The military flew the three bombers deployed for the mission from Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base, a nearly 12,000-mile round trip that will incur significant fuel and maintenance costs, Harrison said.
Meanwhile, it generally costs $10,000 per hour, including maintenance and fuel, to operate F-15s and F-16s. Those costs do not include the payloads dropped from the aircraft. The B-2s dropped 45 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMS, which are 2,000-pound bombs that cost between $30,000 and $40,000 apiece to replace.
On the personnel front, special pay for soldiers involved in the operation will kick in immediately -- unlike the munitions costs, which the Pentagon can defer.
Ultimately, the length and scale of the operation -- and of the U.S. role in it -- will be key to how much it costs. A weeklong operation involving a limited number of U.S. troops would be manageable within the existing defense budget. But if Odyssey Dawn drags on for weeks and months, the Pentagon would likely have to do some maneuvering to replenish its accounts.
For now, the United States continues to lead operations, although U.S. military leaders insist that control will soon be transferred to an as-yet unnamed coalition leader.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, the Odyssey Dawn operational commander, told reporters on Monday that allies are stepping up to shoulder much of the mission. There were 60 sorties flown on Sunday, about half by U.S. aircraft. But on Monday, coalition allies were expected to fly more than half of the day’s 70 to 80 sorties.
Complicating matters, however, is the fact that most of the coalition nations’ militaries, which operate on a fraction of the Pentagon’s yearly allowance, are grappling with budget pressures of their own. While the Defense Department hopes to transfer control to coalition partners in the coming days, the longer the operations over Libya continue, the more difficult it will be for allies 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,” predicted former Defense comptroller Zakheim, who served under President George W. Bush. “The choices aren’t very pleasant.”
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Harrison coauthored a report offering a historical analysis of the price for operations similar to the one in Libya that provides costs for several different scenarios. Those range 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-defense or ground-force targets. The current operation appears to fall somewhere between those two scenarios.
Zack Cooper, a senior analyst at the think tank who coauthored the study with Harrison, acknowledged that 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.
Tim Fernholz contributed.