The government of Iraq plans to buy several thousand more Hellfire missiles made by Lockheed Martin Corp. in what would be its largest-ever purchase of the weapon.
The Defense Department's notification of the sale to Congress this week comes as the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is trying desperately to thwart advances made by the Sunni-led Islamic extremist group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as ISIS), which now controls vast swaths of the northern and western part of the country and areas in Syria.
The State Department has approved the sale, would include 5,000 AGM-114K/N/R Hellfire missiles and associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support for an estimated cost of $700 million, according to a Pentagon press release. Congress has a month to block the deal.
"Iraq will use the Hellfire missiles to help improve the Iraq Security Forces’ capability to support current on-going ground operations," the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in Tuesday's release. "Iraq will also use this capability in future contingency operations. Iraq, which already has Hellfire missiles, will have no difficulty absorbing these additional missiles into its armed forces."
The Iraqi military has already received most of a previous order for 500 Hellfire missiles. The Iraqi air force has fired the weapon from AC-208 Cessna Caravan aircraft.
The 100-pound air-to-ground missile carries a 20-pound warhead designed to destroy armored vehicles such as tanks and other fortified targets. It can be launched from both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, including AH-64 Apache and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, as well as KC-130J and Cessna planes.
The U.S. has also supplied Iraq with small arms, tanks and other vehicles. Lockheed Martin Corp. earlier this month delivered the first of a planned 36 F-16 Block 52 fighter jets to the Iraqi air force under a $3 billion deal, though the aircraft isn't scheduled to arrive in the country until September. The delay prompted Baghdad to expedite purchases of Russian aircraft, including Su-25 fighter jets and Mi-28 and Mi-35 helicopters.
The Obama administration has deployed a few hundred military advisers to Iraq to help the military there gather intelligence on the insurgency. It also requested $1.5 billion in funding from Congress to help stabilize Syria, some of which would presumably be used to target ISIL in Iraq.
Even so, Iraqi leaders are pleading for more military aid.
"We desperately need United States assistance to turn the tide," Lukman Faily, Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., said on Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, according to Press TV, the Tehran-based broadcaster. "We believe that immediate and increased military assistance, including targeted air strikes, are crucial to defeat this growing threat."
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the administration's funding request for the so-called Syria Stabilization Initiative didn't include any details.
"I thought our Ranking Member said it well when he told senior defense officials that we want to be supportive, but sell us – give us something to work with," he said during a hearing on Tuesday, referring to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington.
Steven Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said the worst course of action the U.S. could take would be to offer Iraq unconditional military aid.
"This is likely to reinforce Baghdad's worse instincts, to lengthen rather than shorten the war by forcing the Sunni community to dig in its heels and defend itself against what it will feel as a threat of extermination, and it risks mission-creep and entrapment without meaningful upsides," he said at the hearing. "If we're unwilling to be systematically conditional, staying out [of the conflict] would be better than that."
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. should consider another military intervention in Iraq -- despite the unpopularity of returning American troops to the country -- and warned against the risks of not doing so.
"The fact that the situation looks dire does not mean that we do not have options," he testified before the panel. "It does not mean that we should just throw up our hands in despair and say, 'Let them fight it out.' That is not a good option. We have seen the fight-it-out option play out in Syria, where the result has been more than 170,000 dead people and the destabilization of neighboring regimes."
In Syria, Boot recommended for the U.S. to do more to train and equip members of the moderate Free Syrian Army, saying the administration's budget request for the effort is too small and will only train some 2,300 soldiers.
In Iraq, he recommended for the U.S. to encourage Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down, support moderate political factions and consider deploying 10,000 American troops to the country, including trainers and special operations forces.
"I know this is going to be a tough sell," he said. "I know nobody's eager to send any troops to Iraq ... but I think we have to be realistic and understand that we don't have any great options here. We have the least bad options. And to my mind the worst option of all is to leave this terrorist caliphate in control of a significant chunk of the Middle East."