Already, there were indications that Mr. Assad was moving key aircraft to a Russian base near Latakia, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, and taking pains to secure important weapons systems.
The Pentagon does not have an aircraft carrier in the area at the moment, which focuses attention on the U.S.S. Donald Cook or the U.S.S. Porter, two Navy destroyers already in the Mediterranean. The Donald Cook departed Larnaca, Cyprus, on Monday after completing a scheduled port visit, Navy officials said.
The Donald Cook is one of four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers that generally serve Europe and are part of a NATO rotation, officials said. The United States can use the Donald Cook or the Porter to launch multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles at sites in Syria similar to last year’s operation.
Since last year’s strikes, the United States Central Command has been updating lists of possible military and government targets in Syria, including aircraft hangars, ammunition depots and command headquarters. Defense officials said one possibility was to render certain Syrian airfields incapable of being used in the future to launch chemical attacks.
Last year’s strike destroyed a number of aircraft and their hangars, the Pentagon said at the time, but did not hinder the base’s ability to launch aircraft for long. The American missiles used in the attack, BGM-109 Tomahawks, have a range of around 1,000 miles and carry a warhead that weighs half a ton.
The Donald Cook and the Porter are likely loaded with roughly two dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles each. The U.S.S. New York, an amphibious landing ship and part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is also nearby. The New York can launch transport helicopters and landing craft loaded with Marines, but sending in ground forces is highly unlikely, officials said.
In coming days, the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is scheduled to head to the region. While part of a regularly scheduled deployment, the Truman will deploy to the Mediterranean with a complement of strike and reconnaissance aircraft and surface warships sailing alongside.