Beware: Weapon Shortfalls Threaten Fight Against ISIS

President Obama’s proposed $122.2 billion funding request for the Air Force calls for greater spending in procurement, with particular focus on increasing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets as well as munitions. This emphasis would help address shortfalls in key munition programs being used extensively in the fight against The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But the higher spending level would not represent real growth. Essentially, the White House’s proposal would merely offset automatic reductions made to procurement accounts in recent years. Moreover, the President’s proposal exists outside the budgetary reality of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), which introduced discretionary caps on defense.

As of this week, the U.S. military and its allies have conducted 2,600 airstrikes and dropped more than 3,000 bombs against The ISIS. The vast majority of these strikes have used the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the laser-guided Hellfire missile. Yet, despite their paramount role in the fight against the ISIS, discretionary caps on defense instituted by the BCA are limiting JDAM and Hellfire replenishment. Consequently, inventories of these weapons are now well below stockpile requirements.

Unless policy makers act to raise discretionary caps on defense in the upcoming fiscal year, the severity of weapon shortfalls will only intensify. Left unchecked, it will severely limit the ability of the U.S. military and coalition partners, most of whom are dependent on foreign military sales from U.S. stockpiles, to sustain the current tempo of operations against the ISIS.

Unless Congress acts, the stockpile problem will only get worse. On January 28th, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, warned that: 

"Under sequestration funding levels [for the upcoming fiscal year], Hellfire and Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) procurement would plummet 61 percent (3,197), and guidance kit procurement would fall 19 percent (24,474 kits)."

Some might contend that current weapon stockpiles are more than sufficient to meet foreseeable U.S. military operations and that continued procurement shortfalls therefore do not introduce significant risk in the U.S. military’s ability to provide for the common defense. This assessment, however, wrongly assumes that a majority of U.S. military operations have been foreseeable. Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya in 2011 and ongoing military action against the ISIS are two recent examples that suggest that future conflicts are anything but predictable.

Given President Obama’s propensity to pursue military solutions that do not involve boots on the ground, there is good reason to believe that precision-guided munitions will continue to play a significant role in both the near- and long-term. That is why ending the BCA’s trend of reduced weapon spending is so important.

Lifting the discretionary caps on defense alone will not cure all that ails the Department of Defense, but it is an important first step. Fixing the accumulated depletion of America’s munition stockpiles will take years, even with a correspondingly growing defense budget. However, with the fight against the ISIS far from over, it is time we pointed the trend lines in the right direction. 

 - Emil Maine is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.

About the Author

Emil Maine Research Assistant, National Security
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in Real Clear Defense