|RED SEA (Sept. 13, 2013) Ensign Timothy McDaniel prepares to anchor a ladder from the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) to a rigid-hull inflatable boat during a visit from leadership of the guided-missile submarine USS Georgia (SSGN 729). Mason is deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Rob Aylward/Released)|
These two pictures combined tell us something important: The President of the United States never intended to conduct military strikes against Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack that took place on August 21st. He was bluffing. The President was never playing chess, but he was never playing checkers either; President Obama was playing poker.
In early August, well before the chemical weapons incident on August 21st in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, USS Georgia (SSGN 729) was conducting a crew swap in Diego Garcia. When the chemical weapons attack occurred in Syria, the guided missile submarine was back to sea underway for normal training and qualifications that typically occur right after the change out between blue/gold crews. As things heated up in Syria, the prevailing assumption at the time was that USS Georgia (SSGN 729) was likely sprinting around Africa on her way to the Mediterranean Sea.
The US Navy operates four Ohio class nuclear powered guided missile submarines that are, by any definition, the most powerful arsenals of stealth conventional warfare strike capabilities on the planet. Capable of launching over 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles, these incredible weapons of war are simultaneously one of the most difficult weapons in the US military to detect and from a range of over 900 miles away can launch over 300,000 pounds of explosives in about 6 minutes and hit a fixed target with precision no larger than 2 meters in diameter. As converted nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines, these enormous submarines - the size of World War II aircraft carriers - are extremely fast and extremely stealthy. By rounding the Cape of Good Horn a SSGN could depart Diego Garcia, circumvent Africa, and arrive off Cyprus in less than two weeks, and nobody in the world today besides us is postured to see the submarine coming.
Over the past few months, the Navy has been operating two SSGNs at sea ever since USS Flordia (SSGN 728) returned to Kings Bay, Ga in early July. USS Ohio (SSGN 726) has been at sea somewhere in the Pacific, while USS Michigan (SSGN 727) has been at home port over the late summer. That basically meant the only SSGN available for Syria was USS Georgia (SSGN 729), and the prevailing assumption in open source was that the submarines has been operating off the coast of Syria.
The Invisible Arsenal Ship
In the news leading up to potential US strikes against Syria, a lot of reporting focused on the assembly of three, four, or five US destroyers operating at sea west of Cyprus. It is absolutely correct that these ships would have launched Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria had a strike been ordered by the President, but they would likely not have fired the first shots. From an operational perspective, the US Navy has been facing a physics problem in regards to strikes against Syria, a physics problem that still exists today.
You can do this on pen and paper, or perhaps even design it out using a simulator like Command: Modern Air / Naval Operations, but consider a moment the physics of a naval strike against Syria by the US Navy that would have met the politically stated goals of meaningful action as put forth by the Obama administration when they were drumming up the likelihood of a military strike against Syria.
First, there can be no casualties or attrition, so all operations conducted must be done with prejudice in favor of protecting man and material. Second, target precision is critical to political success, so excess collateral damage would be avoided at all cost. Third, not only must targets be hit accurately, but quantity of force must be evident to make a political statement. Finally, military forces must conduct the strike while minimizing the potential for counterstrike.
This combination of factors meant several things. First, military analysts knew the US destroyers near Cyprus would need to participate in the strike, because their payload of Tomahawk cruise missiles would be required to add to the quantity of force necessary to make a political statement. However, to avoid counter attack by Syrian military forces, this combination of factors also informs us that the US destroyers would need to remain relatively near Cyprus for air defense purposes, meaning the destroyers would likely be positioned more than 300 nautical miles west of Damascus somewhere south or southwest of Cyprus. That makes the flight time of Tomahawk missiles to targets in Syria around 25-35 minutes depending upon flight path - longer if the flight path avoids Lebanon - which is plenty of time for Syria to put up an organized resistance against the cruise missile strike. It is a better than an average bet the Russians would know within seconds when the US destroyers launched their Tomahawks, giving them plenty of time to tip off the Syrians.
