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Scuds!

[ 52 ] December 12, 2012 |

Looks as if the Syrian military has decided to launch some Scud missiles at rebel positions:

Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have fired Scud missiles at rebel fighters in recent days, Obama administration officials said on Wednesday.

The move represents a significant escalation in the fighting, which has already killed more than 40,000 civilians in a nearly two-year-old conflict that has threatened to destabilize the Middle East.

One American official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing classified information, said that missiles had been fired from the Damascus area at targets in northern Syria.

“The total is number is probably north of six now,” said another American official, and that the targets were in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, the main armed insurgent group.

It is not clear how many casualties resulted from the attacks by the Scuds — a class of Soviet-era designed missiles made famous by Saddam Hussein of Iraq during the first Gulf War. But it appeared to be the first that the Assad government had fired the missiles at targets inside Syria.

My Wikipedified analysis of the situation is thus: The best missiles the Syrian government has on hand have a CEP (circular error probability) of 50m (expect 50% of warheads to fall within CEP), and can carry up to 985kg. That’s pretty damn scary if it lands on your block, but it’s not terribly impressive compared to what an artillery battery or an Su-24 can deliver. Of course, ballistic missiles can strike targets at greater distance than artillery and with less risk than bombers, but this also means that they’re difficult to use in tactical or operational support; you can fire them at enemy rear areas or at civilians, but they’re not going to break up an enemy column bearing down on your position, or be more useful than artillery in support of an assault. Moreover, they’re a very expensive way of delivering 985kg of ordnance.

Looks like desperation to me, although it probably explains why we’ve been hearing so many warnings about Syrian CW use.

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Comments (52)

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  1. thusbloggedanderson says:

    Can those babies carry warheads of nerve gas?

    • Murc says:

      The fact that they can do so is really the only reason the general populace knows what Scuds are to begin with.

      • thusbloggedanderson says:

        I just remember Saddam launching them and they didn’t work all that well.

        Also, “I tasted blood, / a date with scud, / and now I don’t know how to feel.” If the general public listens to Guided by Voices, anyway.

      • Warren Terra says:

        Well, that and the range. Striking within a dozen miles at a city hundreds of miles away with a small conventional warhead has no military purpose, but can be a politically powerful act of terror even without the use of chemical weapons. Saddam achieved no material effects in his 1991 strikes at Israel, but there were supposedly useful to his image as the brave Arab nationalist standing up against US-Israeli regional hegemony. Although, of course, the fact that you don’t know the warheads are conventional explosives until some time after they land is surely a big factor.

  2. shah8 says:

    Given just how much of the news out of there is propaganda, I’m taking everything with a pound of salt.

    Also suggest use-it-or-lose-it situation or getting rid of more or less militarily useless ordinance in some kind of useful fashion.

    • Given just how much of the news out of there is propaganda, I’m taking everything with a pound of salt.

      Unskewed news.

      Great.

    • blowback says:

      Look over there! SCUUUUUUUDS!

      I think you’re probably being too kind – there are valid reports of the FSA terrorists massacring 200+ people. This couldn’t be an attempt by the White House to control the news cycle until that massacre drops off the radar. Doesn’t look very good that Washington have just recognized the terrorists that carried out the massacre. After the tales about the dastardly Syrian government premixing binary agents (laughs out loud), I am surprised that Washington’s briefing receive any attention whatsoever.

      • blowback says:

        And the source for this claim is …. (drunroll)….Michael Gordon. And where did I see that name before? Why right next to Judith Miller’s!

        • Robert Farley says:

          Is there a future in which no one wastes his/her time making this kind of blog comment?

          Heh. What a silly question.

          • BigHank53 says:

            Could have just put the question mark after “future”, really.

          • Hey, come on, I think the comment asserting that the Obama administration got somebody in Syria to launch SCUD missiles so they can control the news cycle was an important contribution to the discussion.

            UR so meen, Robrt.

          • blowback says:

            So you trust anything and everything that Michael Gordon writes?

            • shah8 says:

              Word fucking A, man. Known fucking liar. And I have already been burnt just last week thinking that the chemical warhead headlines were serious.

              If there was one serious reason that the Libyan intervention was bad, it is precisely fucking this: That you could just do this anywheres, for any sketchy reason.

              At this point, it’s total No Good Can Come Of This.

              Forget the massecre yesterday, if that turned out to be true (which seems to be important, actually), the fact that the US’s act to place an hardline islamic militia on a terrorist list got most of the other militias to stick up for them is bad fucking news.

              I’m frustrated that I can’t believe most of the news coming out, because there are some well connected idiots who’ve always dreamed of displacing the Assads placing all kinds of erroneous, mendacious, and irrelevant news out there in English.

            • Only if he writes them in a thin bead of maple syrup.

