Tomahawks and MOABs – What did these achieve in Syria and Afghanistan?

On 7 April 2017, the United States fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Sharyat Air Base in central Syria, from which Syrian airplanes had allegedly conducted a chemical attack against the city of Khan Sheikhoun three days prior. Less than a week later, on 13 April, the United States dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, more commonly known as Mother Of All Bombs) on caves in Afghanistan allegedly housing ISIS operators.

What did these strikes accomplish? A few fays after the Tomahawk strikes, Sharyat Air Base was back in business; which means the 59 Tomahawks – at under US$2 million a piece – failed to destroy the air base. So, well over US$100 million did nothing to stop the target from continuing to operate. Whereas the MOAB – while there is no official cost of the weapon, it is safe to assume a number somewhere in the tens of millions of US dollars – strike in Afghanistan killed a reported 36 ISIS operators. Something intuitively does not seem right about these numbers.

Except, of course, this is not how effectiveness of military operations is calculated.

Rather, when we evaluate the effectiveness of a military operation, presumably we start with strategy. The godfather of Western strategic thought, Carl Gottlieb von Clausewitz, defined as the “use of engagements for the purposes of the war;” a contemporary strategist, Colin Gray, analogised strategy as a “bridge”: connecting resources and power and military force on one side; with policy and purpose on the other. So we ask, what is the desired result that a military operation is supposed to fulfil? In the 1990s, an entire body of literature emerged on a hypothesis that there was a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA for short), and one of the key aspects of this literature addressed the supposedly revolutionary concept of Effects-Based Operations (EBO for short). Except Clausewitz had already taught us that “engagements” ought to help fulfil the purposes (the “effects”) of the war; so EBP was fundamentally nothing new. Nevertheless it was a potentially useful device to help military planners and policy makers to ask the right questions about any proposed military operation.

With strategy as our analytical tool, it is then possible to ask, what did the Tomahawk and MOAB strikes achieve? To be able to answer that question, however, there has to be a POLITICAL reason to have ordered the strikes in the first place; that each action had an intended OUTCOME. For any military action to have the desired outcome, that military action has to target some part of the enemy that presumably the latter values so much as to be prepared to grant the attacker its desired outcomes. Presumably the act of attacking Sharyat Air Base will create the intended outcome; similarly for the MOAB attack in Afghanistan.

However, there is any likelihood that the US military planners and policy-makers have got their frames of analysis wrong. Ken Booth warned us of a potential anger – ethnocentrism in strategy, and the possibility that strategists erroneously mirror-image their adversary. In other words, just because you value some things doesn’t necessarily mean your enemy will have the same value systems. The Tomahawk and MOAB attacks presumably contained distinct messages for Syria and ISIS; just don’t expect Syria and ISIS to NECESSARILY get the message, especially if Washington got its fundamental assumptions about Syria and ISIS wrong!

In other words, to use the language of EBO, what was the desired effect of these strikes, and did these strikes achieve them? Or, to use the language of Clausewitz, do these strikes contribute towards the eventual winning of the war?

The first question is difficult enough to ascertain. If we know what the intended effect is, we can then begin to make some limited assessments about the effectiveness of the strike. Intuitively, I suspect most of us will feel that the strikes were pointless. Just about US$ 100 million was spent attacking an air base in Syria that was able to resume functioning not long after the attacks. A MOAB costing probably millions of US dollars killed a reported 36 ISIS operators. Both figures intuitively tell us that the strikes were meant to appease rather than achieve.

However, if the effect is to lead – however eventually – towards the attainment of the political-strategic objective – in other words, the language of Clausewitz – this is something that we will never be able to tell, until after the historians have done their thing. If we launch an attack thinking that it can have a decisive impact on the course of a war, then we are inviting failure in the most dramatic of fashions: think of Operation Market Garden, for instance. On the other hand, historians will judge specific operations as constituting the decisive turn in an on-going war. Its not up to us; its up to historians to judge our operations.


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