By Andrew Tilghman
President Obama’s new strategy for confronting the extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the U.S. military’s operational tempo or overall budget.
Obama outlined an expanded military mission that now aims to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” He authorized an additional 475 ground troops to Iraq and and said U.S. air strikes on ISIL targets will expand into Syria for the first time.
Yet in the same prime-time speech on Sept. 10, the commander in chief also renewed his vow not to send U.S. troops into combat on the ground. And his authorization to strike targets in Syria will not necessarily translate into a significant increase in day-to-day air missions over the region, where military officials say an average of 60 to 80 U.S. aircraft have flown daily for the past three months.
Obama’s plans track with his previous national security policies by relying heavily air power, especially unmanned drones, and small teams of special operations forces, supported by local allies on the ground. He also enumerated several non-military goals that include cutting off ISIL’s financing, recruiting other nations to join the miliary operations against ISIL and giving money and weapons to friendly factions among the Syrian rebels.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” Obama said.
Obama used the term “counterterrorism” four times in the 15-minute speech, a catchword that signals a far more limited military strategy compared to the “counterinsurgency” missions that guided the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the additional 475 troops going to Iraq will “advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces in order to help them go on the offense against ISIL, conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights to increase U.S. capacity to target ISIL, and coordinate the activities of the U.S. military across Iraq.”
Kirby said the additional troops will break down like this: 150 will be assigned ot the advise-and-assist mission; 125 will be involved in conducting the ISR flights; and the remaining 200 will be assigned tothe two headquarters commands in Baghdad and Irbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
The overall advise-and-assist mission will include several hundred troops assisgned to about 15 to 20 teams and assigned to the Iraqi Army’s brigade-level headquarters, Kirby said.
Those additional troops will bring the total force strength on the ground to about 1,700, including about 100 personnel permanently assigned to the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq.
Air operations on the ground will expand beyond the current detachment of helicopters that also is on the ground to support troop movements and potential medevacs in the three-month-old mission. Additional fixed-wing aircraft for intelligence, surveillence and reconissance will begin operating from an airfield in the Kurdish city of Irbil, Kirby said.
The expansion of air strikes into Syria is likely to occur slowly. The U.S. has far less intelligence about ISIL targets in Syria compared to Iraq and it has not forged reliable partnerships with Syrian rebel forces. Moreover, military planners will be careful to strike ISIL without inadvertently strengthening the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad, which the U.S. still firmly opposes.
There are no immediate plans to deploy troops or aircraft from outside the U.S. Central Command area. Until now, CENTCOM has conducted air operations over Iraq — both air strikes and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — using assets previously assigned to its area of operations.
Politically, expanding the fight against ISIL is a remarkable decision for a president who famously called President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq a “dumb war” and who was elected in 2008 on a promise to wind down the Iraq mission, which ultimately ended with a complete withdrawl of U.S. troops in December 2011.
But militarily, the new mission the president outlined will not necessarily affect the Defense Department’s budget planning, a key issue on the minds of many service members as the Pentagon seeks to scale back the natural growth of pay and benefits during the next several years.
Defense officials say this summer’s operations in Iraq have cost an average of about $7.5 million a day. Outside experts estimate that it costs the Pentagon between $600,000 and $1 million to deploy one service member for one year. So back-of-the-envelope estimates for the military operations Obama outlined Wednesday might amount to no more than a few billion dollars a year, or a small fraction of the overall defense budget and substantially smaller than the current operations in Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials have said that the first four months of renewed operations in Iraq will not require additional money from Congress, and regarding the new fiscal year 2015 starting in October, the top brass is taking a wait-and-see approach. That budget already includes a $66 billion supplement for overseas operations, including cash for fighting terrorism in the Middle East.
Obama compared his strategy to recent U.S. military operations in Yemen and Somalia, where airstrikes and in some cases special operations raids have targeted high-profile extremist leaders.
Another example might be the early phase of the Afghanistan war when very small teams of Americans, from both military and intelligence agencies, operated on the ground and directed airstrikes in support of friendly Afghan forces in toppling the Taliban regime.
A senior administration official said Wednesday that the expanded mission in Iraq and Syria will be “applying continued pressure … through our own airstrike efforts but also through working with our partners on the ground, and that’s the model that we’re looking to apply here.”
The White House offered no timeline for the mission and signaled that it may extend beyond Obama’s presidency, which ends in January 2017. “The goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy this organization, but we’re not going to put a fixed date for the accomplishment of that goal,” the administration official said.
The renewed U.S. operations in Iraq have expanded incrementally since June 15 when Obama first ordered 160 soldiers and Marines into Baghdad to provide “static security” at the U.S. embassy compound. That was followed by 300 “military advisors,” the creation of “Joint Operations Centers” and more than 150 airstrikes on ISIL targets.
Most recently, U.S. airstrikes expanded into Anbar province for the first time as U.S. aircraft supported Iraqi troops and friendly Sunni tribal militias fighting ISIL forces near the Haditha dam.
But those operations, legally, all fell under Obama’s initial mission to protect U.S. citizens and avert humanitarian crises. Obama’s speech Wednesday night signals the first expansion of the overarching mission in Iraq since June.
“In other words, we are lifting the restrictions of our air campaign from those two missions to a broader effort to roll back ISIL,” said a senior administration official Wednesday.