TIME Military

The Budget Trick That Made the Pentagon a Fiscal Functioning Alcoholic

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Erik Simonsen / Getty Images The Pentagon's $391 billion, 2,443-plane F-35 program is the costliest in history.

Bookkeeping gimmick creates a `co-dependency'

If the Pentagon needs more money—and that’s debatable—the Republicans have chosen the worst possible way to do it in the budgetary roadmaps both the House and Senate have recently approved.

That’s because they’ve kept in place the budget caps in place for defense and domestic discretionary spending for the proposed 2016 budget. While that keeps domestic spending in check, they’ve opted to fatten up the Pentagon’s war-fighting account by about $90 billion, which isn’t subject to the budget limits. Even President Obama, under heavy pressure from the Joint Chiefs, has blinked and said military spending should be boosted above the caps set in 2011. But he wants domestic spending increased as well.

The idea of special war-fighting budgetary add-ons makes sense, because while the Pentagon’s base budget trains and outfits the U.S. military, it doesn’t pay for it to wage war. But such Overseas Contingency Operations accounts are supposed to go away when the wars end, as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq (the current U.S.-led small-scale air war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, like the 2011 air war over Libya, can be funded out of the base budget). But the Republicans have basically perverted a responsible approach to funding the nation’s wars into an annual, multi-billion-dollar slush fund subject to even less congressional scrutiny than regular military budgets get.

“There’re a lot of different opinions about whether there should be an overseas contingency account or not, and whether it’s a slush fund or not,” then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel said last September.

The account, whatever it’s called, has become a rhetorical device: pump it up, defense hawks say, or risk crippling national security. Of course, that’s flat-out wrong. If the nation believes it needs to spend more on the military, it should hold an honest debate on the topic and then vote accordingly, without this kind of budgetary chicanery.

Hagel’s successor, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is warning that the military needs more money beyond the $499 billion permitted by the 2011 law. But he says that force-feeding the Pentagon like a foie gras goose doesn’t solve the problem. “Current proposals to shoe-horn DOD’s base-budget funds into our contingency accounts would fail to solve the problem,” he said Thursday, “while also undermining basic principles of accountability and responsible long-term planning.”

So as the defense-budget debate continues, here are some facts to keep in mind:

1. With the Pentagon’s base-budget caps in place, its funding would rise slightly in coming years. Accounting for inflation basically makes for flat spending through 2024. The U.S. military budget today, under those caps, is higher than the Cold War average. That’s because even as the U.S. military shrinks, the cost of each remaining weapon bought and troop recruited has soared.

2. The reason the Pentagon is having trouble living within those levels is that it has grown used to pilfering its war-fighting accounts to fund normal operations, including purchasing weapons. A recent congressional report said that the Pentagon spent $71 billion of its war accounts on non-war spending from 2001 to 2014.

3. The war-fighting accounts have accounted for 23% of Pentagon spending over the past decade. Like a functioning alcoholic, the U.S. military has gotten used to the constant buzz, and is petrified of being forced to put the bottle away.

But here’s why it should stop cold turkey and get back to basic budgets:

1. Without standard congressional scrutiny, the money will be spent with even less oversight than normal Pentagon spending.

2. Because it is an annual appropriation that has to be renewed each year, there is no way the Pentagon can wisely budget for it in advance, and spent it smartly when it gets it.

3. Finally, counting on such a loophole sends the wrong signal. Troops are being paid and weapons bought, in part, with the equivalent of payday loans.

It also leads allies to question U.S. commitments. “We’re putting things in the Overseas Contingency Operations fund like the European Reassurance Initiative,” says Todd Harrison, a defense-budget expert at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank. “If we’re really trying to reassure our European allies in the face of a more-assertive Russia that we’re going to be there for them, why are we putting that into an account that’s only one year at a time?”

 

TIME Military

Army to Try Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for Desertion and ‘Misbehavior’

Had no option if it wanted to maintain good order and discipline

The Army had little choice other than to charge Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with desertion. Otherwise, it faced an insurrection in the ranks, corrosion of discipline—or both.

