will have to do something much more massive," he says.
The U.S. military objectives in Syria include holding the Assad regime accountable for its reported use of chemical weapons, as well as deterring and disabling its ability to conduct such attacks. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the plan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday afternoon.
The Syrian military built bunkers beginning in the 1970s that are able to shield its aircraft and other armaments from heavy bombs dropped by planes overhead. It's unclear how those could stand up against an impact from a cruise missile, which could attack from an angle.
Many of Assad's resources that he has turned against his citizenry can be moved elsewhere, including within the dense population centers throughout the nation. Reports circulated Tuesday afternoon that Assad had already begun moving forces and equipment into civilian areas.
It would likely be difficult to track and target helicopters, fixed-wing attack airplanes and mobile air-defenses if they are spread out and moved quickly, Postol says. The U.S. military must also take into account that the 1,000-pound explosives on Tomahawk missiles cause massive damage to whatever they target, and what is around it.
"There's nothing pinpoint about a 1,000 pound bomb," says Postol.
Christopher Harmer, senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and a Navy veteran, says tracking a moving target and directing a Tomahawk missile to it is exceedingly difficult.
"By waiting to act, and more or less telling Assad what we're going to do, we've given up the initiative and he's in a much, much better position to survive this," he says.
Forces loyal to the regime also now enjoy the benefit of reports that the Russian navy has deployed spy ships to the Mediterranean to keep tabs on the U.S. Navy presence.
Russian sensors could easily detect within seconds the massive energy behind launching a Tomahawk missile, Harmer says. U.S. Navy ships are likely not parked closer than 100 miles from their target, and no farther than 1,000 miles -- the maximum range for these weapons. This allows between 20 minutes and two hours for the Assad regime to become aware of an incoming attack and to deploy its resources accordingly.
"When you give your enemy this much advanced warning, when you allow your enemies' allies to reposition, it takes away so much of the psychological impact," says Harmer. "We can still regain the initiative from a strategic perspective, but from a tactical perspective, we have lost the initiative."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., raised this point during a congressional hearing Tuesday afternoon with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. He asked if Assad would be able to "change the equation" in Syria with such advanced notice from the U.S.
"We have some pretty significant intelligence capabilities, and we continue to refine our targets," Dempsey replied, saying "time works both ways" and that he has considered these changes in his planning.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., questioned the strategy Hagel unveiled as overly ambitious.
"[Assad] has reached a point where he now thinks of chemical weapons as just another weapon in his arsenal," Dempsey responded of what he says is an insidious situation. In regard to the strategy, he said "we will have not only an initial target set but also subsequent target sets."
Hagel, Dempsey and Kerry deferred specific questions about intelligence and potential plans to a scheduled closed-door session Wednesday before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.