The guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) launches a Tomahawk missile during weapons testing in 2010. (MC1 Carmichael Yepez / Navy)
President Obama no doubt is weighing the likelihood that a limited attack on Syria will have the intended effect: punishing Bashar Assad for attacking civilians with chemical weapons and deterring him from doing so again.
The Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile remains a technical marvel more than two decades after its major debut in the first Gulf War. It can fly under most radar for more than 1,000 miles and detonate within feet of its intended targets.
In that sense, it works.
Do limited, pinpoint attacks have the intended effect of deterring bad actors? That’s another question, and one that many military experts answer in the negative.
“Assad does not care if we hit a couple of weapon sites,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula says in an email. “He has plenty of them hidden.”
A more sustained offensive would be required to affect Assad’s behavior, says Deptula, who was the principal planner for the attacks in the first Gulf War.
“He and his associated leadership need to understand they are under the crosshairs,” Deptula says. “The Syrian leadership needs to understand they will be held personally accountable for using chemical weapons in violation of international law. That is what will have an effect on their behavior — and others who might contemplate WMD use — not a token strike with a handful of cruise missiles.
Tomahawk missile strikes:
■ June 1993: Iraq
The justification: Retaliation for an assassination plot against former President George H.W. Bush.
The attack: 23 missiles fired at the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence headquarters.
“We will combat terrorism,” President Clinton said. “We will deter aggression. We will protect our people.”
Defense Secretary Les Aspin described the strike as a “wake-up call” for Saddam Hussein.
The effect: Saddam’s government survived and continued to pester United States. U.S. warplanes continued to enforce a “no-fly” zone for 10 years until Saddam was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
■ August 1998: Sudan and Afghanistan.
The justification: the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant in Sudan was suspected of producing chemical weapons. Osama bin Laden was thought to be at the camp in Khost province.
The attack: 79 missiles fired at both countries in response to the bombings of U.S. embassies in east Africa that killed 300 Africans and 12 Americans.
“Let our actions today send this message loud and clear,” Clinton said. “There are no expendable American targets. There will be no sanctuary for terrorists.”
The effect: The owner of the drug plant said he had no ties with bin Laden or terrorism and sued the U.S. government. Bin Laden wasn’t at the camp and went on to mastermind the 9/11 attacks.
■ December 1998, Iraq
The justification: Saddam’s continued refusal to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors examining his program to develop weapons of mass destruction. It was intended to produce and use such weapons, deter Saddam from waging war against his neighbors and, according to an Air Force history of the operation, impress upon Saddam “the consequences of violating international agreements, including allowing United Nations inspectors unfettered access to Iraqi sites.”
The attack: 415 missiles, fired by U.S. and British forces, aimed at 97 targets.
The effect: “Operation Desert Fox inflicted serious damage to Iraq’s missile development program, although its effects on any WMD program were not clear,” according to the Air Force history.
The 2003 war, intended to destroy Saddam’s WMD program, found no such weapons