An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Argonauts of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147 prepares to launch Tuesday from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Red Sea. (MC3 Nathan R. McDonald / AP)
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus had a none-too-subtle reminder Wednesday for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Those four Navy destroyers armed with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles? They're still off the Syrian coast despite the pregnant pause for diplomats to try to avert an attack. Which, he pointed out, would not be a pinprick. Another ship nearby is loaded with hundreds of Marines.
"I guarantee you that if we are called upon to strike, we will strike hard and we will strike fast," Mabus said in remarks prepared for an address to the National Defense University in Washington. "As the president said last night, it will be targeted and it will degrade the Assad regime's capabilities.
"Presence is what we do. It is who we are. We reassure our partners that we are there, and remind those who may wish our country and allies harm that we're never far away. That is American sea power."
Mabus' statement leaves little doubt that Pentagon planners are leaning on the Navy to lead the strike, should it be ordered. Air Force warplanes can also fire missiles far from Syrian airspace, a factor that the Pentagon is taking into account, according to testimony Tuesday from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But Navy ships don't need to take off and land from an air strip in another country, or request permission to fly over another. They can bob about in the eastern Mediterranean for a long, long time, rotating a fresh ship and crew on occasion.
"Our ships are sovereign U.S. territory," Mabus said. "We do not take up an inch of anyone else's soil. That naval presence is what gives the president flexibility to respond to any crisis."
In this case, the missiles would destroy some of Assad's weapons that are capable of carrying a chemical-weapon warhead. Those weapons are carried about the destroyers in the region, the Stout, Ramage, Gravely and Barry. Another ship, the San Antonio, is nearby, carrying Marines.
After plugging the Navy's capabilities, Mabus warned that they'll start to unravel if the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration continue. Another year of such spending reductions will leave sailors and Marines without the training they need and will put the military on course for a "hollow force."
More cuts are coming Oct. 1 unless Congress and the president reach a budget deal, a prospect that seems unlikely. Failing to reach a resolution, he said, could limit the Navy's ability to react to a crisis like Syria.
Keeping ships armed to the teeth off the coast of an adversary is an option that "may be limited or unavailable in the future," Mabus said.