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      Why the U.S. strike will almost certainly start with the Tomahawk cruise missile

      For decades, the presidential weapon of choice to launch a big war or to punitively smack a defiant dictator has been the high-cost, low-risk, deadly accurate Tomahawk cruise missile.

      Any punitive strike against Syria will almost certainly start with salvos of Tomahawks launched from U.S. warships and submarines in the Mediterranean.

      They can serve as a terrifying curtain-raiser. More than 120 cruise missiles – low-flying, jet-powered and packing a half-tonne warhead of high explosive – slammed into Libyan targets on March 19, 2011, destroying key headquarters, wrecking Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s air defences and setting the stage for months of allied air strikes by manned warplanes.

      Conceived during the Cold War to deliver smallish nuclear warheads – and tested in Canada’s remote northern territories – the Tomahawk has evolved into a new type of first-strike weapon, favoured by a succession of presidents.

      More than 400 cruise missiles were the first “shots” fired in the 1991 Gulf War, but they have also been used in small salvos to send presidential messages of punitive disapproval. Bill Clinton ordered the firing of a couple of dozen at Iraqi targets in 1993 after a plot to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush was uncovered. Unbowed, President Saddam Hussein continued to taunt the United States until 2003, when then-president George W. Bush launched a full-blown war.

      Orders from the Oval Office launched other small-scale “retaliatory” strikes using cruise missiles in the wake of the al-Qaeda bombings of American embassies in two African countries in 1998. Mr. Clinton sent 79 Tomahawks in twin strikes – one at a purported al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and the other at a factory suspected of making chemical weapons components in Khartoum. Osama bin Laden wasn’t in the camp and the owner of the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan said he had no links to the radical Islamic group.

      Cruise missiles also opened the Kosovo air war in 1999, knocking out Serb air defences so manned warplanes could follow with months of air strikes.

      President Barack Obama has also previously turned to cruise missiles. In December, 2009, a pair of Tomahawks killed dozens of suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen in a strike that Washington never admitted to launching but was confirmed by documents leaked by Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.

      Cruise missiles offer significant tactical advantages. Despite their $1-million price tag, they are politically inexpensive – a way of raining death and destruction on America’s enemies without risking American or allied pilots. Cruise missiles are hard to shoot down, deadly accurate if properly programmed and effective against a range of targets.

      But the missiles – unlike heavy bunker-busting bombs – are relatively ineffective against hardened targets. If Mr. Obama wants to reduce the imposing Syrian presidential palace overlooking Damascus from a ridge above the city to a smoking ruin, cruise missiles will deliver. But they are ill-suited if the objective is to destroy deep underground facilities for making or storing chemical weapons.

      If Mr. Obama wants to attack Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles – a dangerous operation given the risks of spreading the poison gases instead of destroying them – then bigger warheads with more penetrating capacity will be needed. However, that entails manned bombers and the risk of downed pilots.

      And unless it’s a “lucky shot,” there’s little likelihood that a cruise missile will kill Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As then-defence secretary Les Aspin admitted when Mr. Clinton ordered cruise missiles to strike Baghdad 20 years ago: “It’s very difficult to target a single individual … What we’re doing is sending a message.”

      Mr. Hussein was undeterred by the message. It remains unclear whether Mr. al-Assad is more likely to heed it.

      The U.S. has thousands of Tomahawks – including an air-launched version that can be carried by hulking B-52 bombers – and could maintain a punishing barrage for days or weeks, although only a few hundred cruise missiles are likely currently deployed on submarines and warships in the Mediterranean. More likely, the U.S. would launch a punitive strike limited in both duration and scope, perhaps lasting several days.

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