WASHINGTON -- A no-fly zone over Syria means American boots on the ground.
Among President Obama's difficult options as he grapples with growing pressure to intervene with force in the war in Syria is a no-fly zone, an option that would effectively block Syria's ability to use its air power or missiles against rebel forces or to strike outside its borders.
Advocates pushing for the United States to aggressively enter the war insist that it would be just as easy to establish a no-fly zone as it was for Israeli jets to strike Damascus twice over the weekend.
"No American boots on the ground, establish a safe zone," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on "Fox News Sunday." Dismissing the Syrian air defense system that U.S. strikes would have to destroy in order to set up a no-fly zone, McCain added acidly that "the Israelis seem to be able to penetrate it fairly easily."
In fact, according to veteran pilots and air campaign planners, establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone is a complex operation -- and if U.S. pilots and flight crews were to fly into range of mobile Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, the operation would require American infantrymen or commandos to go into Syria to rescue airmen if they were shot down.
Even a more modest U.S. intervention into the war, like declaring a "safe" area or a humanitarian relief corridor, would require U.S. air power to enforce -- and ground combat troops on standby.
"Yes, there needs to be a combat SAR (search and rescue) option established, from offshore or using special forces," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who planned and led the air operation in Desert Storm. Deptula also spearheaded the no-fly zone maintained over Iraq for 12 years.
"People are throwing around the term 'no-fly zone,'" Deptula told The Huffington Post Monday. "Well, I've been a commander of international no-fly zones. It can be done, but it's not easy -- although we made it look easy." Deptula, an F-15 pilot, flew 82 combat missions over Iraq. Comparing a no-fly zone with Israeli air strikes, he said, "is a non sequitur."
Deptula also pleaded for the White House to narrowly define the purpose of any intervention. There are viable military options, he said, "but to what end? What are the objectives?"
One concern is that if American aircraft take control of the sky over Syria, pressure will increase to use those aircraft to strike Syrian forces on the ground -- as occurred in Libya after the initial air strikes in 2011.
As for the Israeli air strikes on Syria, Deptula drew a sharp line between conducting several strikes against specific targets, and a long air campaign maintaining a combat air cover over the entire country for an indefinite period of time in order to destroy Syria's extensive and sophisticated Russian-built air defenses. It's even more difficult, he said, if political and diplomatic considerations require the participation of combat aircraft from NATO and other countries.
Strike options prepared at the Pentagon's Joint Staff and the U.S. Central Command, the regional military headquarters that would conduct conventional combat operations in Syria, likely include options for initial cruise missile attacks that could damage but not destroy Syria's air defenses, defense analysts said.
A Syria operation, especially if it involved NATO, would likely be overseen as well by Air Force Gen. Phillip M. Breedlove, a veteran F-16 pilot and air campaign strategist who takes command of the U.S. European Command this Friday.
A concerted air campaign against Syria would also likely involve B-2 and B-52 bombers: the B-2 "stealth" bombers to slip inside Syria's remaining air defenses after cruise missile strikes, and the lumbering Cold War B-52s to fire air-launched cruise missiles from outside Syrian air space.
Pentagon planners also have to consider the effect sequestration and other budget cuts have had on combat readiness. B-52 commanders at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana recently told The Huffington Post that their training hours have been cut back by one-third."If President Obama needed 100 percent of all his (B-52) crew members, he will not have them," Lt. Col. Eric Sikes said.
Having a significant number of air crews without their required training, and aircraft going without required maintenance, Deptula said, "wouldn't make a difference in being able to conduct a couple of strikes. It would make a difference in being able to sustain a no-fly zone."
Another problem for military targeters is that many of Syria's fixed missile sites are located in densely populated residential areas. Syria also boasts mobile missiles, such as the Russian Pantsyr S-1, which are difficult to detect and track. Tracking the missile can be done with unmanned drones or with manned jets built to detect and track radar signatures.
Standard U.S. military operations that involve putting Americans into hostile air space usually include a standby force of U.S. Marines. If Obama orders Air Force and Navy strike jets into action over Syria, a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), with a battalion of combat Marines and other specialists quartered aboard amphibious warships would be stationed in the eastern Mediterranean. From there, the Marines could launch what they call a TRAP (tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel) mission, an operation they train for constantly.
If a crew had to bail out over Syria, a combat force of up to 120 Marines would immediately launch in ship-based V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and zoom inland at low level to avoid Syrian air defense radars. Strike jets would accompany them overhead. On the ground, a combat force would fan out to establish a defensive perimeter against Syrian forces, who would likely also be hunting the downed crew.
The TRAP mission Marines also are trained to extricate injured airmen from wreckage, and to seize or blow up sensitive items from aircraft wreckage such as targeting pods and computer software packages.
Such an operation could require an extended role for ground troops. In 1995, Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady was shot down over Bosnia, and spent six days on the ground evading the Serb forces hunting him. He was finally located and rescued by Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit at sea in the Adriatic.