Pentagon Budget Includes New Funding to Fight the Islamic State

Its portion of the Pentagon's budget is very small, but the conflict in Iraq and Syria is still influencing spending choices.

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

This story has been updated.

The Pentagon’s $585 billion budget for 2016 includes $1.3 billion to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian forces to fight the Islamic State. It also provides new details on how the Obama administration plans to combat the militant group in the years ahead.

The Pentagon’s spending request includes $534 billion for the Defense Department’s base budget and $51 billion for what’s called the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO. Overall, it is $25 billion more than what Congress provided the Pentagon for this year, according to budget documents released Monday.

The costs of the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State mostly appear in the Pentagon’s OCO account, but the war against the group in Iraq and Syria has influenced other parts of the budget as well. For example, the Air Force is requesting $821 million in 2016 to buy 29 more MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are in high demand because of their advanced intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. This is more than was requested in either 2014 or 2015, reflecting an increased demand for the drones even as troops in Afghanistan continue to drawdown. The unmanned aircraft are especially valuable because, with no American troops on the frontlines, drones play a vitally important role by helping the U.S. target individual vehicles, buildings, and militant formations on the ground.

Of the $1.3 billion in OCO funding, $700 million is for Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and $600 million is to train and equip vetted moderate Syrian opposition fighters. In 2015, the Pentagon is spending $1.6 billion on these combined efforts. The money comes as Baghdad, backed by Kurdish leaders in Erbil, are readying plans to launch a major offensive in coming months designed to reclaim Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.

The Iraqi program has three main components, according to budget documents released Monday. The U.S. plans to equip Iraqi units appropriately for their assigned missions, increase their readiness by redistributing equipment that’s already on-hand, and thirdly, assess and repair existing equipment to reduce the need to buy more.

An overview of the Pentagon’s budget acknowledges that Iraq’s falling oil revenues pose challenges to these goals.

“The Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior will at best realize limited funding increases over the next few years,” the document says.

The Pentagon budget also outlines the goals for the Syrian program. The train and equip effort is being designed to help the vetted Syrian opposition forces to be able to: “(1) defend the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and secure territory controlled by the Syrian opposition; (2) protect the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria ; and (3) promote the conditions for a negotiated political settlement to end the conflict in Syria.”

Notably missing is any mention of fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which remains the primary goal of most Syrian opposition groups. Moderate Syrian leaders accuse the Obama administration for making a de facto alliance with Assad in which U.S. aircraft bomb the Islamic State while Assad’s forces fight them on the ground. Assad, they say, is playing the White House by actually focusing his fire on the more moderate groups.

The war funds also include $3.8 billion for training and equipping Afghan security forces. This will fund 352,000 in overall Afghan security forces, including 195,000 in the Afghan National Army, 157,000 in the Afghan National Police, and up to 30,000 in the Afghan Local Police.

The U.S. military recently decided to classify practically all information pertaining to the Afghan security forces, a move overturned after the inspector general’s office said it was unnecessary and kept the American public in the dark on the success or failure of reconstruction efforts.

The 2016 budget assumes 5,853 troops will be in Afghanistan and 4,077 in Iraq.

The war funding also includes a healthy dose of classified spending: $3.5 billion for Defense Department programs, and another $5 billion for non-defense activities.

The new budget ignores the congressionally mandated budget caps — known as sequestration — which will remain in place for 2016 unless Congress passes legislation to lift them. Under sequestration, the Pentagon’s base budget is capped at $499 billion. The Pentagon’s request comes in $35 billion over the cap.

“Funding levels lower than the president is proposing, especially at full sequestration cap levels, our defense strategy will become brittle and more prone to breaking,” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told reporters at the Pentagon Monday.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s budget includes several proposals that will face steep uphill battles on Capitol Hill.

Sure to raise a few eyebrows is the request for $10.6 billion to buy 57 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from Lockheed Martin. This is two more than previously planned and a sharp increase from this year’s 38 jets. The program’s $399 billion budget and chronic schedule delays means it often faces scrutiny from lawmakers.

The Pentagon is once again asking Congress to initiate a new round of base closures in the United States, a move Capitol Hill has rejected for three straight years.

The Air Force also is pushing forward with its controversial proposal to retire its A-10 aircraft. The debate around the aircraft has become so heated that an Air Force two-star threatened his airmen with treason last month if they shared information about the plane with Capitol Hill. The Air Force says it has to retire the plane to make room for investments in newer aircraft, like the F-35. Its proponents point to the plane’s proven utility, including its use in operations in Iraq against the Islamic State.

The 2016 budget funds a basic pay raise of 1.3 percent for troops, but it also proposes a number of reforms to other benefits, including slowing the growth in basic pay and housing allowances, consolidating Tricare health plans, and reducing the commissary subsidy.

An independent commission created by Congress released a report last week that will guide this year’s debate over pay and benefits reform.

Photo credit: STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

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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