SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — Media reports indicate the United States and its allies could begin retaliatory air strikes against Syria as early as Thursday morning.
If the air strikes occur, big questions remain as to their goals and scope.
Will the air strikes focus on suspected chemical weapons caches in Syria?
Will the air strikes' goal be to punish the Syrian regime for the suspected use of nerve gas against civilians? Or will the bombing campaign focus on deeper goals, such as the regime's overthrow?
No matter what, however, it's certain the Air Mobility Command, based at Scott Air Force Base, near Belleville, Ill., will play a critical role in supporting a bombing campaign against Syria, principally because of its role in coordinating air-to-air refueling for American fighters and bombers, according to John Stillion, a military analyst in Washington, D.C.
"That's critical for extending the range and endurance of all the combat aircraft that would be involved," said Stillion, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a non-partisan military think tank.
An AMC spokesman declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to the Pentagon.
Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Department of Defense spokesman, declined to comment about the issue of air strikes against Syria.
"We never discuss ongoing operations or planning," Speaks said.
If an air strike campaign turns into a prolonged aerial bombardment campaign -- as was the case in America's intervention in the Balkans in 1999 -- then AMC's role will become extremely critical.
Air-to-air refueling would allow American combat aircraft -- as well as allies, such as Great Britain and France -- to launch "from bases where they otherwise couldn't reach their targets or couldn't stay above them for a significant period of time ... That's one of the things that amc does. It's really a unique capability. In the world, there's no other organization that has the air-to air-refueling capacity that AMC has. Nobody comes anywhere close."
Retaliatory air strikes against Syria that are substantial enough to send a clear message to Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as the rest of the world, would mean a major commitment of American warplanes, including manned bombers capable of dropping deep-penetrating "bunker buster" bombs, according to military experts.
What complicated American plans is the fact that Syria has a sophisticated air defense system, one that is far more formidable than Serbian forces possessed in 1999.
And although Serbia eventually succumbed to American demands to withdraw from Kosovo, that did not happen until it was the target of a 78-day bombing campaign that included the destruction of much of Serbia's civilian infrastructure, including its water purification plants and the electric grid.
"It took not just going after those particular civilian things, but also targeting particular assets that the ruling regime valued," Stillion said.
The National Journal, in an article on its website Wednesday assessing the bombing of Serbian forces, noted that despite "raining a high-tech assortment of laser-guided and satellite-navigated bombs on Serbia and Kosovo, NATO officials were astonished to see many Serb tanks and troops depart the province after NATO peacekeepers went in."
The success of any American bombardment campaign against Syria will in the end hinge on the goals behind the air strikes, Stillion said.
It's one thing to attack known and suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites with cruise missiles, which can be launched from ships in the Mediterranean Sea, according to Stillion.
"But if we're attempting to force the regime to do something or stop doing something, then the guys on the other side get a vote, right?" he said. "It's tough to say how long that might go on."