“Bowe Bergdahl is a coward,” says Rob Kumpf, a one-time Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a refrain echoed by many active-duty troops, although Bergdahl has yet to tell his side of the story publicly. “While I strongly believe that we, as Americans, are duty bound to never leave one of our own behind,” Kumpf says, “I strongly hope that the government does what it needs to do to punish Mr. Bergdahl for his crimes.”

Bergdahl fell into Taliban hands in Afghanistan in 2009 after he reportedly became disillusioned with the war and walked away from his combat outpost. He was released after five years in captivity in a controversial exchange for five detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Army announced Wednesday that he is being charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. A preliminary hearing could lead to a full-fledged court martial.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, hailed the action. “My Army showed some backbone,” he says. “At least some of our generals have spines.”

The Army’s decision is gutsy, on two counts: first of all, it holds the White House, which celebrated his release with a Rose Garden ceremony featuring President Obama and Bergdahl’s parents, up to ridicule.

President Obama Makes A Statement On Release Of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
J.H. Owen – Pool / Getty ImagesPresident Obama hails Bergdahl’s return home last May with his parents, Jani and Bob.

Secondly, it means the Army could have to explain why it accepted Bergdahl as a soldier two years after he washed out of Coast Guard basic training, normally a red flag for recruiters.

While the desertion charge carries a maximum of five years imprisonment (only in a declared war can it carry the death penalty), the misbehavior charge could lead to a lifetime prison sentence. “The second charge—which is similar to ‘aiding and abetting’ in civilian parlance—suggests to me that we have strong evidence that Bergdahl may have given the Taliban important tactical information, or have otherwise been helpful to them,” Peters says.

While Bergdahl’s legal team didn’t respond directly to the charges in a statement it issued, it asked “that all Americans continue to withhold judgment until the facts of this case emerge.” Pentagon officials suggested a plea deal might avoid a public court-martial.

The Army faced grave consequences if it elected not to pursue the charges against Bergdahl. “The decision to court martial Bergdahl was probably the only one that the Army could make,” says Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel who served as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Any army has to have discipline at its core, and he is accused of deliberately leaving his post which endangered those soldiers who had to go look for him.”

Soldiers have alleged (although the Pentagon has said it can’t confirm) at least six U.S. troops died in clashes with the Taliban while hunting for Bergdahl after he went missing and was seized by the Taliban in Paktika province on June 30, 2009. “Bergdahl’s walking away was a large factor contributing to my son’s death,” Andy Andrews of Cameron, Texas, told TIME after Bergdahl’s release. His son, 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, was killed by an RPG September 4, 2009, while protecting a fellow soldier. They had been on a routine patrol near where Bergdahl vanished, and had been asking locals about him when they were attacked. “Sergeant Bergdahl is not a hero, and my son—who sacrificed himself to save others—was a hero,” Andrews said.

The Taliban released Bergdahl last May in a controversial trade for five Taliban detainees the U.S. was holding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill criticized Obama for not informing them of the trade before it happened. Soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit kept quiet about his disappearance until the White House ceremony heralding his return to the U.S.

“I think he abandoned his post while the other four soldiers were asleep,” Greg Leatherman, Bergdahl’s former squad leader, told TIME after Bergdahl returned to U.S. soil (he has spent much of his time since at a San Antonio, Texas, Army post, where his preliminary hearing will be held at a yet-to-be-specified date). “He was a loner, he didn’t like to share much with anyone. Read the Koran quite a bit, which I respected. I saw it as him trying to be a better soldier, learning more about the people we were going to work with,” Leatherman said. “Turns out he was preparing.”

Charles Jenkins’ fate illustrates what Bergdahl might face, if the pre-trial hearing announced Wednesday leads to his eventual conviction at court martial. Jenkins deserted his Army unit in South Korea in 1965 and lived in North Korea until 2004. He ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy. He received a dishonorable discharge, was stripped to the Army’s lowest rank, forfeited all pay and benefits, and was sentenced to 30 days in prison (he got out six days early for good behavior). He now lives in Japan.

But Jenkins was 64 when sentenced (Bergdahl turns 29 Saturday) and no one allegedly died trying to find Jenkins after he headed north through the Demilitarized Zone one freezing January night nearly 50 years ago.

The case also poses some risks for the Army itself. Bergdahl was discharged early from the Coast Guard, after only 26 days in boot camp in 2006, two years before he tried to enlist in the Army. The Coast Guard described the action as an “uncharacterized discharge,” which is typical for someone who leaves the service without completing basic training.

