The Cost of Striking Libya

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An F-16 takes off from northern Italy on March 20. credit: Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

With U.S. and coalition forces bombarding Libya leader Muammer al-Qaddafi's forces from the sea and air, the cost for the first day alone of the operation was well over $100 million with the total price tag expected to grow much higher the longer the strikes continue, analysts said.

Operation Odyssey Dawn appears to be focused on creating a limited no-fly zone mostly targeting Tripoli and other areas along the coast, which will require a wide range of military assets.

With allies expected to shoulder some of the bill, the initial stages of taking out Libya's air defenses could ultimately cost U.S.-led coalition forces between $400 million and $800 million, according to a report released by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments earlier this month.


Maintaining a coastal no-fly-zone after those first strikes would cost in the range of $30 million to $100 million per week - not pocket change by any means, but far less than the $100 million to $300 million estimated weekly cost for patrolling the skies above the entire 680,000-square-mile country.

These unanticipated costs come at a time when the Pentagon is putting pressure on Capitol Hill to pass a fiscal 2011 defense budget. Continuing to operate under a stopgap continuing resolution through September, senior defense officials argue, would amount to a $23 billion cut to the military's request for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The Pentagon wants $708.3 billion for this year, including $159.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, the Pentagon has the money in its budget to cover unexpected contingencies and can also use fourth-quarter dollars to cover the costs of operations now. "They're very used to doing this operation where they borrow from Peter to pay Paul," said Gordon Adams, the White House Office of Management and Budget's associate director for national security during the Clinton administration.

Indeed, former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim estimated that the Defense Department would only need to send a request for supplemental funding to Capitol Hill if the U.S. military's share of operations expenses for Libya topped $1 billion. Such a request would likely be met with mixed reactions in a Congress focused on deficit reduction. And, while many key lawmakers have been agitating for action in Libya, others have been more reluctant and have urged the Obama administration send them a declaration of war.

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., says Congress should have had the opportunity to weigh in on what he said will be "a very expensive operation, even in a limited way."

"It's a strange time in which almost all of our congressional days are spent talking about budget, deficits, outrageous problems," Lugar said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "And yet [at the] same time, all of this passes."

For the U.S. military, the highest costs come in the form of pricey munitions, fuel for aircraft and combat pay for deployed troops - all factors that will pile up each day U.S. forces remain at the helm of the operation.

On the first day of strikes alone, U.S.-led forces launched from ships stationed off the Libyan coast 112 long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, which cost in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million apiece. That is $112 million to $168 million for the first day's strike in missiles alone. The military will eventually refill its stockpile though those costs could be pushed off for months or more.

Pentagon budget watchers said the deployment of guided missile destroyers and submarines would not put a major dent in the Pentagon's accounts because the ships were already deployed to the region. But the U.S. military on Sunday tapped its B-2 bombers, and F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to strike a number of targets in and around Tripoli, which will undoubtedly force an immediate uptick in the military's operations and maintenance expenditures, including fuel costs.

On the personnel front, special pay for soldiers involved in the operation will also kick in immediately - unlike the munitions costs, which the Pentagon can defer.

Ultimately, the length and scale of the operation will be key to its total costs to the United States. A week-long operation involving a limited number of U.S. troops would be manageable within the existing budget. But if the operation drags into weeks and months, the Pentagon would likely have to do some maneuvering to replenish its accounts.

Complicating matters is the fact that most allied militaries, which operate on a fraction of the Defense Department's yearly allowance, are grappling with budget pressures of their own. While the Pentagon hopes to transfer control to allies in the coming days, the longer the operations over Libya continue, the more difficult it will be for coalition partners to take the lead.

"If it goes on more than a month, we're going to be in the forefront [of operations] or we're going to let Qaddafi stick around," said Zakheim, who served during the George W. Bush administration. "The choices aren't very pleasant."

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment report, a historical analysis of the price for similar operations, provided costs for several different scenarios, ranging from a sweeping and high-priced effort to impose and maintain a no-fly zone over the entire country to a much smaller no-fly zone with limited flyovers and few, if any, attacks on Libyan air defenses or ground forces. The current operation appears to fall somewhere between those two scenarios.

Zack Cooper, a senior analyst at the think tank and the co-author of the study, acknowledged the operation's costs are still too difficult to estimate because of lingering questions following the weekend strikes.

"Since we don't yet know the length, magnitude, or degree of U.S. involvement, any cost projections are going to be very rough estimates at this point," Cooper said.

Drop-down bar thumbnail credit: Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

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Megan Scully is a staff writer (defense and national security) for National Journal.

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