In order to keep pace with the rapid operational tempo of ongoing attacks against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, service officials said.
Lt. Gen. Charles Brown Jr., Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command, said the U.S. may take some precision weapons from existing U.S. stockpiles in other areas of the world in order to keep pace with the amount of air-dropped precision weaponry needed to attack ISIS.
Since delivery of newly ordered bombs is at least several years away, the service is looking at taking munitions from other pre-positioned stocks in strategically significant parts of the world.
"We have stocks around the world that support not only Central Command, but other combatant commands. And we have to do some analysis of where we take risk. And what I mean by that is where do we pull some weapons from that we were saving for further contingencies. And do we use them now or do we save them for later?" Brown asked when speaking to reporters recently.
B1-B bombers, drones and F-15E fighter jets have been bombarding ISIS for months, dropping more than 20,000 air-to-ground munitions, and the service is concerned its inventory could fall dangerously low if the air campaign against ISIS continues for the long term, Air Force sources told Scout Warrior.
"We do a lot of precision-guided munitions. And you have to think about -- the way I look at this is, you know, we were drawn down in Afghanistan and across DOD, the weapons buy was probably not -- been forecast for this particular operation," Brown added.
One weapon in particular that continues to be effective against ISIS is the GBU-54, a laser-guided precision weapon able to destroy targets on-the-move. This is particularly important when attacking ISIS because they fighters are known to travel in small groups and, at times, deliberately blend in with civilians to avoid being hit. For this reason, precision strikes and the ability to hit enemy fighters on the move provides a substantial tactical advantage.
"We are currently able to manage munitions inventories to sustain operations against ISIL at this time, but we need funding in place and the ability to forecast for production to be ready for the long fight," Air Force spokesman Maj. Robert Leese told Scout Warrior.
The weapons shortfall includes drone and helicopter-fired Hellfire missiles and potentially other weapons such as laser-guided bombs and precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs.
"The Air Force has re-supplied forces in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility with munitions predominately from U.S. depot stocks and new production. This action left depot stocks below our desired objective," an Air Force official said.
Air Force officials said the funding mechanism for the bomb arsenal, called Overseas Contingency Operation, or OCO, provides funds to replenish inventories three years into the future. Accordingly, weapons purchased this year reflect an amount anticipated by planners more than three years ago -- before Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq and Syria began. As a result, needed weapons can be delayed for as long as four years, Air Force officials said.
Brown explained this, saying that weapons ordered now might not be available for several years.
"I know the Air Force has taken some steps to increase in the next pop, to buy more weapons. And you do that -- you know, those weapons are about two -- two years or so away, if not more," he added.
The service has requested and received $400 million in reprogrammed dollars to address an air-to-ground munitions shortage. However, that was mostly for Hellfire missiles and there is still a sizeable remaining need for additional bomb stockpiles, service officials explained.
"The Air Force worked with the Army to re-prioritize Hellfire missile deliveries to the Air Force, requested additional funding for Hellfire missiles, reduced aircrew training expenditures, and is working a procurement plan to increase production to reconstitute munitions stocks as quickly as possible," the service official added.
While precision-guided air-to-ground weapons are typically needed during aerial bombing efforts, they are of particular urgent value in the ongoing attacks on ISIS. ISIS fighters regularly hide among civilians and at times use women and children as human shields, making the need for precision all the more pressing.
As a result, various efforts are underway to acquire the funding and procurement infrastructure necessary to acquire more bombs on a much faster timetable.
"The precision today's wars requires demands the right equipment and capability to achieve desired effects. We need to ensure the necessary funding is in place to not only execute today's wars, but also tomorrow's challenges," an Air Force official said.
Brown added that part of the strategic emphasis relies upon making each attacking bomb count to the maximum extent.
"It's really -- the constant analysis that we do here at our headquarters, working with CENTCOM, and then CENTCOM working with the Joint Staff and the other combatant commands, how we balance the weapons we have. So it's something we pay attention to and we want to be good stewards as well. I just don't want to go out there wasting weapons just because we can go strike something. I want to make sure that each weapon hits a meaningful target as much as possible," he explained.