An U.S Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations in Syria, Sept. 26, 2014.

An U.S Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations in Syria, Sept. 26, 2014. (Russ Scalf/U.S. Air Force)

President Barack Obama’s decision to keep ground troops away from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria has thrust the Air Force into the premier role in America’s latest fight against Islamic militants, bolstering the service’s stature during a time when all branches of the military are competing for limited funds.

The Air Force has flown over 70 percent of the 3,800 U.S. combat missions against Islamic State fighters in the region, including over 50 percent of the airstrikes conducted by the U.S. in Syria, according to Maj. Gen. Jeff Harrigian, Air Force assistant chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.

The U.S. air offensive has damaged the group’s command-and-control capabilities while preventing Islamic State forces from mounting large-scale attacks against Baghdad and elsewhere in the region, Harrigian told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.

All that is casting the spotlight on the Air Force after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Army and the Marine Corps played the premier role.

“There is a growing awareness” of the Air Force’s role on the modern battlefield, Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, said in an interview.

Gunzinger, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces transformation and resources, said the publicity surrounding the air war against Islamic extremists “does help drive the point home how we can use air power” to lawmakers and Pentagon brass.

The spotlight on American airpower has not gone unnoticed in Washington, according to senior defense analysts and former Air Force officials.

“The air war against ISIS is making already sympathetic members of Congress more sympathetic” to the needs of the Air Force, said Mackenzie Eaglen, senior defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. She used an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

That sympathy comes at a critical time for the Air Force, as service leaders prepare to make their case to Congress for additional funding this fiscal year. The Pentagon’s budget blueprint for fiscal 2015 remains locked in legislative limbo, with Congress not expected to finalize the spending plan until early next year.

But the air service’s case for additional funds could be bolstered with every target hit in Iraq and Syria, analysts say.

The fifth-generation F-22A Raptor fighter jet and the legacy A-10 Warthog, — both of which have been targeted for budget cuts — have garnered new attention due to the air campaign in Iraq and Syria.

The Raptor, often criticized by lawmakers for its high cost and limited combat role, successfully completed its first combat missions against Islamic State targets. Although the A-10 has not been used in the Iraq-Syria campaign, its close air-support capabilities are tailor-made for such an operation, supporters say.

An Indiana Air National Guard unit that flies A-10s is planning to deploy to the Middle East in October, although it’s unclear if the aircraft will be used in combat.

U.S. air attacks have already forced Islamic State fighters and commanders to change tactics, Harrigian said.

“They are a smart adversary,” he said. “They are now dispersing themselves to allow themselves situations to be more survivable ... which requires us to work harder to locate them.”

That additional work could translate into more dollars in the Air Force’s wartime coffers, Gunzinger said. “For an immediate [financial] effect, OCO is the place to look,” he said, referring to the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, or the service’s wartime accounts.

Last Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey warned that any gains made against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria could be lost if Congress did not increase OCO funds.

“Commitments have gone up [and] the things that we were looking for, in terms of [fiscal] flexibility have only very minimally been delivered,” Dempsey said.

Hagel added: “We are going to require additional funding from Congress as we go forward” in Iraq and Syria.

But the anticipated uptick in the service’s wartime funding may not be enough to spare it from the budgetary ax over the long term, according to Eaglen.

Service shortfalls in fleet modernization, as well as rising overall operations costs, are funded outside the Air Force’s war coffers, and even perceived success of the air offensive in Iraq and Syria will not be enough to sway Congress to close these shortfalls in the Air Force budget, Eaglen said.

“New, additional money in OCO is not the same as organic growth in the base budget,” she said. “This [OCO] money doesn’t do anything to sustain the long-term health” of the Air Force, she added.

“What the Air Force really needs most right now is sustained, predictable ... [funding] for modernization, and that really is only funded through the regular budget,” Eaglen said.

Gunzinger cautioned, however, that the Air Force “doesn’t have a lot of maneuver room” to stave off additional budget cuts, outside of potential increases to war supplemental funds.

That room has gotten even smaller, as the Air Force girds itself for the newest round of mandatory budget cuts under the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

The Pentagon is facing a total $500 billion, across-the-board reduction to Defense Department and service accounts. For fiscal 2015, the Pentagon is expected to shave another $60 billion in spending to meet the fiscal requirements under sequestration.

With Congress at loggerheads over a cost-savings alternative to sequestration, the problem of closing critical operational gaps in the Air Force becomes even harder, Eaglen said.

“There is still no grand bargain coming” on sequestration, she said, “so the [Air Force] base budget is likely to stay where it is.”

However, air operations like those in Iraq and Syria could stoke renewed support for Air Force priorities, Gunzinger said.

“I hope it will add momentum to this growing awareness” of the need for U.S. air power, Gunzinger said. But given the grim fiscal forecast facing the Pentagon over the next several years, “that [will be] a tough case to make.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report. Twitter: @natseccarlo

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