The United States Navy fired 59 “Tomahawk” cruise missiles from two destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean to hit a Syrian military airfield in Homs province on Sunday. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the assault in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, five days before. More than 80 people are said to have died in the attack.
The U.S. government believes sarin nerve gas was used in the attack by Syrian government forces operating from the airfield Shayat, the target of the volley of U.S.’ missiles. It was the first direct American assault on Syrian government forces, which are being supported by Russia.
However, as our infographic shows, it isn’t the first time the U.S. military fired such devices at targets in Syria. According to U.S. Central Command, Islamic State positions were targeted with up to 50 cruise missiles in September 2014, launched from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf at the onset of the continuing aerial bombardment of the Islamist militants.
Cruise missiles have been employed by the United States military (mostly the Navy) regularly, ever since their introduction during the Gulf War of 1991. Though they have been used as a tactical weapon in full scale wars, cruise missiles have mostly been used in limited strikes.
In his 1997 thesis, Timothy Sparks calls these strikes a “means of delivering a military punch to achieve political gain” and “an instrument in the execution of U.S. foreign policy”. In this sense, the cruise missile has been said to have replaced the gunboat. Hence, the phrase “gunboat diplomacy” has been modified to read “cruise missile diplomacy”.
Cruise missile have often been favored by U.S. civilian and military leadership, as they allow for limited strikes, a show of force or punitive raid, while not placing service personnel in danger of death. The missiles are fired from a safe distance to the target and can travel up to 1,500 miles, depending on make and explosives payload.