WASHINGTON (CNN) — The U.S. military could execute a strike against Syria very quickly, if it's ordered to, according to Pentagon sources.
President Barack Obama is still debating a limited strike after Syrian regime forces allegedly unleashed a brutal chemical attack against civilians and rebel forces earlier this month, killing at least 1,429 people, according to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Before any missiles start flying, the president would issue an "execute" order for operations to begin.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would take that order and give it to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. Dempsey would then send it to U.S. Central Command. From there, the order would go out to the U.S. ships that would execute the strike.
There are currently five Navy destroyers positioned in the Mediterranean off the coast of Syria. All carry dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles, the most likely weapon of choice in a punitive strike on Syria's regime.
Once the attack order hits the decks of these ships, missile launches would move "very fast," according to the sources. The crews on these vessels remain ready to fire, and target coordinates are likely already programmed into some of the missiles. The target list is likely under 50, including command-and-control sites and chemical weapons delivery systems, according to a U.S. official.
The Tomahawk is a land attack missile with a range of 1,000 miles. The newest Tomahawk variant can loiter over targets, circling for hours, and can be re-programmed mid-flight, instantly changing course.
In the 2011 NATO campaign again Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, the U.S. Navy launched 221 Tomahawks. Each Tomahawk costs approximately $1.2 million.