Pentagon, Russian Military at Odds Over U.S. Airstrike Damage

By Patrick Goodenough | April 11, 2017 | 4:22 AM EDT

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross fires a Tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert S. Price)

( – The Pentagon’s assessment of the damage caused by last week’s cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase stands in stark contrast to the Russian military’s claims that the effectiveness of the strike was “extremely low.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement Monday the DoD assessed that the strike on the Shayrat airbase – linked by the U.S. to a chemical weapons attack in Idlib province two days earlier – had damaged or destroyed one in five of the regime’s operational planes.

“The assessment of the Department of Defense is that the strike resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities, and 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft,” he said.

“The Syrian government has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield and at this point, use of the runway is of idle military interest,” Mattis added.

The defense secretary called the launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean “a measured response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.”

“The president directed this action to deter future use of chemical weapons and to show the United States will not passively stand by while [President Bashar] Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law and which were declared destroyed.” (See related story)

“The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons,” Mattis added.

Also on Monday, U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John J. Thomas told reporters in a teleconference briefing that the missile strike had destroyed or rendered inoperable more than 20 Syria air force planes, the Associated Press reported.

A rather different assessment of the strike damage came, shortly after the attack, from Assad’s Russian ally.

Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said only 23 of the 59 cruise missiles had hit the targeted base, adding that “the combat effectiveness of the U.S. massive missile strike on Syria’s airbase was thus extremely low.”

Konashenkov, who cited Russian radar surveillance data, said it was not known where the other 36 missiles had landed.

He said the missiles that had hit the base destroyed six MiG-23 fighter planes in repair hangars, a radar station, logistics warehouse, and a training building and canteen.

“The runway, taxiways and parked planes of the Syrian air force have not been damaged,” Konashenkov added.

Iran, Assad’s other key ally, is also pushing the narrative of an ineffectual U.S. strike, noting that the targeted airbase was quickly back in service.

“The Syrian air force in a crushing response to the U.S. missile attack on Shayrat airbase in southwestern Homs launched massive airstrikes on terrorists in Idlib and Damascus,” said the Fars news agency, indicating that the Syrian planes had taken off from the Shayrat base.

Tomahawk land attack missiles are not usually used to crater runways. Bombs designed for that purpose, such as French-made Durandal (BLU-107s), need to be dropped from manned attack aircraft. The U.S. reportedly used them, dropped from F111E attack planes, against Iraqi airbases in the early stages of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

“The runways were not the target due to the nature of the construction of those runways,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said hours after the strike. “Our military estimate was that we could not do serious damage to the runways.  They are very thick and they’re constructed in a way that the ordnance that were used, while would have damaged them – the damage would have been easily repaired in a matter of hours.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow