U.S. military forces in the Middle East are upping the number of airstrikes and special operations raids and increasing on-the-ground intelligence gathering in an effort to intensify the campaign against the Islamic State group, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told House lawmakers Tuesday.

"We're at war," Carter said in testimony on Capitol Hill. "We are using the might of the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Tens of thousands of U.S. personnel are operating in the broader Middle East region, and more are on the way."

The blunt characterization of the steadily growing military mission in the region stunned members of the House Armed Services Committee, who swung between questioning the strength of the White House strategy against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and labeling the mission a full-scale war.

Carter, who frequently appeared frustrated by the congressional questioning, did not back down from either criticism.

"It's not war in a technical sense, but this is serious business," he said. "It feels that way to our people."

In the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama has come under increased scrutiny from lawmakers — particularly Republicans — for not adopting a more aggressive strategy to wipe out Islamic State group strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. forces have been involved in airstrikes and training assistance in the region for 16 months without a new military force authorization for the mission. Pentagon officials said in recent months that those efforts, combined with offensives by local forces on the ground, have made significant advances in retaking territory controlled by Islamic State group extremists.

Carter said much of that progress is due to better intelligence from U.S. forces in the region, which have opened the way for improved attacks on IS supply lines and leadership sites. He also said the American presence there has attracted new allies in both countries, both connected to and separate from the Iraqi government.

The White House had already announced plans to put small numbers of U.S. special operations personnel in Syria to coordinate with those local forces. On Tuesday, Carter said he is also deploying a "specialized expeditionary targeting force" to assist Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State group.

Their role will be to serve not only as advisers but also to "conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders." That will also include unilateral operations into Syria, because "that puts enemies on notice that they don't know at night who might be coming in the window."

Obama has repeatedly pledged not to put U.S. "boots on the ground" in the fight against the Islamic State group, arguing that the militant group can be dismantled permanently only if local fighters lead the effort.

Carter repeated that philosophy on Tuesday, saying that a lasting peace in the region cannot be won through American military might alone.

The U.S. has already deployed about 3,500 U.S. troops to Iraq in noncombat roles. Defense officials did not say how many would be involved in the new expeditionary force plan.

But Carter said that defense officials are "eager to do more" if the initial expeditionary efforts help local forces make more advances against Islamic State group strongholds.

Several Republicans on the committee questioned Carter's assertions that U.S. service members are making real progress in the fight.

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, told Carter that "most of us do not have confidence [that] you have a strategy, or one based on accurate intelligence."

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., asked: "Why should we think the administration is on the right path now … when you say you didn't have the right intelligence back in 2010?"

Carter dodged questions about past mistakes in the region that may have allowed IS to regroup and grow, but said he is confident that the current approach will eventually succeed.

"We have the right elements in place today," he said. "We will win. We are going to win."

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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