No, We Don’t Need Britain’s Help To Bomb Assad

Britain, America’s closest ally in the world, just decided that it will not participate in any strikes punishing the regime of Bashar al-Assad for killing hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons. While there may be political fallout from Britain’s decision not to participate in an offensive U.S. military campaign for the first time in two ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Britain, America's closest ally in the world, just decided that it will not participate in any strikes punishing the regime of Bashar al-Assad for killing hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons. While there may be political fallout from Britain's decision not to participate in an offensive U.S. military campaign for the first time in two decades, the loss of its military muscle won't severely hamper America's ability to hit Assad.

Yes, the Royal Navy could send a submarine to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian targets as it did to help oust Muammar al-Qaddafi from Libya in 2011. But let's put things in perspective: HMS Triumph fired six Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya during the month of March. Meanwhile, the American guided missile submarine USS Florida fired more than 90 Tomahawks at Libyan air defenses, clearing the path for American, British and French jets to drop bombs on Libya without fear of being shot down.

Speaking of aircraft, British Typhoon and Tornado strike fighter jets -- the former being one the of the world's most advanced fighters -- did destroy targets throughout the Libyan campaign. In fact, European fighter jets took the lead in bombing Qaddafi's forces in the months after the Americans kicked down the doors to Libya with Tomahawks and strikes by B-2 stealth bombers. Still, the U.S. had to provide its allies with $24 million worth of ammunition and spare parts after it was revealed that NATO forces were running out of guided munitions in the middle of the campaign. The French were even dropping GPS-guided concrete training bombs at one point in Libya. (These weapons were found to be very useful at taking out tanks through sheer kinetic energy. The French claimed the non-exploding concrete bombs lowered the risk killing innocent civilians who were near their targets.)

Britain, America’s closest ally in the world, just decided that it will not participate in any strikes punishing the regime of Bashar al-Assad for killing hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons. While there may be political fallout from Britain’s decision not to participate in an offensive U.S. military campaign for the first time in two decades, the loss of its military muscle won’t severely hamper America’s ability to hit Assad.

Yes, the Royal Navy could send a submarine to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian targets as it did to help oust Muammar al-Qaddafi from Libya in 2011. But let’s put things in perspective: HMS Triumph fired six Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya during the month of March. Meanwhile, the American guided missile submarine USS Florida fired more than 90 Tomahawks at Libyan air defenses, clearing the path for American, British and French jets to drop bombs on Libya without fear of being shot down.

Speaking of aircraft, British Typhoon and Tornado strike fighter jets — the former being one the of the world’s most advanced fighters — did destroy targets throughout the Libyan campaign. In fact, European fighter jets took the lead in bombing Qaddafi’s forces in the months after the Americans kicked down the doors to Libya with Tomahawks and strikes by B-2 stealth bombers. Still, the U.S. had to provide its allies with $24 million worth of ammunition and spare parts after it was revealed that NATO forces were running out of guided munitions in the middle of the campaign. The French were even dropping GPS-guided concrete training bombs at one point in Libya. (These weapons were found to be very useful at taking out tanks through sheer kinetic energy. The French claimed the non-exploding concrete bombs lowered the risk killing innocent civilians who were near their targets.)

The Libyan campaign was a seven-month long campaign designed to neutralize Qaddafi’s air force and protect the Libyan rebels from his ground forces. That meant that a large, international coalition was extremely helpful to a U.S. military that was largely focused on the surge in Afghanistan at the time.

Any strikes against Syria, on the other hand, are likely going to be very limited — described by U.S. President Barack Obama as a warning shot across Assad’s bow aimed at scaring him into never using chemical weapons again.

If the U.S. really is planning on simply wrapping Assad’s knuckles, it can likely do this with the U.S. Navy’s four Arleigh Burke class destroyers that are sitting in the Eastern Mediterranean. Each of those ships can carry about 90 Tomahawk guided missiles. Even if these ships aren’t armed with their full payloads of 90 Tomahawks apiece, this small armada still carries plenty of firepower for a shot across Assad’s bow.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.