      • ajay says:

        After the tales about the dastardly Syrian government premixing binary agents (laughs out loud), I am surprised that Washington’s briefing receive any attention whatsoever.

        Syria actually does have chemical weapons, though. Back in July they said they had them and were ready to use them.

        http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012-07-23/Syria-violence-rebels/56425402/1

  3. Jason says:

    SO I’m betting that the Syrian SCUDs are not the Russian SCUD-D model with the 50-m CEP, especially if they are targeting locations within their own country. Probably not in their targeting library.

    http://defense-update.com/products/s/scud_040509.html

    Just sayin’.

  4. Warren Terra says:

    Oh, I’m sure McCain or someone will use this to explain that Obama betrayed Poland when he changed plans to base missile defense systems there (systems that, if they even worked, would not defend Poland, as they are intended to intercept earlier in the missile’s flight path)

    • JoeBob says:

      Although the missile defense system would not directly help in Poland’s defense, the fact that there would be high value US assets and troops in Poland would help deter agression towards Poland and would likely force the US military to back Poland up. Furthermore these military bases are shrouded by Patriot missiles, which would be used to protect Polish airspace.

  5. [...] are an odd choice for use against nearby rebel positions. As international relations professor Robert Farley explains, the missiles are big but not very accurate, making artillery or air strikes probably a better [...]

  6. Bill says:

    I think you’re making the “desperation” conclusion too quickly. There are a lot of possible reasons. First off, the cost of the weapon doesn’t matter a bit at this point. The regime is in a fight for its survival; it has the weapons and will use them, even if it might have made some smarter purchases looking back.

    Second, there is always the possibility of a target of opportunity. We know nothing of the tactical situation or the regime’s intelligence assets. It may have gotten word of a meeting of rebel leaders or platoon of foreign special forces, or anything. Certainly there are targets valuable enough to throw a dozen SCUDs at, even if the chance of a successful strike remains low.

    Third, there’s the word today of a major bomb attack in Damascus. This could be a fast response showing the regime still has and is willing to use its hitting power.

    Fourth, this could be preemptive red-line denial. The US is throwing up red-lines for the Syria regime. At least one possible red-line that resonates with the US public (the target audience for the red-lines) would be “use of SCUD missiles” (we’ve used that line before). By firing such missiles, the regime could preempt such a red-line designation.

    That’s just off the top of my head, but the point is that there are a lot of possible factors beyond “desperation” behind this news (even assuming that reports are accurate).

    • Robert Farley says:

      1. What your saying (cost of weapons don’t matter, etc) sounds like it could accurately be described as “desperation” to me.

      2. Possible, although if the reports are accurate (6 launches over a week) doesn’t suggest this is the cause. Moreover, airstrikes against critical targets would be more accurate and more damaging.

      3. Again, striking back with an ineffectual weapon that you’ve never used before in response to an attack in the capitol makes me think of the term “desperation.”

      4. I suppose that the use of an ineffectual weapon could be seen as a way to ensure regime access to ineffectual weapons in the future. And maybe that’s not desperation, but it sure does seem stupid.

      • witless chum says:

        Didn’t NATO just authorize deploying air defense missile batteries to Turkey? I wonder if that’s a response to this or if his could be a response to that.

        • Robert Farley says:

          I think the deployment has been in the works for a while, but it could be the latter (this is a response to that). If the Syrian Air Force really feels itself vulnerable in the North, either to Patriots or to more effective rebel air defense, then may see missile strikes as only option.

          • I was about to make that point about the Syrian Air Force.

            The rebels have developed some air-denial capabilities, and it seems that a boatload of advanced SAMs were recently liberated.

            • L.M. says:

              Yes, the rebels seem to have obtained a very large supply air defense weaponry (apparently all the way up to vehicle-mounted SA-8s) from military airbases in Rif Dimashq within the past week.

              Since the rebels in Damascus and Rif Dimashq now also control the approaches to most (maybe even all?) major airfields in that region, it’s hard to see how government aircraft can continue to operate very effectively out of those airfields.

      • Gepap says:

        Re 2:

        Perhaps the regime has decided that increasing threats to its airpower and pilots (likely the most important resource) means that if their chosen target is some large lost installation (like a military base captured by rebels), then launching these kinds of missiles is sensible, and I see nothing that would make that a bad decision. If its a big pile of weapons captured that you want to hit, just chuck a few missiles that way and there is no way for the rebels to counter that.

        As for the statements that they are tactically ineffective- perhaps, but they might be strategically useful, and the government has clearly lost significant chunks of real estate including several bases. SCUDs seem a pretty useful weapon against such static targets.

      • Njorl says:

        Moreover, airstrikes against critical targets would be more accurate and more damaging.

        It could be an issue of response time. If you wanted to strike a target many miles away as quickly as possible, and with little or no warning, a ballistic missile might be optimal.

