With U.N. coalition forces bombarding Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi from the sea and air, the United States’ part in the operation could ultimately hit several billion dollars -- and require the Pentagon to request emergency funding from Congress to pay for it.
The first day of Operation Odyssey Dawn had a price tag that was well over $100 million for the U.S. in missiles alone. And the U.S. military, which remains in the lead now in its third day, has pumped millions more into air- and sea-launched strikes targeting air-defense sites and ground-force positions along Libya’s coastline.
The ultimate total that the United States spends will hinge on the length and scope of the strikes as well as on the contributions of its coalition allies. But Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said on Monday that the U.S. costs could “easily pass the $1 billion mark on this operation, regardless of how well things go.”
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, who served as the Office of Management and Budget’s associate director for national security during the Clinton administration.
However, there comes a point when there simply isn’t enough cash to pay for everything. The White House said on Monday it was not prepared to request emergency funding yet, but former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim estimated that the Defense Department would need to send a request for supplemental funding to Capitol Hill if the U.S. military’s share of Libya operations expenses tops $1 billion.
"The operation in Libya is being funded with existing resources at this point. We are not planning to request a supplemental at this time," said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.
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 to 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.”
Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Lugar said, “It’s a strange time in which almost all of our congressional days are spent talking about budget deficits, outrageous problems. And yet [at the] same time, all of this passes.”
So far, the operation appears to be focused on creating a limited no-fly zone mostly targeting the capital city of Tripoli, which is Qaddafi’s stronghold, and other areas along the coast. That will require a wide range of military assets.
In a report released earlier this month, Harrison estimated that the initial stages of taking out Qaddafi’s coastal air defenses could ultimately cost coalition forces between $400 million and $800 million. But the coalition is now targeting his ground forces in an effort to protect civilians—a factor that Harrison said will drive up the initial costs of the operation.
“At some point, though, we will have degraded his forces to the point that there are not that many targets left,” Harrison said. “So we’d expect to see the sortie rate start to drop off.”
Meanwhile, Harrison initially estimated that maintaining a coastal no-fly zone after those initial strikes would cost in the range of $30 million to $100 million per week. If the coalition continues to strike ground targets, the weekly costs would be closer to the higher range, he said.
These unanticipated costs come at a time when the Pentagon is putting pressure on Capitol Hill to pass its fiscal 2011 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 October 1. The Pentagon wants $708.3 billion for this year, including $159.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the U.S. military, the highest costs of the operations over Libya 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 112 long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, which cost about $1 million to $1.5 million apiece, from ships stationed off the Libyan coast. That totaled $112 million to $168 million. Since those first strikes, U.S. and British forces have launched at least another 12 Tomahawk missiles.
The Defense Department typically buys about 200 Tomahawks a year. While the military likely can put off buying new missiles for months, it will ultimately need to boost planned procurement rates to refill its stockpile.
Defense 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 has tapped its B-2 bombers as well as F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to strike a number of targets, undoubtedly forcing an immediate uptick in the military’s operations and maintenance expenditures, including fuel costs.
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. contributed to this article.