Islamic State: Straining the US Defence Budget

30 Sep, 2014    ·   4677

Vivek Mishra analyses the level of impact the rise of the Islamic State will have on the US' defence budget

Vivek Mishra
Vivek Mishra
Research Intern
The most recent estimation vis-à-vis the US’ military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) has it that the cost of Washington’s war against the IS has surpassed $780 million. This comes at a time when the Pentagon has hinted at request for more support. Essentially, the US military is spending up to $10 million a day. While air strikes might seem to be a safe option, the costs incurred are heavy. Besides, there is increasing chorus for involvement of ground troops, as isolated air strikes are not believed to be adequate. Amidst this seemingly intractable involvement of the US in Iraq and Syria, will the US will be able to sustain budgetary allowances for its campaign, against the IS in particular and its other foreign military presence in general?

Engaging the Islamic State: A Folly?
With its newly announced campaign against the IS, the US again stands at crossroads, divided between three strenuous military commitments – Asia-pacific, Ukraine and West Asia – and a reduction in budgets back home. Although the extent of the US military involvement differs in each case, the cumulative budgetary toll on the country’s defence budget has necessitated a rethink. 

The pressure on Washington was evident when US President Barack Obama announced an open-ended “broad coalition” to fight the IS, instead of taking it forward unilaterally. The US restricted itself from committing fully to the anticipated long-drawn war against the IS through a combination of “no boots on ground” and “light military footprint.” However, both these strategies will depend on how cooperative other allies and friends of the US, particularly those in the region, are. So far, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar have pledged support to the US against the IS. Whether the campaign against the IS remains to be not “America’s war alone” will be contingent on the nature of support the US gets from these countries.

At least two suggestions imply that the US could get further embroiled in its fight against the IS; Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that more US ground forces could be needed in its fight against the IS and the further expansion of airstrikes by the US inside Iraq. The US wanted to disentangle from wars in West Asia but ended up redeploying troops to Iraq and expanding air operations in Syria. The nature of the threat emerging from the IS has required the US to enter deeper in the region than initially anticipated. Apart from these, the Pentagon-White House rift, on whether the US campaign against the IS will succeed, adds to its bane.

Impact on Defense Budget
These military commitments have taken a huge toll on the US defence budget. The first five weeks of US airstrikes in northern Iraq has cost $262.5 million. The military offensive planned against the IS is likely to bite off a massive $500 billion into Pentagon’s spending cuts planned over the next decade. Since these are mandatory cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act (also called Sequestration), it would mean a resource-depleted US force over the next decade.

This is anticipated in a Department of Defence (DoD) paper released in April 2013, titled ‘Defense Budget Priorities and Choice-Fiscal Year 2014.’ The report mentions drawdown of forces and resource depletion as two important strategies planned in the roadmap for the US military. The paper categorically mentions that the DoD estimates a 20 per cent drop in the overall defence budget from 2010 to 2017. Sequestration, if not amended through an amendment, will lead to further cuts in the defense budget ($50 billion each year, through 2021). Unfortunately, all of these coincide with the US’ foreign military engagements.

This is a massive cut the DoD is talking about and will likely have an impact on the number of troops, overseas operations, ammunitions, military intelligence and defence research, among other things. Specifically, the US will have to do a reduction of approximately 50, 000 active-duty soldiers, do away with a navy carrier and its mid-air refuel tankers KC-10s, apart from similar reductions. If the US might have to choose between strength reduction and ammunition reduction, the latter would be a harder choice. Obama, in the past, has held the relation between technology and success as directly proportional. To that extent, defence research and production are likely to continue with the current pace, or even higher. Truth, then, might be on the side of the Republican hawks when they argue that the IS has revealed the US’ incapacity to cut military spending. 

The beheading of two US journalists by the IS militants has garnered the necessary domestic support to carry out military strikes against these militants, which seems to have shrouded the defence budget cut debate for now. But could this only be a temporary lull?