Friday, May 24, 2013

The Planes Have to Land Somewhere

The ultimate air superiority is helping rebel forces standing on Assad's air bases.

Should we attack Assad's air power and air fields? This opinion piece argues we should:

The Syrian air force is capable of aerial bombardment, close air support to ground troops, aerial resupply and delivery of chemical weapons. Assad has used all those capabilities over the past two years to fight the rebels and to kill tens of thousands of civilians. But in the past year, the rebels—armed with heavy weapons and possibly with shoulder-fired Stinger missiles—have become more proficient at shooting down helicopters, reportedly as many as 20 so far.

What is keeping Assad in power is his use of fighter planes. If the U.S. wants to break the military stalemate, force Assad into political concessions or aid in his ouster, eliminating his air power should be the first order of business.

I don't think Assad's air power is that critical for his success. His heavy armor and artillery are far more destructive than air attacks. My impression is that Assad isn't flying that many missions. So I went for statistics.

Even with apparent increased tempo (the source for data changed), Assad is carrying out about 4 strike sorties per day.

Consider that when we got down to 4 strike sorties per day in Afghanistan, it was considered low. At peak, it was more than 30 per day and generally 10 or more per day. Against fewer insurgents. With more effectiveness due to accuracy and intelligence. And we have been very restrictive in our use of air power. Our capacity was much greater so the sortie limits were political.

And this Syrian "increase" is suspect. I have no doubt that Iran and Russia are bolstering Syria's maintenance capabilities, but given the lack of pilots, is the sortie rate really up this year when late last year, 20 strike sorties per day seemed possible for Assad?

Remember, Assad's fortunes have seemed to rise lately even as the sortie rate does not match what was achieved when the rebels were forcing Assad to retreat from areas outside his core area. The keys for Assad have been abandoning outer areas in the north and east and the infusion of 60,000 loyal militias on the ground, thus increasing his force-to-space ratio dramatically.

If we want to help the rebels cope with Assad's air power, get them heavy machine guns to hit helicopters and keep aircraft higher (and so more inaccurate). And give them infantry weapons to cope with armor and supplies to sustain attacks on Assad's bases where the air power sorties from. Heck, send them rockets to allow the rebels to hit the airfields from farther away.

I agree that Syria's air defenses aren't as awesome as many critics of air action say to justify withholding air missions. I think the missions are unnecessary and merely Americanize the fight. The rebels want to fight. Help them fight where it counts--on the ground.

Bleed those new militias and nobody will be left to hold the airfields.