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Shooting down five myths about cruise missiles

by Eliot A. Cohen

The Washington Post.

There are not many heroes in the should-we-bomb-Syria debate, but if there is one, it might be the cruise missile. For weeks the news media have discussed the positioning in the Mediterranean of American destroyers and submarines, which carry the Tomahawk cruise missile. And whether arguing pro or con, most of the politicians and military experts have come back to it as the central instrument of U.S. power in this curious crisis. Let’s examine misconceptions about America’s apparent weapon of choice in Syria.

1. Cruise missiles first emerged as key weapons during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Try a little earlier. The first American cruise missile designed to attack targets on land was invented, though not deployed in combat, during World War I. The program was shut down in the interwar period, but other countries continued similar work, most notably Germany. The V-1s that Germany showered on London during World War II were quite respectable cruise missiles, with a range of 200 km and a payload of nearly a ton — almost twice as much as a Tomahawk. The Germans fired about 10,000 at Britain, of which only 3,500 made it without crashing or being shot down. They killed more than 6,000 people without affecting the outcome of the war.

Long-range, land-attack cruise missile development continued after the war: In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States deployed nuclear weapons on the Regulus missile. Meanwhile, the development of cruise missiles for naval warfare — ship versus ship, shore versus ship — proceeded apace.

The Tomahawk is longer in the tooth than one might think, having been conceived in the 1970s and declared operational in the early 1980s. It began as a nuclear weapons system and gradually assumed its current land-attack role. There are many cruise missiles of other types (land-, air-, and sea-launched, for use against targets in each of those domains) in the arsenals of the U.S. and other countries. From the American point of view, however, the Tomahawk seems to be most relevant to the Syrian case.

2. Cruise missiles are unerringly accurate.

Alas, no. Smart weapons periodically go stupid, through technical faults, jamming or spoofing. The British, for example, misled German targeteers by feeding them false information about where they had hit throughout the missile campaign against London in 1944-1945. Today’s success rates are much better than for the V-1 — a quarter of those fired never made it across the English Channel — but they are lower than 99 percent.

A cruise missile uses one or more guidance systems, including GPS, inertial navigation (following a programmed route on the basis of internally stored data), terrain-matching radar (detecting and recognizing landmarks as it flies over them) or digital scene matching (same idea, but using imagery rather than radar). When it gets to the target, it detonates a 450-kg warhead, a cargo of bomblets or possibly a more exotic package, such as the carbon fibers that were dumped on Iraqi transformers in 1991, shorting out that country’s power grid.

But precision weapons require timely, precision intelligence. In 1998, the U.S. fired scores of cruise missiles at al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan — but Osama bin Laden was no longer there, and by some reports, as few as half a dozen terrorists were killed.

In the same year, cruise missiles blew up a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, which may not, as was claimed, have been producing chemical weapons. These missiles are accurate, but they are only as useful as their targeting is precise.

3. Cruise missiles, launched from sea, can do anything airplanes can do, but without endangering pilots.

Tomahawks are expensive — between $1 million and $2 million each. Precision-guided bombs dropped from airplanes are cheap — tens of thousands of dollars apiece. The U.S. may have several thousand Tomahawks in its arsenal; it probably has hundreds of thousands of gravity bombs. A gravity bomb can deliver at least twice as much high explosive as a cruise missile. Because of the physics of being dropped from a plane at 3,000 or 6,000 meters, a bomb with a hardened nose can penetrate layers of reinforced concrete. To take out an underground bunker (rather than, say, a radar site or another soft target), you usually need gravity bombs.

Moreover, it is relatively easy to turn airplanes around, up to the last moment. The crews of aircraft carriers welcome back the pilots of F-18 fighters; the crews of missile-firing destroyers do not welcome back Tomahawks that have decided to return to base.

4. The cruise missile threat brought Syria’s Bashar Assad to the point of surrendering his chemical arms.

If you believe the White House Twitter feed, yes. If you believe that the Syrians and the Russians read our newspapers and websites, and have elementary political sense, doubtful.

It was clear before the president’s speech Tuesday that the resolutions to authorize the use of force were going to be defeated in Congress, perhaps spectacularly so. It was equally clear that President Barack Obama was desperate to climb down from the tree up which he had chased himself by loosely using terms such as “red line.” A deal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons gives Russia influence in the region and a claim on Obama’s gratitude. And it gives Syria an implicit go-ahead to continue using bombs, knives, rockets, mortar shells, power tools, electric irons and anything else to murder or torture civilians, including children. To make that point, on the day of the president’s speech, the Syrian air force bombed Damascus.

5. Cruise missiles can deliver a proportionate response in Syria.

Obama has described the proposed airstrikes as “a limited, proportional” response. But it’s worth recalling the words of the great Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik. Writing about another massacre that lifted eyebrows in the West — a government-tolerated pogrom against Jews in 1903 in the Russian city of Kishinev — he said Satan himself could not devise a revenge appropriate for those who deliberately slaughter infants.

Conceivably, cruise missiles could be used to target the children of Assad, his senior military commanders and the crews that load rockets and artillery shells with sarin. That would be a form of retribution, albeit one more suited to the most vicious of street gangs than the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.

The slaying of 400 children with sarin, and thousands of others by less exotic but no less brutal means, poses a moral as well as a political problem. It might call for justice; it might call for exemplary punishment (which handing over a fraction of one’s arsenal is not). Or it might be a tragedy best lamented and then ignored. In any event, cruise missiles are no magical solution to a horror.

Proportionality, in other words, has nothing to do with it.

Eliot A. Cohen teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He directed the air force’s Gulf War Air Power Survey from 1991 to 1993.