WASHINGTON -- America's top military officials on Tuesday made the case for President Barack Obama's strategy to target the Islamic State, in a Senate hearing that highlighted how quickly the theoretically limited mission could mushroom into something much more involved.
Under the plan Obama is pursuing, the United States would beef up its ongoing efforts to work with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq and train some 5,000 rebels associated with the Free Syrian Army, who would be able to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, with intelligence and air support from the U.S. military.
The president has said repeatedly that the operation would not involve boots on the ground. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed early in the hearing, held before the Senate Armed Services Committee, how that could change.
Asked by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) if the air strikes already underway count as "direct combat," and whether the military would "put boots on the ground" in the event a downed pilot had to be rescued, Dempsey answered directly: "Yes and yes."
The number of ground troops needed for a such a rescue would likely be small. But Dempsey also acknowledged the mission could change, even though his current intentions are not to use ground forces beyond their current advisory role.
"I think everyone should be aware when we talk about combat forces, we -- that’s all we grow," Dempsey said. "The airmen ... are very much in a combat role. The folks on the ground are in very much a combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat. There is no intention for them to do so."
He said repeatedly that if circumstances changed, he would ask for additional authority.
"If I found that circumstance evolving that I would of course change my recommendation," Dempsey said. "An example: If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish Peshmerga forces] were at some point ready to retake Mosul -- a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex -- it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission."
He also noted that the president "has told me as well to come back to him on a case by case basis," if Dempsey thinks ground forces are needed.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is pushing for a tougher response from the White House, was openly dubious that the strategy could work, and that it couldn't quickly become a broader effort.
For instance, McCain asked, if the United States is training the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting a rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, what will the United States do if Assad attacks the rebels the United States intends to spend $500 million to train?
Hagel tried to hedge. "Well, we're, first of all, not there yet, but our focus is on ISIL," he said. "And that is the threat right now to our country and to our interests and to the people of the region."
Pressed by McCain on what the United States would do, Hagel said the rebels would defend themselves. But he eventually admitted to an incredulous McCain: "We will help them."
"I think what you're hearing us express is an ISIL-first strategy," Dempsey said, adding that he doesn't expect a showdown between Assad and the Free Syrian Army. "I don't think we'll find ourselves in that situation given what we intend to do," he said. "We can establish objectives that defer that challenge into the future. We do not have to deal with it now."
McCain scoffed at that notion.
"That's a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire concept and motivation of the Free Syrian Army," McCain said, noting that Assad has killed many more Syrians than the Islamic State has.
"For us to say that we are going to go in and train and equip these people only to fight against ISIL, you're not going to get many recruits to do that, General. I guarantee you that," McCain said.
Nevertheless, Hagel and Dempsey insisted the military option was only part of the solution, and that a ground war would not be a good idea.
Asked expressly by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) if Dempsey could imagine himself recommending to the president that the U.S. launch an all-out war if the allies currently being assembled prove ineffective, Dempsey didn't say yes or no, but downplayed the idea, saying the solution depends on the international support Obama is trying to build.
"I don't think that even if we were to go in on the ground, armored divisions, with flags unfurled, I don't think we would do anything more than push this problem further to the right," Dempsey said. "If we don't get the kind of coalition I'm describing, we're into a very narrow [counterterrorism] framework."
"It really comes down to us building a coalition so that what the Arab Muslim world sees is them rejecting ISIS," Dempsey said.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.