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.
Tim Fernholz contributed. contributed to this article.