US, Allies Reviewing Bomb Stockpiles for ISIS Fight

Airmen load a precision-guided munitions on an A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Stephenie Wade/U.S. Air Force

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Airmen load a precision-guided munitions on an A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military is making sure it has enough bombs and missiles to continue striking Islamic State strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

After six months of conducting widespread airstrikes across northern Iraq and Syria in a campaign that shows no signs of abating, the U.S. military and its allies are re-evaluating the size of their bomb stockpiles, according to a senior Pentagon official.

The review would ensure that the weapon supply in the U.S. and overseas is adequate to meet current and future strikes against Islamic State militants. It comes after three years of reduced weapon spending due to federal budget caps and a drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. military and a dozen allies have conducted more than 2,600 airstrikes and dropped more than 3,000 bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, according to Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, which is overseeing the mission.

“The U.S. is looking at its stockpiles, in some cases, to make sure we have adequate munitions,” Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, told Defense One during an interview at the IDEX arms show in in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

The U.S. military maintains weapons stockpiles at numerous locations around the world to meet a range of combat missions. The exact number of munitions is classified.

American forces and allies began striking ISIS strongholds in Iraq in August and in Syria in September. As of Monday, there have been nearly 1,500 airstrikes in Iraq and almost 1,200 in Syria, according to the U.S. military. The bombing campaign has had tactical advantage by putting enemy forces there “on the defensive,” senior U.S. commanders have said. The U.S. has relied heavily on airstrikes to combat ISIS as American trainers help prepare Iraqi forces to go on the offensive; a separate training effort for moderate rebels in Syria is getting underway later this spring. Since U.S. service members are not being deployed on the ground in either country, the airstrike campaign is the primary weapon the U.S. is using against enemy forces. But Kendall’s remarks suggest the pool of weapons from which the Pentagon draws is not bottomless.

“I wouldn’t say we’re running out of weapons but I’d say we’re using weapons at a pretty good rate in northern Iraq and in Syria,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, said at the Pentagon on Feb. 6.

U.S. and allied warplanes and drones have mostly used satellite-guided bombs and missiles in the strikes, according to U.S. officials. This includes the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a Boeing-made weapon that uses GPS to guide it to a target and the Hellfire, a Lockheed Martin-made missile that is directed to a target by a laser.

“We’re engaged in a conflict now that will probably go on for some time,” Kendall said. “We’re consuming munitions and obviously they have to be replaced.”

American officials say they expect the airstrikes to continue at the current pace for the immediate future. Allies “will have a better feel” for their munition stockpile requirements “as events unfold over the next several months,” Kendall said. 

To meet increased demands from the Iraqi military last year, Lockheed Hellfire stepped up its Hellfire production.

“[T]wo shifts of Lockheed Martin contractors are actually working at full capacity right now to modify and test these missiles and get them on their way,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said on June 27.

Asked if U.S. companies can meet the increased production demand for weapons, Kendall said: “I think in general industry is prepared to be responsive as much as they can within their capacity to support us.”

The Air Force alone wants to spend more than $700 million on 5,567 Hellfire missiles in 2016. Some missiles have been directly requested for the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, according to Pentagon budget documents. The Air Force has also requested $559 million to buy nearly 13,000 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently held a summit in Kuwait at which a number of combatant commanders, senior State Department officials and other military officers discussed the U.S. role in the fight against ISIS. Carter has said the strategy against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is working. But it also appears that he is preparing to make recommendations to sharpen the American approach. “I think we have the ingredients of a strategy,” Carter told reporters after the meeting.

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