Analysis |

After Syrian Chemical Attack, Obama Opts for 'Tomahawk Diplomacy'

If the U.S. decides it has no choice but to respond, it will have to destroy targets such as the Brigade 155 missile base west of Damascus where the chemical rockets most likely originated. The Tomahawk will be the agent of its destruction.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Just like many other weapons systems, the Tomahawk missile was originally designed for a very different target from that for which it was eventually used. The cruise missile (which the American administration has refused in the past to supply to Israel) was envisaged in the 1970s to be used from submarines and land-based silos to carry relatively small nuclear warheads against Soviet bloc targets but a few years after it was deployed there was no Soviet Union and the Tomahawk's role changed following the gradual drawing-down of America's nuclear arsenal. Instead it became a central tool in the U.S. president's war chest of options. The Tomahawk's accuracy which has been greatly improved over the years, its range and the fact that some 140 U.S. Navy submarines and destroyers deployed across the glove are equipped to launch it, enable the president to decide on a massive attack without the need to draw close to the target's shore or to send ground troops or manned aircraft.

The decision over the weekend to concentrate four destroyers with Tomahawks in the eastern Mediterranean (three which were already under the command of the Sixth Fleet and an additional destroyer that was about to embark for the Atlantic) was an almost reflexive move. Since the first operational use of the Tomahawk in the opening stages of the Gulf War in January 1991, every U.S. president since, the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Obama, have all ordered Tomahawk launches. These decisions can be divided into two groups: As the preliminary to wider airborne attacks, followed by ground invasion (two Iraq wars and Afghanistan). And as a substitute to boots on the ground and pilots in the air as they were used attacking Serbian targets when the U.S. preferred not to send its troops to prevent war-crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo, when it "punished" Saddam Hussein for sending his planes into no-fly zones in north and south Iraq, over the years against Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Sudan and two years ago when Obama decided to "lead from behind" in support of the rebels against Muammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya.

The Tomahawk doctrine, maximum effect on the ground with a minimum of risk to American soldiers has evolved in recent years into the massive use of weaponized drones which began under George W. Bush was dramatically expanded under Obama. The drone has an advantage over the cruise missile as it can perform multiple surveillance and strike missions over many hours and return to base. Each Tomahawk launch costs the American taxpayer around $1.5 million, but on the other hand, its speed, mobility and especially the devastation of its 450kg warhead is without comparison. If the U.S. has finally decided that it has no choice but to respond to the alleged chemical attack carried out last week by the Syrian army, it will have to destroy targets such as the Brigade 155 missile base west of Damascus where the chemical rockets most likely originated and the Tomahawk will be the agent of its destruction.

In the past, the classical American response to a growing threat somewhere on the planet would be to send an aircraft carrier group to the region, but in an age of cutbacks at the Pentagon, when the U.S. Navy has "only" ten carriers, such a decision isn't taken lightly. The deployment of a carrier group to the Mediterranean will be a major move that will necessitate the disruption of naval schedules. The Harry S. Truman left the Mediterranean only last week to replace the Nimitz which has been on station off the Persian Gulf and is due to return to the West Coast after a six-month deployment. The other carriers are either in distant locations or undergoing periodic maintenance.

Deploying an aircraft carrier off the shores of a rogue state was the 20th Century version of Gunboat Diplomacy, when the colonialist powers of the 18th and 19th centuries used the threat of their naval cannons to gouge trade and settlement concessions from weaker nations. Now, belatedly, Obama is trying Tomahawk Diplomacy, though the time for threatening Bashar Assad seems to be over.

U.S. Navy showing the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage (DDG 61), the amphibious transport dock ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG 80).Credit: AFP

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