Generally such an event would have required a waiver from the Army before allowing such a prospective recruit to enlist. A wide variety of bars to enlistment—including legal problems and health concerns—require waivers because the Pentagon believes such recruits won’t do as well in uniform as those without such warning signs.

In 2008, the year Bergdahl joined the Army, the service granted waivers for about 20% of its recruits, usually for illicit drug use or other legal problems. Such waivers spiked as popular support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sagged and the Army found it more difficult to entice young Americans to enlist.

Read next: The Desertion Charge for Bowe Bergdahl Was Months in the Making

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TIME Military

Afghan President Thanks the Pentagon … and U.S. Taxpayers

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the Pentagon courtyard Monday morning. DoD photo / Sean Hurt

Ashraf Ghani stops by Defense Department to acknowledge U.S. sacrifices

Nearly 14 years after the U.S. military forced the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, the country’s new leader showed up bright and early Monday morning in the Pentagon courtyard to thank American troops and taxpayers for their sacrifices for his country.

Unlike Hamid Karzai, who served as Afghanistan’s president from 2004 to 2014, Ashraf Ghani is far more accommodating to U.S. concerns. He thanked the 2,215 U.S. troops who died in Afghanistan, the 20,000 wounded, and the nearly 1 million who served there.

“You have been in the most remotest valleys, and the highest peaks, and the parched deserts, and beautiful valleys, but also in most demanding situations,” he said. “When you wake up at night, sometimes you’re not sure whether you’re back there or here, but what gratifies me as the president of Afghanistan is what I’ve had the honor to hear repeatedly from American veterans, ‘I have left a piece of my heart in Afghanistan.’”

Ghani is in the U.S. this week to meet with President Obama and seek Washington’s continued help, both military and financial, to strengthening his struggling nation. He is spending much of Monday with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry discussing his nation’s needs at an Obama-free Camp David. Ghani knows how this game is played: he worked at the World Bank, two blocks from the White House, for more than a decade before returning to his homeland in 2002 following the Taliban’s overthrow.

Ghani said he hoped American veterans of the war in Afghanistan will someday return as tourists with their families so that Afghans “will be able to say thank you to each one of you personally, shake your hands, and invite you to our homes.”

Unlike Karzai, who could be taciturn, Ghani was good natured as he praised the U.S. generals who commanded the Afghan campaign. “Let me say these generals hardly get more than six hours of sleep. And thanks to Pentagon, most of the time, because of [overnight] video conferences, they don’t even get that,” he said to laughs from his chilly-morning Pentagon audience.

He praised Obama for his “sense of clarity” in ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan three months ago, and the U.S. role in creating “a proud Afghan security force that has dealt with the best of you and emulates the best of your example.” Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.

Finally, he thanked U.S. taxpayers for making “your hard-earned dollars available” to rebuild his country. The U.S. has spent nearly $700 billion in Afghanistan since 2001. Ghani pledged “to account for every single one of those dollars and pennies.” That will delight the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, who has spent years trying to do just that.

TIME Military

Pentagon and Its Allies Begin the Budget Death Watch

House Armed Services hearing with Joint Chiefs of Staff for FY2016
Yuri Gripas / REUTERS General Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Bottom Line: 'The only way to save lives is to boost spending'

War is a nasty business. Soldiers and civilians die. It has been ever thus.

That’s what makes Tuesday’s hearing before the House Armed Services Committee distressing. Unless the Pentagon gets more money next year, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Army’s top general agreed, more U.S. soldiers will die.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, pressed Army General Ray Odierno on the declining readiness rates of his 32 brigade combat teams. Only one in three of the 5,000-troop units is ready to go to war today, short of the Army’s two-in-three target.

“Doesn’t this mean that more people will get injured or killed?” Turner asked the Army chief of staff. “It’s not just an issue of readiness, risk, capability or mission. It’s that more people will get injured or killed. Is that correct?”

“That’s absolutely right, Congressman,” Odierno responded. “It means it’ll take us longer to do our mission. It’ll cost us in lives. It’ll cost us in injuries. And it potentially could cost us in achieving the goals that we’re attempting to achieve, as well.”

