The guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) successfully launches a Tomahawk missile during weapons testing in 2010. (MC1 Carmichael Yepez / Navy)
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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s choice of the term “degrade” to describe an attack on Syria has been interpreted by Pentagon planners as guidance for a limited strike, according to senior military officials.
The weapon of choice is the Tomahawk cruise missile aboard four Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. Though powerful, the missiles alone would likely not be capable of crippling Bashar Assad’s regime, which is accused of using chemical weapons. The targets selected for attack are meant to punish Assad, not swing the tide in favor of rebels seeking his ouster, said a senior officer familiar with the planning.
That officer, another officer with experience in the Middle East and two senior defense officials with knowledge of the planning told USA Today the type of weapons that would be used and the type of targets that would be hit. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the planning.
The attack would involve launches of missiles solely from ships, according to the two senior officers familiar with the planning. The Air Force can fire missiles from outside Syrian air space but are not expected to take part in the mission, the officers said.
“Degrade” is not a military textbook term, the four officers and officials said. In other words, it is open to interpretation.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said repeatedly in a briefing Thursday that an attack on Syria would not require U.S. ground troops, or “boots on the ground.” The mission would be limited to deterring and degrading Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.
The strike would be limited in scope and duration, Little said. The security of chemical weapons stockpiles is being taken into account by the Pentagon.
The strike, as envisioned, would be limited in the number of targets and done within a day or two. It could be completed in one fell swoop with missiles, said one senior official familiar with the weapons involved. A smaller, follow-on strike could be launched if targets aren’t sufficiently damaged.
A second senior official, who has seen the most recent planning, offered this metaphor to describe such a strike: If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.
The two officers with current and recent service in the Middle East say the term “degrade” is so vague that it could be used to describe the effect of a single cruise missile strike.
Hagel, appearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, said a strike would cost “tens of millions of dollars.” An operation in that range would likely be limited to the cost of launching missiles from U.S. destroyers cruising within range of Syria, according to budget analysts. The Tomahawk missiles aboard the ships, which generally carry dozens of them, cost about $1.1 million each.
A broader strike, one aimed at destroying Syria’s air defenses and creating a no-fly zone, for example, would cost $500 million to establish and $1 billion per month to maintain, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told Congress in a letter.
Likely targets in a limited strike include Syrian air defenses, said Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. Another might be the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division, which apparently carried out the chemical attack on Aug. 21 that the Obama administration says killed 1,400 people, Singer said.
Buildings housing headquarters associated with the Syrian military, its intelligence and chemical weapons program are other likely targets.