For the U.S., War Against Qaddafi Cost Relatively Little: $1.1 Billion

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Compared to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libya mission was cheap and did not cost a single American life

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A U.S. Air Force jet takes off from Malta while participating in NATO's mission in Libya / Reuters

Call him the billion-dollar man. One billion for one dictator.

According to the Pentagon, that was the cost to U.S. taxpayers for Muammar el-Qaddafi's head: $1.1 billion through September, the latest figure just out of the Defense Department.

And that's just for the Americans.

The final totals will take some time to add up, and still do not include the State Department, CIA, and other agencies involved or other NATO and participating countries. Vice President Joe Biden said that the U.S. "spent $2 billion total and didn't lose a single life." NATO does not track the operational costs to each member country, but the funds directly taken from a common NATO account for Libya operations have totaled about $7.4 million per month for electronic warfare capabilities and $1.1 million per month for headquarters and command staff, a NATO spokesman said.

From the beginning of Operation Unified Protector in March, critics have questioned whether the U.S. could afford to open a third front. The Congressional Research Services estimate the Afghanistan war has cost nearly $500 billion so far. With Iraq, the figure easily tops $1 trillion.

In the first week of Libya operations, bombs were dropped from B-2 stealth planes flown from Missouri and roughly 200 missiles launched from submarines in the Mediterranean, causing alarm that any extended campaign would quickly cost billions more.

But after the U.S. military ramped up the operation, other NATO countries shouldered most of the air burden. Americans took a supporting role: aerial refueling tankers, electronic jamming, and surveillance.

The behind-the-scenes role was something President Obama celebrated in remarks in the Rose Garden on Thursday.

"Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives and our NATO mission will soon come to an end," Obama said.

As to when that mission would end, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement NATO issued from Brussels, "We will terminate our mission in coordination with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council."

U.S. and NATO officials steadily maintained their mission was never to hunt, capture or kill the Libyan leader. The mission, they said, was to enforce the arms embargo, establish and hold a no-fly zone, and take actions to protect civilians from attack or the threat of attack.

That last directive seemed to give plenty of reason to target Libya's top commander. But Pentagon officials said for months that if Qaddafi should happen to be at one of those locations when NATO missiles strike, so be it.

Since the operation began on March 31, getting to Qaddafi's final stand required 7,725 air sorties and 1,845 strike sorties, 397 of which dropped ordnance, and 145 Predator drone strikes.

NATO aircraft, including those supplied by the U.S., totaled 26,089 sorties and 9,618 strike sorties through Wednesday.

More than 70 U.S. aircraft have supported the operation, including Predator drones.

NATO flew 67 sorties and 16 strikes sorties over Libya one day before Qaddafi was killed.

The NATO mission also employed submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, destroyers, frigates, and supply ships--as many as 21 vessels at one time.

Additionally, as of one week ago, the U.S. had sold participating countries in the operation roughly $250 million in ammunition, parts, fuel, technical assistance, and other support, according to the Pentagon.

Several members of Congress put out statements celebrating Qaddafi's downfall but did not comment on the cost. Several offices contacted did not provide additional reaction to the monetary figures.

But presidential candidate Ambassador Jon Huntsman did question the cost of the Libya operation. His statement on Thursday said, "I remain firm in my belief that America can best serve our interests and that transition through non-military assistance and rebuilding our own economic core here at home."

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Kevin Baron is executive editor of Defense One

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