That is why the USS Georgia (SSGN 729) is so important to a small military campaign like the one that was being discussed for Syria. By design, the submarine can approach within a few miles of the Syrian coast by stealth, completely undetectable by Syria (and likely undetectable by all but one of the Russian warships offshore), and shower multiple targets with multiple cruise missiles in minutes that would actually be measured in seconds. In the first 10 minutes, a single US Navy SSGN like USS Georgia (SSGN 729) can, by design, put every ship of the Syrian Navy at the pier out of commission, destroy every fixed military radar on the Syrian coast, and put cruise missiles on every military runway south and west of Hamah. Having a SSGN on hand for a strike against Syria is the difference between the military of Syria having 120-600 seconds to defend the nation, and between 1500-2100 seconds to defend the nation. When communications are jammed, radars are going offline for no apparent reason, and the Russians start screaming "incoming" on the radio channels heard all over the region, the chaos created by a single SSGN can send a conscripted Army into panic.
Having a SSGN off Syria is, in my mind, the prerequisite for the American way of war when applied to the proposed Syrian military strike. Everyone assumed the SSGN was there. I wouldn't be surprised if even the Russians assumed the SSGN was there. What the picture at the top of this post tells us is that since the crew swap, USS Georgia (SSGN 729) has stayed in 5th Fleet, and has not at any time since the August 21 chemical attack been in the Mediterranean Sea. That means only two things, the President of the United States was bluffing on military strikes all along, and the decline of the US Navy is so astute right now the 6th Fleet is an empty shell and was never prepared for the war it was being asked to conduct.
In hindsight, it looks to me the political play in Syria was always a bluff, and yes we should also now admit to ourselves the 6th Fleet is an empty shell unprepared for even a strike against Syria.
Russian Chess vs Obama's Poker
Nothing about US political moves made any sense or conformed to any pattern, unless we evaluate what has happened in hindsight. President Obama has launched the United States into military operations in four different countries since becoming President, and his administration only announced one of those military operations ahead of time. When the US began conducting drone strikes in Pakistan, the Obama administration didn't tell anyone. The same is true for Yemen and Somalia. During the entire first term of his Presidency, when the Obama administration wanted the opinion of Congress on the clandestine drone wars the administration was conducting, they basically told Congress what their opinion would be. They never asked, at least publicly. Libya was a different case, it was more a matter of supporting European allies than launching a new military campaign. The President never fully committed the US military to Libya in any way other than supporting allied objectives, and the results of Benghazi on 9/11/12 make it painfully obvious how little the US military was focused on Libya once military actions against Gaddafi concluded.
If the Obama administration is committed to using military force as a policy in dealing with another nation, history tells us they will not tell anyone about it until it has already happened.
Which is what makes the rhetoric regarding a strike against Syria curious. Not only did the US make it clear we intended to use military force, but Secretary of State John Kerry - America's top diplomat - was the primary warmonger in the press regarding the use of military force before the evidence supporting the use of military force was ever actually made public. That never made any sense to me at the time, but it makes sense in hindsight if diplomacy was always the political objective. In truth, military action of any kind never made any sense, because a combined cruise missile and airstrike by the US military supported by almost no allies, except France, was never likely to achieve a meaningful outcome, either tactically or strategically.
Even more odd, the President only went to Congress on Syria after Mr. Cameron was thoroughly defeated by the UK Parliament on the issue.
So in the moments before the diplomatic breakthrough with Russia, the United States had neither an aircraft carrier nor a SSGN in the Mediterranean Sea, meaning the United States was not positioned to attack Syria and was essentially conducting very loud, very threatening gunboat diplomacy with a very small force of US destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea. The President was trying very hard to get allies, like the UK, very serious about taking military action in Syria. That does make sense, because the UK actually has an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. The President was even approaching Congress to impress upon the world his resolve for conducting a military strike against Syria.
Checkmate and a Pair of Deuces
Assuming the draft text of the UN resolution related to Syrian chemical weapons is the final wording in the resolution, and given the facts of the situation both in theater operationally and the political situation the President found himself in, the primary conclusion from recent events is that gunboat diplomacy worked, and worked quite well in fact.
The new UN resolution will correct a mistake made by the Obama administration, it does not issue a new invisible ink red line regarding the use of military force related to Syrian chemical weapons. The Obama administration, and by extension the United States, has been soundly defeated by the gunboat diplomacy of Russia. President Obama has been allowed to save face with a meaningless UN resolution that has no teeth at all, but given the circumstances the President was never in a position to expect more than this. The President's domestic policy agenda that has, in part, manifested in the form of sequestration of the Department of Defense, ultimately prevented the United States military from ever being able to assemble the necessary military force to achieve a meaningful tactical or strategic objective through military force in Syria, so the President never held anything better than a pair of deuces, and ultimately President Obama had little choice but to play the cards the President was dealt. I have to say, I think the President is getting more than I originally expected out of a pair of deuces.