House Oversight Committee Hearing On Obamacare Transparency
Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty ImagesRep. Mike Turner. R-Ohio, member of the armed services committee

“So, the translation we need is, we can lose, people will die, and people will be injured?” Turner asked again.

“That is correct, sir,” Odierno confirmed.

It became something of a refrain. “Let me now do my plain speaking,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James added. The capped, congressionally-mandated military budget “is going to place American lives at greater risk, both at home and abroad, if we are forced to live with it.”

It’s a craven way to beg. If the nation doesn’t want soldiers to die, it should shelve its military. The question isn’t will soldiers die, but how many deaths is the nation willing to pay for its national defense?

Every pound of armor not added to a tank, every ounce of ceramic plate not added to body armor, means troops could die. So does every compromise baked into the design of aircraft ejection seats, landing craft used by the Marines, and the hull thickness of Navy warships. Decisions like this are made every day inside the Pentagon bureaucracy.

The job of the military and Congress isn’t to reduce the risk of military deaths to zero. It’s to calibrate the threats and set the death rate at what the nation concludes is an acceptable level.

Some lawmakers at the hearing made clear tradeoffs are required. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former Air Force A-10 pilot, warned that the Air Force’s plan to retire its A-10 ground-attack plane seems shortsighted when, sometimes, “only the A-10 can save lives.” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, conceded that there “are circumstances where you would prefer to have an A-10.” But the cost of a warplane like the A-10 that can only do a single mission is unaffordable. “We have priced ourselves out of that game,” he said.

“So it’s a budget issue,” McSally declared—and an added cost that, in her eyes, troops on the ground might have to pay in blood, yet one the Air Force is willing to pay.

Lawmakers’ efforts to save pet programs and bases can have a similar impact, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a former Marine, added. “Sometimes when we’re protecting jobs back here at home, we’re putting lives at risk overseas,” he said. Then the four-tour Iraq vet stated the obvious to the military brass arrayed before the panel: “It’s really your decision to make those tradeoffs.”

The military always says one death is one too many. But the troops know that sending young men and women to train, never mind fight, among heavy, fast-moving equipment, often punctuated by explosions and heat, makes death inevitable. There have been many examples of military hardware found to be unduly dangerous, and fixes were made. Not to eliminate death, but to reduce it.

Tough training makes better troops. “The more you sweat in peace,” Army General George S. Patton said, “the less you bleed in war.”

Military training is dangerous. Just ask the families of the 11 soldiers and Marines who died when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed Mar. 10 in Florida amid dense fog. They died not because they weren’t ready, but because the U.S. military had the money to pay for their training.

Hundreds of troops perish, largely unnoticed, in such training accidents every year.

Training also costs money. If budget cuts reduce training, it’s likely that fewer troops will die in training accidents. But that’s no reason to cut training; the nation wants its fighting forces honed to a sharp edge.

So the Pentagon funds drills, exercises and war games designed to prime the nation for war. Just because some troops will be killed in such training is no reason to curtail it.

The same holds for fitting the nation’s military strategy to what the nation has decided to allocate for defense. Hawks argue that you shouldn’t fit strategy to budgets, but that has always been the reality. The public will fund the Pentagon to the degree it thinks is necessary, but no more.

Of course, if money were no object, ready is always better. But the smarter question isn’t about the prospect of additional deaths if only one of every three brigade combat teams is ready for war. The smarter question is why is the target two out of every three?

And that leads to another question, even for the math-challenged among us: the nation, through its messy political process, has decided the Army need to get smaller. That will drive up the readiness rate of the surviving brigade combat teams. If the military had faced reality and adjusted its spending to accommodate the cuts contained in 2011’s Budget Control Act—instead of spending the last four years pretending they were never going to happen—it would be well down that road already.

Neither generals nor lawmakers should use the threat of dead soldiers to bolster their budget arguments. The nation can afford whatever military its leaders decide it requires. Blaming prospective future deaths on budget cuts demeans those now wearing the uniform, as well as those who are dying in peacetime, readying for war.

Those troops are doing their jobs. It’s long past time for Congress and senior military officers to do theirs.

