With Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn already underway in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, the U.S. military has now added Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya to its list of global involvements. On Saturday, U.S. forces joined an international coalition in strikes against Libyan targets. The international community undertook the operation to forestall air attacks against Libyan rebel forces by Col. Muammar Qadhafi. But the military action is raising fiscal concerns within the United States, as the operation's total cost threatens to climb into the billions. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
Earlier this month, before the strikes began, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan research institute that focuses on issues of national security strategy and spending, released a report outlining the costs for different potential no-fly zone scenarios. The paper estimates that establishing and maintaining a partial no-fly zone in Libya, like that currently in effect, could cost between $1.18 and $3.4 billion dollars over six months.
Some of the operation's costs thus far can be easily estimated. In December, the Navy announced a $209 million contract to Raytheon for 196 Tomahawk missiles, putting the cost of each at roughly $1.1 million. This means that the 159 missiles that the United States and United Kingdom have launched at Libyan targets thus far cost around $170 million. In addition, an F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in Libya on Monday night due to an equipment malfunction. According to the U.S. Air Force, the Strike Eagle costs $31.1 million per unit, in 1998 dollars, which equals roughly $42.1 million in 2011 dollars.
But much of the operation's total cost is a function of how long the international coalition enforces the no-fly zone. Todd Harrison and Zack Cooper, the report's authors, estimate that the initial cost of establishing a limited no-fly zone, like that currently in force over the northern portion of Libya, is $400 to $800 million dollars. They furthermore estimate that maintaining such a no-fly zone would cost $30 to $100 million per week. According to Cooper, a senior analyst at CSBA, these figures include total costs, including fuel and munitions.
The question, then, is how long such the current no-fly zone might be enforced. Past experience shows that no-fly zones can have a broad range of life spans. The United States and NATO maintained their 1999 air campaign in Kosovo for less than three months. Another NATO-established no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 lasted until 1995. The United States and its allies established two no-fly zones over Iraq in 1991 and enforced them through 2003.
Harrison and Cooper extrapolated their cost estimate out over six months, though Cooper notes that they were not trying to accurately guess the length of the operation. "We just wanted to show that the costs that matter in the longer term are the fuel costs and the cost of the no-fly zone coverage. We weren't suggesting that this operation might last six months," he says.
Using the midpoint of Harrison and Cooper's cost estimate for a six-month limited no-fly zone, $2.2 billion, can help to put the potential cost into context.
A $2.2 billion operation in Libya would be:
- 0.3 percent of the Department of Defense's 2012 budget request ($670.9 billion)
- 1.9 percent of Defense's 2012 budget request for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq ($117.8 billion)
- Slightly greater than the 2 billion in U.S. aid to Israel in FY 2009
- Just over half of the total money spent ($4 billion) on the 2010 midterm elections, the most expensive U.S. midterm election in history
- 6.2 percent of the GDP of Montana ($35.6 billion), the U.S. state with the smallest GDP
- Roughly equal to the annual GDP of Greenland
- Nearly 43,000 times the U.S. median income of $51,425
- 0.3 percent of the initially projected $700 billion cost of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, the initiative that bailed out troubled financial institutions after the financial collapse in 2008
- 0.1 percent of the estimated annual federal deficit ($1.5 trillion)