The Complex

Extended Anti-ISIS Mission Will Strain Pentagon Budget

U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria only began Monday, but already, as the week ended, the mission there seemed to be growing beyond what was previously advertised. At the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters that the U.S. would have to train 12,000 to 15,000 Syrian ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria only began Monday, but already, as the week ended, the mission there seemed to be growing beyond what was previously advertised.

At the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters that the U.S. would have to train 12,000 to 15,000 Syrian rebels for the "moderate" opposition force to recapture territory under control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in eastern Syria.

That’s exponentially more than the initial 5,000 estimate. At a Senate hearing on Sept. 16, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the $500 million that the White House requested for the effort would involve training 5,000 Syrian rebels in one year in Saudi Arabia.

But Friday, Dempsey said, "5,000 has never been the end state."

There is no public estimate for how much money it will take the U.S. military to train as many as 15,000 rebels. In addition to unknown costs, there is what also seems to be an open-ended time frame.  

"This will not be an easy or brief effort. We are at the beginning, not the end," Hagel said at Friday’s briefing with Dempsey. Hagel announced that U.S. assessment teams had arrived in Saudi Arabia to eventually launch the vetting process for the Syrian rebels.

As for the training effort in Syria, "We have to do it right and not fast," Dempsey said. "They have to have military leaders that bind them together. They have to have a political structure into which they can hook; and that’s going to take some time."

British Prime Minister David Cameron asked Parliament Friday to support military action against the Islamic State in Iraq that could take years. In the end, Parliament voted 524 to 43 to join the U.S. and French air campaign. For now, the country is not considering military action in Syria.

With the scope and duration of the effort growing bigger each week, it’s certain the cost will continue to climbing.

The Pentagon has said that its operations against the Islamic State averages $7 million to $10 million a day, which it had enough in 2014’s war budget to cover. But Dempsey signaled that fiscal trouble may be around the corner.

The Pentagon’s 2015 budget was based on stable or declining military commitments, and congressional flexibility allowing the Defense Department to reform its pay and benefits system, close bases, and cut weapons programs, Dempsey said.

Fiscal 2015 starts Oct. 1.

"Commitments have gone up. The things we were looking for in terms of flexibility have only very minimally been delivered. So if you’re asking me do I assess right now as we go into the fall review for 2016 if we’re going to have budget problems? Yes," Dempsey said. 

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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