Happy Airstrike Eve, Everyone


By now you've probably read about the Obama administration’s plans to launch Tomahawk airstrikes against selected targets inside Syria. Why are we doing this? Because our government thinks – thinks, mind you – that Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed upwards of 400 civilians earlier this week with chemical weapons. 

If killing is killing, does the method of slaughter really matter?

Just last month, the UN upped its estimate of Syrians killed in the civil war to 100,000. And how were they killed? By the standard tools of warfare: bullets, bombs, missiles and rockets.

Kill one hundred thousand people with conventional weapons: no military action. Kill 1/250th of that number of people with a nerve agent: imminent airstrikes. 

Makes sense, right?

No, it doesn’t.

There is some debate as to what the administration hopes to accomplish with cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea. Reliable sources report that the strikes will be limited in scope, hitting air defense and command and control targets. It’s worth asking what their effect will be.

Perhaps the only good news here is that the planned airstrikes reportedly won’t target Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Here’s why: They would only make the situation much, much worse.

This seems counterintuitive because the U.S. loves bombing ammunition bunkers as a general rule. The Eighth Air Force regularly bombed ammo bunkers in Germany during WWII. We did it in Vietnam, too.

To be sure, it looks impressive from the air. Those strikes are considered a success when the bomb causes “secondary explosions” — which are additional detonations of the munitions inside the bunker, caused by the initial bomb going off.

These bunkers are sturdy things most commonly shaped like an elongated trapezoid, wrapped in thick steel-reinforced concrete, heavy steel doors, high-security locks, and covered with meters of earth. They’re hard to break into, for good reason. Regardless, our 500-pound JDAMs do a good job of punching through their roofs, with delayed-action base fuzes detonating them inside the structure. 

But here’s what really happens:

When that bomb detonates, it does succeed in destroying (“counter-charging”) some of the munitions inside. But it also usually overpressurizes the bunker’s doors, blowing them off their hinges, throws the rest of the bunker’s contents outside, and starts fires.

But wait, lighting the enemy’s bombs and bullets on fire is a good thing, right?

Wrong. At least if you care about what happens next.

Explosives are sensitive to heat, shock, and friction. Enough of one, or a combination of the others, and they will detonate. But oftentimes, fire alone isn’t enough to make them go “boom.” It will, however, make the explosives more sensitive and unstable.

At weapons factories, the explosives inside most munitions are poured into the warhead section in a warm liquid state. They cool into a solid before final assembly into an “all-up” round. But if they are later subjected to fire, the explosives may return to a liquid state and flow outside the warhead, coating screw threads and seams between sections of the device.

Now, imagine a guided missile, rocket, or bomb that has been blown out of a bunker intact and on fire. With time, the cast explosives that liquefied have cooled but are now much more sensitive to heat, shock, and friction.

And believe it or not, a large amount of weapons inside the bunker will survive completely intact and fully functional. They too are sturdy things, built to survive rough handling.

The destroyed bunker now provides an attractive target for new kinds of hunters.

Enter: Poor people looking for scrap metal to sell. Enter: Opportunists looking to collect intact weapons to sell elsewhere.

UN officials estimate that 440 bunkers were destroyed in NATO airstrikes during the 2011 campaign over Libya. Scrap metal hunters are still being killed there, as the charred munitions they harvest sometimes detonate from even mild handling. The other kind of hunter collected explosive rounds intact from destroyed bunkers and sold them across the border in Mali, where they breathed new life into the insurgency there. 

So yes, there are second (and third) order effects to bombing bunkers. There just aren’t any good ones — so long as you don’t put ground troops into place to police up the mess.

And now, the Obama administration has pledged that there will be no American servicemembers servicemen on the ground in Syria.

We can consider the tools available to the U.S. in dealing with the Syrian chemical weapons problem. After all, those weapons are the whole reason we want to launch an attack, right?

Assume that American ground troops could capture the chemical weapons intact and undamaged. Destroying them in situ with C4 plastic explosives is possible, but it would be a logistical nightmare for many many reasons. So terrible, in fact, that airstrikes on chemical munition bunkers start to look very attractive.

But only if you don’t understand how your killing tools work. For any politician or flag officer reading, consider the al-Khamisiyah incident. Today’s generals and admirals were junior officers during Operation Desert Storm, so they should know about this. Unfortunately though, it’s likely that many don’t. 

Any airstrike (with the bombs known in the U.S. inventory) carried out on a chemical bunker complex would not destroy the targeted munitions, but instead would create a plume of agent just as we did at the al Khamisiyah Complex in 1991.

Forget about airstrikes for a minute, and think about destroying large amounts of chemicals in a more ideal situation: on the ground. We tried that once, and it didn’t go well. In fact, the federal government looked into whether or not it might have caused Gulf War Syndrome.

So, yes, Assad having chemical weapons is bad. One side employing chemical weapons in Syria is bad, too. But trying to take out those chemical weapons from the air would be far worse. Anyone downwind from the chemical cloud the explosions create could be wounded or killed before it disperses, and predicting where that cloud goes is as changeable as the winds bearing it.

Airstrikes might be coming soon, so let’s hope the chemical bunkers are off the target list. Tomahawks alone aren’t enough to get the job done.

John Ismay is a former Navy E.O.D. officer and a member of Columbia Journalism School’s Class of 2014. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter @johnismay.