        High-value, mobile targets like that usually require accuracy, though.

    • At least one possible red-line that resonates with the US public (the target audience for the red-lines)

      Holy unsupported assertion, Batman!

  7. Deptfordx says:

    Has anyone ever done any analysis of how accurate Scuds are when fired in anger.

    Even with the earlier models (which i agree is probably what they have)listed in Wikipedia whose CEP ballpark aroune the 500m mark look iffy to me. I mean these weapons are from the same era of 60′s technology that gave us the “Sparrow missile is 95% accurate” claims.I suspect their real accuracy was more of the order of “If we aim for the middle of that large town, we’ll definitely hit somewhere in its boundaries, probably”.

  8. Dun says:

    Terror attacks are SOP in a Civil War.

    The Syrian Air Force is not what it once was, nor is it a “modern” air force with precision weapons.

    According to BBC reports, rebel held suburbs of Damascus have been bombed by helecopters carring sling cargos of explosives so long range, conventional SCUD strikes against aready lost towns and cities make perfect sense.

    After all, it’s not like the Assad Regime needs to hoard the SCUDs for the future.

    • ajay says:

      This – my immediate assumption was that this is just another solution to the “running out of bombs” problem that has already seen, as well as sling-carried bombs, improvised bombs made of oil drums being rolled out of the backs of aircraft.

  9. Domino says:

    Haven’t 40,000 people already died? Why is sing chemical weapons considered crossing the line, but it wasn’t when the government was gunning down protests at the start of this over a year ago? Did no country want to risk losing soldiers over what is a Syrian civil war?

    • Dun says:

      Despite what Dubya Dubya believes, Regime Change through War is illegal, barring UNSC approval.

      Russia and China will veto any attempts at Regime Change through the UNSC.

      That is however just a legal hurdle.

      The reality on the ground is that while some Nations might have the military power to assist Regime Change, they don’t have the ground forces to make Regime Change in Syria with out taking a lot of casualties.

      The other reality is that Syrians have a long enough history of the West putting Governments in power, or attempting regime change, that any lead by a Western Government, other than a minor supporting role, would be seen as delegitimizing any Government put in power.

    • How long an answer are you looking for?

      The shortest answer why Obama is treating chemical weapons as an important red line is that viewing their use as uniquely dangerous and awful is well-established doctrine in both American and international security circles, and has been for a long time.

      Why that doctrine exists is the long answer.

      • Jason says:

        Yeah, at least since 1991, when the USG realized that Muslims with chemical weapons was bad, m’kay?

        Anything that happened before 1991 was ignored – at least until 2002, when it became favorable to remind people how bad chemical weapons were in 1988, even though the USG didn’t really mind what Saddam did then.

        • Actually, chemicals weapons have been singled out in international treaties since the 1920s – they were included in the Washington Naval Treaty, for instance – and the push to do so was not mainly an American one.

          Sometimes, it’s good to bring more to an understanding of a subject than ideology.

  10. Don says:

    When I read this thing about Syria, the first thing I wondered was not, “What missiles are more awesome than SCUDS?” Am I weird?

  11. Ken says:

    Any bets on how long before the first claim/report that these are the missing Iraqi WMDs?

  12. shah8 says:

    Some parts of this is slightly relevant–the whole parts-of-the-establishment-gaslighting-us, but the whole article is rather interesting….

    http://slouchingcolumbia.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/no-fly-zones-bad-ideas-begetting-worse/

  13. Dave says:

    The notion that use or non-use of one particular delivery-system in a protracted and already massacre-strewn civil war makes a dime of difference is and can only be a reflection of the narcissism of the sensation-driven external observer.

  14. ironic irony says:

    Wasn’t there a rumor sometime during the Iraq War (post-2005 or so) that the WMDs that we never found in Iraq were shipped to Syria or the area of the Syria-Iraq border?

    Have any reich-wingers tried to string these two together? And is it plausible? (I’m skeptical, but I’ll leave it up to the experts here to elaborate.)

    • Robert Farley says:

      It’s something you hear occasionally on the fringe, yes. Not plausible; would be easier to destroy than to cover up the transfer of CW, and no reason why Syria would take them, but if the Syrian military uses CW (and I doubt that it will), we’ll probably here more about it.

  15. Tom says:

    The other thing in regards to accuracy of any long-range missile is the training of the personnel who have to shoot it. I don’t know the overall professionalism of the Syrian army prior to the civil war, but I would guess that they haven’t been to a lot of SCUD launch refresher training lately.

  16. [...] Guns and Money broke for me the news that the Syrian government is using Scud missiles against rebels, inaccurate though they [...]

  17. Mathias says:

    What are you talking about, a warhead of almost 1 ton of explosive detonating at a distance of about 50 Meters is pretty lethal, also a CEP of 50 Meters means that in many cases the missile will hit even closer to the target point.

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