BY Richard Sisk
DAILY NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON - The taxpayers' bill for operations in Libya is headed to at least $1 billion in a conflict that the Pentagon chief said Sunday was not "a vital interest for the U.S."
Hundreds of millions have already been spent to take out Muammar Qadhafi's air defenses, bomb his tank columns and set up a no-fly zone, and lawmakers predicted a tough fight when the military comes to Congress for supplemental funding.
"Estimates are that about $1 billion has already been spent on an undeclared war in Libya," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), a respected GOP voice on foreign policy. [Vote now: Was Obama right on Libya’s no-fly zone?]
"Some would say only hundreds of millions," Lugar said on NBC's Meet The Press, "but who knows how long this goes on."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Clinton said that President Obama will address the concerns of Congress on the duration and costs of the third U.S. war in the Mideast in an address to the nation on Monday night.
But Gates raised more questions when he said that Libya was not high on the list of U.S. national security concerns.
"I don't think it's a vital interest for the U.S.," Gates said, but he added that Libya was part of a Mideast region that was a vital interest. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]
The costs for Libyan operations were building rapidly, and Gates said he could not predict how long the operations will last.
The opening barrage from offshore surface ships and subs involved more than 140 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a cost of at least $1 million apiece, according to military officials.
The F-15 Eagle fighter that crashed last Monday, with both pilots ejecting safely, cost about $30 million, and the F-15s and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets maintaining the no-fly zone cost about $10,000 an hour to operate.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has projected that the costs of Libya operations could exceed $300 million weekly. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]
The bill could go up considerably should the U.S. begin arming and supplying the rebels, but Clinton said no decisions had been made on military aid to the opposition.
Under U.S. air cover, the rebels have turned the tables on Qadhafi's forces, pushing westward to take several key oil towns along the coast, setting their sites on Sirte, Qadhafi's birthplace.
Coalition forces bombed both Sirte and Tripoli heavily overnight.
Gates also charged that Qadhafi was planting bodies at sites bombed by the coalition to make the U.S. look bad.
"We do have a lot of intelligence reporting about Qadhafi taking the bodies of the people he's killed and putting them at the sites where we've attacked," Gates said on CBS's Face The Nation.