As I have noted previously on the blog, the Russian naval force off Syria creates significant tactical and operational problems for the United States for using military force effectively in Syria. A launch of cruise missiles by destroyers at 300 nautical miles will be detected within seconds by the Russian naval force, and Syria will have nearly a half hour to defend against cruise missiles which really are not advanced enough to defeat a dedicated defense. The presence of the Russian Navy offshore makes the use of a SSGN close to Syria very dangerous, because within seconds of the first launch, there is nothing preventing Russia from telling the Syrian military exactly where the SSGN is. It is unclear if Syria could effectively detect much less successfully attack the US submarine, but the risk of successful detection and attack is significantly higher with the assistance of Russia.
On multiple occasions the Russians publicly admitted that they were sharing intelligence information with the military leadership in Syria. If Putin followed through and did exactly what they said they were going to do, and gave intelligence regarding the location of a US Navy submarine to Syria, and by some chance Syria was able to successfully sink a US submarine, President Obama would be politically sunk. There is a zero percent chance that the United States would go to war with Russia over Syria, no matter how extensive and compelling the evidence was that Russia had helped Syria cause the loss of life of a US submarine crew.
The forward presence of Russian naval forces in defense of Russian national interests has served for two years as a deterrence for military operations against Syria by Western powers, and in order for those conditions to change, a very large and capable multinational alliance with intent to use military force would need to be established for purposes of shifting the political risk balance of involvement against Russia. That very large and capable multinational alliance does not exist today.
I do not know what the political fall out will be. Whether the UN resolution on Syrian chemical weapons passes or not, the US still lacks a policy for how to deal with Syria. If we assume President Obama was always bluffing, and I do make that assumption, it would not appear he ever told Mr. Cameron. My sense is President Obama does not see Mr. Cameron as the same strong ally and friend that President Bush saw in Tony Blair. It is unclear if there will be a fallout between the two men, but the President never needs to reveal he was bluffing with a pair of deuces, even if it is obvious to anyone paying attention.
The inexperience of the Obama administration has been fully exposed by President Putin, and yet, I'm not sure the Russians knew that USS Georgia (SSGN 729) was not in the Mediterranean Sea. Putin could have guessed President Obama was bluffing about military strikes, but the fact that Russia was who ultimately reached out diplomatically suggests to me Putin was never truly convinced President Obama was bluffing. That is probably the smart move, after all, President Obama takes a very liberal approach when it comes to using US military force.
Finally, it is apparent to me that at some point very early on after the August 21st incident the President realized he was going to take a hit if he didn't conduct military strikes, and yet it is clear the President recognized that conducting military strikes against Assad was counter to US interests. Whether one assumes the President was bluffing or not, what we have learned is that President Obama ultimately chose to take a course of action in foreign policy that would serve US interests, regardless of the political consequences to him personally. The recent coalition of extremist forces in Syria among the rebel groups makes clear that until the moderate rebel organization is stronger, it is counter to US National Security interests for the Assad government to fall, even if that is a desired outcome.
Gunboat diplomacy was very effective for President Obama in avoiding an outright political disaster, and gunboat diplomacy ultimately, in my opinion, allowed Russia to achieve their strategic objectives through deterrence by protecting Syria from overt military intervention by western nations.
I have no idea if the Obama administration realizes that gunboat diplomacy, and naval diplomacy in general, is an effective way to conduct foreign policy in defense of national interests in the 21st century. It is unclear to me if the President even understands how gunboat diplomacy was so influential in this specific case. I assume nothing with this President anymore because one thing is very clear in the wake of the last month of foreign policy, the President's current national security team is inexperienced, lacks skill in the planning involved with statecraft, lacks the ability to develop long term strategic plans, and is prone to make mistakes. The President's national security team is populated with reactionaries, not visionaries.
I do, however, believe that President Putin understands very well the value of gunboat diplomacy and how it has helped Russia achieve a political victory with Syria. It is no accident Russia is now sending their Pacific Fleet flagship to the Gulf of Aden. This Russian naval deployment to the Middle East isn't about fighting pirates, it is about preparing the battlespace for the next round of political chess with the United States.
Chess > Poker.