TIME Military

GOP Tries to Have Its Pentagon Cake and Eat It, Too

Operation against Daesh militants in Iraq's Tikrit
Ali Mohammed—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images The continuing war against the Islamic State is one reason the Pentagon needs more money, Republican lawmakers argue.

Budget move would keep cap on domestic programs while easing it on Pentagon

The 2011 budget deal that imposed caps on federal spending has begun to bite. That’s easy to see with the proposed House Republican budget for 2016 that keeps the lid on domestic spending while popping it open for the military—to the tune of more than a third of a trillion dollars over the coming decade.

It’s a complicated storyline, but worth following if you’re a taxpayer.

For starters, the GOP-controlled House Budget Committee plan pledges to keep the sequestration caps on both domestic and defense spending. But because the nation was waging two wars when Congress wrote the Budget Control Act, it exempted what has come to be called the “overseas contingency operations” account from such limits.

Normal folks used to call what became the OCO account “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” President George W. Bush’s White House called it the “Global War on Terror.” Some in his Pentagon, echoing then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, called it the “long war.”

But shortly after President Obama took office, the Pentagon issued an edict changing the name once again. “This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror,” it said. “Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.”

But one thing didn’t change: the OCO account can ignore the 2011 budget caps that apply to nearly all other federal discretionary spending. That’s why the GOP plan boosts Obama’s $58 billion for overseas contingencies by $36 billion, for a total of $94 billion. That increase brings the total GOP defense-budget proposal to $613 billion, beyond what Obama wants to spend.

“The proposed House resolution would constitute the most cynical and fraudulent use yet made of the OCO budgetary gimmick,” says Gordon Adams, who oversaw Pentagon spending in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration. “In effect, the House Budget committee is proposing to have their fiscal discipline and eat their defense increase at the same time.”

For four years, the Pentagon and its allies in Congress have fought the defense budget caps. Their inaction has kept the Defense Department from learning to live within them, and the retooling and reforms such an acknowledgement would require. Their fight continues, which is why the service chiefs trekked to Capitol Hill when Obama unveiled his budget and said the caps were hurting national defense. “The number one thing that keeps me up at night is that if we’re asked to respond to an unknown contingency, I will send soldiers to that contingency not properly trained and ready,” Army General Ray Odierno said.

The military and its congressional allies argue that the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, continuing troubles in Afghanistan, and Russia’s threat to Ukraine require increased levels of defense spending. The House proposal would add $387 billion to Pentagon spending between 2016 and 2025.

Yet even without OCO funding, Obama’s proposed 2016 budget of $534 billion would be the largest base budget in Pentagon history and eclipse Cold War spending levels. Any OCO addition would be icing on the cake. “There is no justification, whatever, for this increase,” Adams argues. “It is utterly unrelated to the reality of any combat operations the U.S. is undertaking.”

Even some Republicans didn’t care for the budgetary legerdemain. “I don’t like it,” said Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Sommittee. “OCO is a gimmick.”

Still, the GOP budget plan, like the President’s, is merely a proposal. Next year’s actual budget will have to be hammered out by congressional committees over the coming months.

Read next: Republicans to Renew Call for Obamacare Repeal in 2016 Budget

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TIME Military

Iran Looms Over ISIS Fight as Baghdad-Tehran Alliance Moves Into Tikrit

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (L), U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (C) and Secretary of State John Kerry testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "The President's Request for Authorization to Use Force Against ISIS: Military and Diplomatic Efforts" on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 11, 2015.
Kevin Lamargue—Reuters Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (L), U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (C) and Secretary of State John Kerry testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "The President's Request for Authorization to Use Force Against ISIS: Military and Diplomatic Efforts" on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 11, 2015.

Lawmakers press U.S. high command over Iran's growing influence

The future of Iraq and Syria was supposed to be the focus of Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. No surprise there, given the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria occupies about a third of each nation.

But the subplot — like a shark’s fin endlessly circling Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry — was Iran.

Iran came up at the hearing 67 times, nearly as much as Iraq (79) and more than Syria (44).

The hearing carried echoes of similar ones more than a decade ago that portrayed Iraq as a threat worth going to war to stop. “I think they have the same suspicion about us that we have of them,” Dempsey said of his Iranian counterparts.

