And it’s not, “Let’s start a war.”
As news spreads around the world that President Trump ordered the launch of 59 missiles to an airfield in Syria, you are likely feeling horror, fear, uncertainty and, perhaps, some confusion about the Trump administration’s weapon of choice: the Tomahawk missile.
The United States has an arsenal of some of the most powerful, most stealth, and most technologically advanced methods of warfare in the world. But there’s a reason why Trump, who’s bragged about his desire to upgrade our military, selected this older warhead that was mainly developed and deployed more than 25 years ago during the Gulf War in 1991. It turns out this particular missile sends a global message that’s more complicated than we might realize and it’s worth taking a moment to decode.
Yes, this is all still unfolding, but there are two key reasons why he was likely advised to green light the Tomahawk. Those two reasons are potentially important to those of us who are largely against mass weaponry and haven’t exactly been keeping up on advanced military technology.
We already know the why: for one of the worst chemical attacks since the Syrian war began happened on April 4, and the scores of innocent lives lost—and mass suffering of civilians—were unspeakably atrocious.
Now let’s dig into the how, and what the Tomahawk’s use potentially means:
The target area identified for the missile launch was an airfield, with Syrian military airplanes the “softest of soft” targets for a missile, according to a defense analyst in an interview with The Washington Post. Tomahawks have a less explosive reach than a larger bomb, with “cluster munitions” that destroy vehicles and aircraft. Tomahawks are also unmanned, with a 1,000-mile reach when launched from the secure area of a Navy ship. The tactical upshot of selecting the Tomahawk? No American lives were risked, while the scope of destruction (apparently) was intentionally contained to Syrian military property.
The second reason is more nuanced (that is, if a giant-ass smart bomb can be nuanced). The Tomahawk is a 20th century old school warhead, globally recognized as a weapon used for “clarity” —not obliteration. For some reason, spending billions to launch these particular 20-foot-long missiles from an airship is a very dark, very expensive, and very destructive version of taking someone to the woodshed. As Ben FitzGerald, an adjunct fellow with the Center for a New American Security, told Defense One in a 2013 interview:
“Using newer technology in this situation leaves opportunity for misinterpretation. If we executed a cyber-strike would the Syrians and the international community understand what we meant? It could be seen as a less serious deterrent than a kinetic attack. The messaging associated with more traditional weapons, like Tomahawks, is less ambiguous. They’ve been used before and precedents have been set. Clarity and certainty is more important than sophistication.”
Note this interview is from 2013, when the Obama administration considered nearly the exact same strategy to put an end to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, nearly four years ago. Of course back then, pre-President Trump had all the answers and was advising Obama from his Twitter throne.
But the message, according to Obama’s advisors back then, is the same as it is for Trump now: There are ways to signal severe consequences to using chemical warfare–without suggesting the initiation of a war.
Should that make anyone feel better about a bunch of missiles flying into the most volatile parts of the world, dispatched by one of the most volatile presidents in history? Hell no. Should we strive for peace and stop this insanity? Yes. But understanding what the intent was behind this giant act of violence, may help inform this precarious moment in a complicated world.