Eliot A. Cohen teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He directed the Air Force’s Gulf War Air Power Survey from 1991 to 1993.
There are not many heroes in the should-we-bomb-Syria debate, but if there is one, it might be the cruise missile. For weeks the news media have discussed the positioning in the Mediterranean of American destroyers and submarines, which carry the Tomahawk cruise missile. And whether arguing pro or con, most of the politicians and military experts have come back to it as the central instrument of U.S. power in this curious crisis. Let’s examine misconceptions about America’s apparent weapon of choice in Syria.
1. Cruise missiles first emerged as key weapons during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Try a little earlier. The first American cruise missile designed to attack targets on land was invented, though not deployed in combat, during World War I. The program was shut down in the interwar period, but other countries continued similar work, most notably Germany. The V-1s that Germany showered on London during World War II were quite respectable cruise missiles, with a range of 125 miles and a payload of nearly a ton — almost twice as much as a Tomahawk. The Germans fired about 10,000 at Britain, of which only 3,500 made it without crashing or being shot down. They killed more than 6,000 people without affecting the outcome of the war.