Republican lawmakers pointedly asked the trio if the Obama Administration was averting its eyes from Iran’s growing presence in Iraq in hopes of greasing the skids for a nuclear deal with Tehran. “I believe that much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by a desire not to upset Iran so that they don’t walk away from the negotiating table on the deal that you’re working on,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said.

“Absolutely not in the least,” Kerry countered.

But as the hearing droned on, Iraq was succeeding in pushing ISIS fighters out of Tikrit after a 10-day battle. While Baghdad did it with no American help, it had substantial aid from neighboring Iran.

Dempsey detailed just how extensive Iran’s help was in the battle for Tikrit: 20,000 of the 24,000 troops fighting ISIS in and around the city, or more than 80%, were “Iranian trained and somewhat Iranian equipped” Shi‘ite militia.

Tikrit carries a key lesson: Iraq can beat ISIS without U.S. assistance, so long as it has Iran by its side. “If it’s Iran that is at the tip of the spear here, if they’re the ones sponsoring the victories … they’re going to have influence in Iraq,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said. “That’s going to be very, very difficult, very tenuous, very dangerous for the regional peace.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs listed six things that concern him about Iran’s growing role in Iraq and the region:

Four of them are regional, two of them are global. The four regional concerns are: surrogates and proxies, some of which are present in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and other places, and Yemen; weapons trafficking; ballistic missile technologies; and mines that they’ve developed with the intent to be able to close the Straits of Hormuz if certain circumstances would cause them to do that. And then the two global threats, of course, are their nuclear aspirations. Not their nuclear aspirations for a peaceful nuclear program, but for a weapon, which is being dealt with through the negotiations on a diplomatic track. And then cyber is the other global threat they pose.

Dempsey said Iran’s role in the fight for Tikrit is “positive,” but warned of what might happen next. “We are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating and [ISIS] is defeated,” he said. “We’re very concerned about that.”

Later Wednesday, Carter noted that “there are actually several important battles going on, in some of which the Iranians play no role at all.”

Back at the hearing, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee chairman, wondered aloud if the Iranian-backed militia might attack the 3,000 American troops currently in Iraq.

“We have no indications that they intend to turn on us,” Dempsey said.

That’s hardly reassuring, given Iran’s track record in Iraq. After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Pentagon officials say Tehran provided Shi‘ite militias inside Iraq with a sophisticated form of IEDs. These so-called explosively formed penetrators killed hundreds of U.S. troops.

Read next: Why Iran Believes ISIS is a U.S. Creation

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TIME Military

Why the Fight Against ISIS Has to Go Through the Cities

Operation against Daesh militants in Iraq's Tikrit
Ali Mohammed / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Clashes between Iraqi forces and ISIS sent smoke billowing into the skies over Tikrit on Monday.

Iraqi forces reportedly move into Tikrit after more than a week of fighting

Urban warfare is the only way the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria will be defeated. That’s because while it occupies a wide desert swath of those two nations, it’s holed up in its cities. In part, that’s to shield the Islamic militants from attack, but it’s also because the rest of the land they occupy is barren and desolate.

The 10-day battle now underway for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown 80 miles north of Baghad, is simply the first domino in a row of cities that must fall if ISIS is to be beaten. Iraqi forces and their Iranian-led Shi’ite militia allies moved a step closer Tuesday as they reportedly drove ISIS fighters from large parts of the city amid indications that many militants were in retreat.

If the Iraqi government succeeds in retaking Tikrit, it will push on toward other critical towns like ISIS-occupied Fallujah. The most important domino is Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the base from which ISIS controls northern Iraq.

“If you look at the area that is claimed right now by ISIS as a sort of block of territory that it controls, actually it’s not a continuous area; it’s a network of cities and the links, the roads, the rivers and trails between those cities that connect them,” guerrilla warfare guru David Kilcullen told Australian television Tuesday. “Inevitably, as we get into a ground war against ISIS, it’s going to play out in these urban centers which really are the basis for ISIS’s power in Iraq and also in Syria.”

The Pentagon is debating whether or not to ask President Obama to send reinforcements to bolster the 3,000 U.S. troops already on Iraqi soil to accompany front-line Iraqi units in the fight for Mosul. While U.S. troops have been training Iraqi forces and conducting air strikes, Obama has barred them from the front lines, where they could act as spotters for those air strikes and garner intelligence.

