Pentagon Provides More Details of Syria Attack
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
ARLINGTON, Va. — The responsiveness of forward-deployed Navy forces was illustrated by the punishing U.S. strike against a Syrian airfield linked to Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack that killed about 100 civilians, mostly women and children, an April 7 Pentagon briefing indicated.
The guided-missile destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross were able to execute their mission, successfully firing 59 Tomahawk land attack missiles (TLAM) against the Shayrat air field about four hours after President Donald J. Trump gave the order for the strike, senior military officials said in a background briefing.
The president directed the military to present options for a U.S. response to the use of the deadly nerve agent sarin a day after the bombing of a small town in a rebel-held area of Syria, the briefers said. Multiple options were presented at a White House National Security Council session that included Defense Secretary James Mattis and the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
The accepted options were then presented early on Thursday to the president, who ordered execution of a plan the briefers described as “proportional.”
“Four hours after the order was received, 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched,” one of the briefers said. The TLAMs struck the air field at about 3 a.m. Syrian time, a time picked to minimize risk of civilian casualties and to maximize the element of surprise, the officer said.
Porter and Ross, which are forward-deployed at Rota, Spain, had received an alert the day before and were positioned in the eastern Mediterranean Sea when they received the execute order, he said.
“Naval forces operating in that area always are ready to perform that mission,” the operational briefer said.
TLAMs can be guided to their targets by several means, including GPS coordinates and visual matching of the objective. Inputting the target data, based on intelligence information, is done on board the ship.
Sixty TLAMs were fired, but one malfunctioned and fell into the sea, the briefer said. And the attempt to shoot one missile was aborted for technical reasons, but a substitute was prepared and fired, he added.
Despite the claim by a Russian military spokesman that only 23 missiles hit the air field, the briefers said they had solid intelligence that all 59 hit their designated targets, which included aircraft parked in the open, harden aircraft shelters that apparently held other planes, oil and weapons storage and maintenance facilities, they said.
Initial battle damage assessment indicated about 20 Syrian aircraft were destroyed.
The targets selected deliberately avoided what were believed to be the chemical weapons facilities, to avoid the danger of releasing the poisonous gases, and locations where some of the Russian personnel known to be on the base were located, the briefers explained.
Although the briefers did not know if there were any casualties, Syrian officials reported seven military personnel were killed, none Russian.
The intelligence officer who briefed documented the evidence that showed the aircraft that dropped the chemical weapon had flown from Shayrat and was over the site of the attack at the time the residents reported the bomb hit. He also showed an aerial photo clearly showing a small crater with the stains on the fringes associated with a chemical weapon. That crater was in the middle of a road.
Russian officials had claimed that the nerve agent was released when a Syrian bomb hit a weapons depot that hid chemical weapons.