U.S. officials said on Wednesday that coalition forces have suppressed Muammar el-Qaddafi’s air defenses, but his ground forces continue to target population centers in Libya, feeding concerns that the operation could ultimately cost the United States billions -- and require the Pentagon to request emergency funding from Congress to pay for it.
Five days into Operation Odyssey Dawn, the bill racked up by the U.S. alone is undoubtedly already in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And the U.S. military, which remains in the lead now, will continue to pump millions more into strikes targeting military assets in Libya.
The cost of war is often as unpredictable as war itself -- a lesson the U.S. military learned the hard way on Monday when it lost its first major piece of equipment, an F-15 fighter aircraft that crashed because of a mechanical failure.
After nearly a decade at war, the Pentagon has routinely leveraged emergency funding to replace older fighters lost in battle with fifth-generation stealth aircraft. And, if the Libya operation is no exception, the Defense Department could seek to buy an extra F-35 -- with a price tag of more than $100 million -- to replace the downed F-15.
The ultimate total the United States spends will hinge on the length and scope of the strikes as well as on the contributions of coalition allies. But Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said 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 this week it was not prepared to request emergency funding yet, but former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim estimated 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.
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 increasingly raised concerns about the mounting costs.
Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., argued that Congress should have had the opportunity to weigh in on what he has warned will be a very expensive operation. U.S. budget dollars -- not to mention heavily deployed troops -- are simply spread too thin, he says.
“Congress has been squabbling for months over a budget to run the federal government for a fiscal year that is almost half over,” Lugar said. “We argue over where to cut $100,000 million here and there from programs many people like. So here comes an open-ended military action with no-end game envisioned.”
So far, the operation has 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 would cost 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 on Monday. “So we’d expect to see the sortie rate start to drop off.”
Meanwhile, Harrison 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.
As Lugar and others have stressed, 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 on 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 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.