Some 14,000 U.S. troops fought to drive Sunni militants out of Fallujah in late 2004. “I am sorry that some of you may have to go back,” Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told General Joseph Dunford, the Marine commandant, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “The only commitment I will make, as a senator from South Carolina, is that if you go back, you go back to win and that we get this right this time.”

Urban warfare requires the attacker to clear his enemy room by room, building by building, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood—and then secure the cleared areas to ensure the enemy doesn’t return. City combat blunts the attackers’ advantages. “Urban canyons” offers hideouts for foes and civilians, as well as sniper nests and underground lairs from which combatants can strike. Buildings create vast “dead spaces” for an enemy to exploit. They hinder communication and mobility. Overhead wires can bring down choppers and drones.

ISIS is well aware of those advantages. “This is not an enemy that is sitting around in the open desert waiting for me to come find it and either use U.S. or French aircraft to attack it,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Sunday while aboard a French aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. “They did some of that in the beginning and paid the price. So the enemy has adapted and they have developed tactics and techniques that make them a little more difficult to find.”

In other words, they’re hiding in the cities. Attackers in urban environments, for example, can’t survey the entire battlefield and instead see only bits and pieces; it’s like playing chess while viewing only four squares on the board. This battlefield compression means that low-ranking fighters must often make life-and-death decisions.

These choices come fast and furious when you’re fighting downtown: historically, 90% of the targets are less than 50 yards away and seen for only seconds. Killing innocent civilians—or your own men—is a risk that goes with the terrain. A quarter of all explosive rounds turn into duds when they glance off walls and roofs. About one of every three street-fighting combatants ends up as a casualty. It takes a minimum of three attackers to root out a single foe dug into a city; the Pentagon prefers a ratio of 10-to-1.

The Baghdad military’s lack of city-fighting skills could lead to drawn-out bloodbaths, where ISIS fighters booby-trap buildings and set up kill zones for advancing Iraqi troops. “Iraqi security forces are not terribly proficient in urban warfare,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Charlie Rose Mar. 3.

Ancient Muslim sectarian strife also makes the fight for Tikrit and other ISIS-held Iraqi cities challenging. The fact that Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are leading some of the units attacking the city could make retaking it and others more difficult. The militias are allied with the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government. But both ISIS and most residents of the Iraqi territory it occupies are Sunnis. That could make the residents reluctant to join forces with their Shi’ite liberators, as well as keep them from abandoning their co-religionists.

The kind of urban warfare facing the Iraqi forces “is very, very different, very complex, requires a great deal of skill, great deal of precision to be successful,” Marine Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned Congress recently.

Ultimately, Iraqi forces could opt for patience. They could cordon off a city with a porous ring of tanks and armored vehicles. That would let civilians flee while keeping ISIS reinforcements and supplies out. Pressure could be ratcheted up by shutting off water and power.

One way or another, with enough fighters, weapons, time and will, the attackers generally prevail. The real challenge is making sure time and will are on your side before advancing into the city.

TIME Military

The Real Star Wars: Air Force Heads to the Heavens for Weapons Guidance

An armoured vehicle of US Marines from 1
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV / AFP / Getty Images The Air Force wants to harness stars like these in the Milky Way over Iraq to guide future weapons if the GPS system is attacked.

If a foe disables or destroys GPS, Pentagon still needs to drop bombs accurately

The success of precision-guided bombs in 1991’s Gulf War was a revelation. The world watched transfixed as U.S. generals briefed before screens showing scratchy black and white videos of American weapons blasting bridges, buildings and brigades with amazing precision. Potential foes were dutifully impressed, and have spent a lot of time figuring out how to disable or destroy the satellite-based Global Positioning System that have since cheaply turned dumb bombs into smart ones—and gets the planes carrying them to the right spot.

“Over the last several years, many potential adversaries have invested significantly in counter measures associated with Global Positioning System (GPS) guided weapons,” the Air Force warns in its formal Mar. 5 call for help developing something to replace GPS if a foe knocks it off line. “The Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL’s) response to this challenge is the Celestial-aided Strike at Any Range (CStAR) program.”

