WASHINGTON — The Air Force has fired more than 20,000 missiles and bombs in the air war against the Islamic State, depleting its stocks of munitions and prompting the service to scour depots around the world for more weapons and to find money to buy them, according to records obtained by USA Today.
The Air Force efforts come as the Pentagon has stepped up airstrikes on Islamic State, or ISIL, targets in Iraq and Syria. That bombing campaign began in August 2014 in Iraq, spread to Syria a month later and has continued to target ISIL fighters and equipment.
"We're in the business of killing terrorists and business is good," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in statement. "We need to replenish our munitions stock. Weapons take years to produce from the day the contract is assigned until they roll off the production line."
The Air Force carries out most of the bombing runs, using a variety of warplanes from single-prop Predator drones to huge B-1 bombers. Navy and Marine pilots, and several other countries, also fly missions.
Since summer, the percentage of attack planes dropping bombs on missions has increased. In July and August, half of the warplanes returned to base without dropping weapons, Army Col. Steve Warren, the military's spokesman in Baghdad, said this week. By October, 60 percent of the planes attacked ISIL targets, and November's figure was 65%.
"We're attacking ISIL on numerous fronts," Warren said. "We've attacked their fighters in Syria and Iraq, we're hitting their ability to finance their illegal and despicable operations."
USA Today reported earlier this week that Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who oversees U.S. military activities in the Middle East, estimated that the air war has killed 23,000 ISIL fighters, raising the death toll by 3,000 in just over a month. However, the movement continues to recruit replacements, and the Pentagon does not release its estimates of the war dead.
The bombing runs have sent logistics troops scrambling to keep up with the demand. Most of the missiles and bombs have come from domestic depots, leaving those stocks with a shortage, said Lt. Col. Chris Karns, an Air Force spokesman. The Army has also shared some of its Hellfire missiles, the primary weapon on drones.
In fiscal year 2015, Congress approved spending an additional $400 million for 4,000 Hellfire missiles, he said.
The shortage is at least in part self-inflicted, said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and military analyst at the Lexington Institute.
"Congress has capped defense spending since 2012, and one place the Pentagon has tried to save money is on ammo and missiles," Thompson said. "The U.S. air war against ISIL isn't intense, so if missile supplies are getting low that indicates not enough were bought. There is always a temptation to skimp on purchases of ammunition and missiles in peacetime, but that can leave the military under-equipped when threats arise."