On the brink. Royal Navy submarines ready to attack Syrian targets

The media has widely reported that the Prime Minister has ordered Royal Navy submarines to prepare for Tomahawk missile launches against the Syrian regime. Here we look at the UK’s military options and the wider consequences of involvement in Syria.

Assets in play

The MoD never comments on submarine movements, but it is likely that at least one RN SSN has been deployed to the region. The RN’s submarine-launched Tomahawk UGM-109 land attack missiles (TLAM) missiles have a range of around 1200 kms (780 m) which puts Syria in range from the central Mediterranean. The RN can typically only manage 2 attack boats at sea simultaneously. Such limited numbers imply that this operation potentially disrupts the shadowing of Russian submarines close to UK waters and protection of the nuclear deterrent submarines. HMS Trenchant was seen in the Arctic, involved in ICEX 2018 in March which was supposedly a 5-week exercise, although the length of her intended participation is unknown.

Even if two RN boats are in the Med and are carrying a full load of TLAM their contribution would be relatively modest compared to the US navy which has destroyers cruisers and submarines that can all launch TLAM. A Trafalgar class submarine has a maximum weapons load of up to 30 Spearfish torpedoes or Tomahawks, while the Astute class have a slightly bigger capacity of 38. It would be surprising if a least a portion of their weapons storage was not allocated to Spearfish.

Since the late 1990s, TLAM have been the naval weapon used in anger most frequently. Despite the clear value of this weapon, we are still in the absurd situation that no RN surface vessels have been fitted to launch Tomahawk and we must rely on our tiny submarine force that already has other demands upon it. Together with lack of funding, there has also been some resistance from the RAF to the RN expanding its TLAM stocks and capability as it could threaten their deep strike role.

HMS Duncan is in the region as falgship of SNMG2, which paid a port visit to Trieste, Italy and Split, Croatia in the Northern Adriatic recently. HMS Duncan is well equipped to provide air defence for Cyprus and can monitor large sections of airspace if required. The Eastern Med looks like a potential area for naval conflict. Satellite photos show that Russian warships (including a Kilo-class submarine and modern frigate, Admiral Grigorovich) have left their Syrian base at Tartus. The Russians have said this is to avoid vulnerability to potential strikes but the quiet Kilo submarines in the area are a particular threat to NATO vessels. Launching a TLAM from underwater is noisy and highly visible, revealing the presence of the submarine to potential adversaries.

Russia’s ambassador in Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin has said “If there is a strike by the Americans then the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired”. There there is some doubt about this translation or if he exceeded his authority to make such a statement, but this kind of threat shows Russia is increasingly willing to escalate the conflict.

Further options for UK strikes on Syria lie with RAF aircraft based at Akrotiri in Cyprus. There are 6 Typhoons, and 8 GR4 Tornado aircraft there, some of which have been involved in Operation Shader since 2014. This has been part of a coalition effort that has largely been successful in helping eradicate ISIS from Iraq and parts of Syria. These air strikes, often co-ordinated to avoid Russian assets, have been a key enabler for ground forces fighting ISIS.

Actions with consequences

The proposed action in Syria against Assad and his Russian backers is very different to Operation Shader. This would not be in support of specific forces on the ground and but is a “punishment” for Assad and Russia. The Russians say they would retaliate and have installed sophisticated air defence missile systems that protect parts of Syria. The renowned Russian S-400 (SA-21 Growler) and Pantsir (SA-22 Greyhound) Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) put at risk any manned aircraft mission. As well as the RN’s Tomahawk, the RAF could use air-launched Storm Shadow stand-off missiles to avoid the large area within the engagement envelope of the S-400 SAM. There is some concern that advanced Russian air defence systems may now have the ability to intercept low-flying cruise missiles.

59 Tomahawk missiles were fired by the US Navy at the Syrian airbase of Shayrat in April 2017 in response to the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun. This strike was supposed to “teach Assad a lesson” but it would appear the attack made little difference. A few conspiracy theorists will try to say the chemical weapons attack on Duoma was a ‘false flag operation’ staged by rebels but every independent source and the intelligence points to Assad resorting to old tactics. What is not in doubt is the evil of Assad who has murdered thousands of his own countrymen and destroyed a nation to hold onto power. Since Russia is using Syria a marker for its ambitions, involvement by western nations, however well-intentioned, is now fraught with dangers.

Over time Putin appears to have become increasingly bellicose and willing to contemplate a war with the West. Striking Syria now creates a risk of global conflict, probably on a par with the worst moments of the Cold War. It may be appealing to just launch a few missiles to punish Assad’s barbarism but this time the risks are bigger and a calm longer-term view is required.

The respected chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis MP has said “Embroiling ourselves in a military clash with Russia in the context of a civil war between an inhumane government and opposition-controlled by jihadi fanatics is not a sensible one, to put it mildly”.

Opinion polls suggest less than 25% of the British public support military action. This is not a sign of moral bankruptcy or weakness, rather a recognition that it is very easy to get involved but rather harder to end a conflict, especially if you do not start with a coherent plan.