GPS is a constellation of roughly 24 satellites that offers the precise location of your smart phone, your car, an airplane or pretty much anything else. The satellites, orbiting about 13,000 miles above the Earth, do this by sharing timing signals that pinpoint a GPS unit’s whereabouts. But the radio signals are weak, making them vulnerable to jamming. And killer-satellite tests by nations like China have unnerved the Pentagon’s high command, given the U.S. military’s reliance on GPS to track and guide everything from bunker-busting bombs to shipping containers.

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Jody Dole / Getty ImagesAn antique brass sextant

The growing threat to the GPS system is leading the Air Force to seek what amounts to a 21st Century sextant, an updated navigation tool created in the 16th Century to help sailors chart their ocean voyages with help from the stars. The new version’s goal: “to reduce the technical risk to future weapon systems by demonstrating an integrated navigation solution that can later be tailored to a specific weapon platform.”

Easier said than done, of course. The Air Force didn’t offer many details about CStAR in its plea for assistance. Further information about it is contained in the Celestial-aided Weapons Navigation Technology Security Classification Guide, available only to companies eligible to receive what the Pentagon calls “military critical technical data.”

Let’s just hope the stars stay out of reach.

TIME Military

Concern Over Iran’s Nukes Drowns Out Its Growing Role in Iraq

Tehran helps Baghdad try to retake Tikrit as U.S. watches

Consternation over Iran boiled Tuesday on Capitol Hill as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Tehran’s push for nuclear weapons “could well threaten the survival of my country.” But over at the Pentagon, the Iran focus wasn’t on Netanyahu but Iraq. That’s because Iran is playing a key role in Baghdad’s fight to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, while the U.S. is confined to the sidelines.

After the U.S. invested $26 billion rebuilding the Iraqi army over the past decade, some Pentagon officials found it disconcerting to see Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias leading the charge into Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The Iranians, of course, are relishing the opportunity: Hussein was running Iraq when it launched the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in a stalemate in 1988 with roughly 200,000 killed on each side.

American concern is justified: having Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces storm largely-Sunni Tikrit risks turning the conflict against the Sunni ISIS forces into a sectarian conflict that could balloon into a civil war. “It’s absolutely key that [the Iraqi government] make sure that they have provisions in place to accommodate the Sunnis,” Army General Lloyd Austin, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday. “That lack of inclusion is what got us to this point, and I think the only way that we can ensure that we don’t go back there is if we have the right steps taken by the government.” Fewer than 1,000 of the 30,000 fighters battling ISIS for Tikrit are Sunni tribal fighters, according to Iraqi estimates.

The populations of both Iran and Iraq are primarily Shi’ite. Since Saddam’s hanging in 2006, the Sunnis of western Iraq have been treated poorly by the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. Many Sunnis welcomed ISIS’s move into the region last year, when it killed more than 1,000 Iraqi Shi’ite troops who had been stationed at a base known, when the Americans were there, as Camp Speicher. Some of the Shi’ites attacking Tikrit are bent on revenge for the slaughter, which could exacerbate intra-Muslim tensions.

Iran, according to reports from the front and Pentagon officials, is backing Iraqi forces with air power, artillery fire and advisers guiding Shi’ite militiamen, who account for perhaps 10,000 of the fighters trying to retake Tikrit. “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee later Tuesday. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. — which has conducted thousands of air strikes against ISIS targets since August — has been grounded in the battle to retake Tikrit. The daily U.S. tally of air strikes launched Wednesday ticked off targets around al Asad, Bayji, Mosul, Ramadi and Sinjar. But there were no strikes in or around Tikrit, although U.S. drones are keeping a nervous eye on the fighting (“We have good overhead imagery,” is how Austin put it).

Iran has reportedly dispatched commanders notorious for their killings of Sunnis to the fight. That may lead Tikritis to view those seeking to free their city from ISIS’s grip not as rescuers but as bloody vengeance-seekers.

As the U.S. and Israel work to keep Iran’s nuclear genie bottled up, both Washington and Tehran have said they are not operating together inside Iraq. “We don’t coordinate with them,” Austin, whose command oversees U.S. military forces inside the country, repeated Tuesday.

In other words, they’re allied, but not allies. “The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America,” Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday. “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam … They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.”

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