By Shane McGinley
As the cost of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya rapidly approaches the $1bn mark, the US is questioning whether it can afford to finance its role policing overseas shores as it battles a spiralling trillion-dollar domestic deficit.
Sitting aboard the USS Mount Whitney as it navigates the Mediterranean Sea, admiral Samuel J Locklear III waits for his phone to be connected to a press conference at the Pentagon during which he will update reporters on the operation in Libya.
Only six months into his job as commander of US Naval Forces in Europe and Africa, the media is eager to hear progress of the US-led ‘Operation Odyssey Dawn’, but Locklear knows journalists are particularly interested in reports that an F-15 US aircraft — costing a cool $75m — has just crashed on Libyan soil.
In his fourth decade of service, the world of modern warfare has changed a lot since Locklear graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1977. Now a fallen US aircraft is not just a military inconvenience, it is an economical cost and provides more political ammunition for US voices who claim foreign wars are an unnecessary drain on Treasury expenses. Since the onset of one of the greatest economic depressions in US history, president Barack Obama has been battling a spiralling budget deficit that is likely to hit $1.6 trillion in 2011 and it seems economists and analysts are now being called on to analyse and budget for that most basic of human endeavours: warfare.
“At this point it is entirely likely the costs [in Libya] will top a billion dollars in total, including the opening phase,” says Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defence budget studies at the Washington DC-based Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), an independent policy research institute set up to promote innovative thinking and debate about national security strategy and investment options.
Essentially, it is Harrison’s job to put an economic price tag on how much of a toll US military operations around the world are likely to have on the Treasury’s bottom dollar.
On March 19, the US Department of Defence announced that coalition forces had launched ‘Odyssey Dawn’ to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973. The goal was the prevention of further attacks on Libyan citizens.
The US-led operation also aims to take out Libya’s integrated air and missile defence systems and is focused on radars and anti-aircraft sites around the capital of Tripoli and other facilities along the Mediterranean coast.
Although Locklear’s command were joined by 24 other ships from Italy, Canada, the UK and France in launching the operation and Arab states — including the UAE — also supplied forces, the costs soon began to mount up. In the opening days of Operation Odyssey Dawn, US forces fired around 192 cruise missiles, for a total cost of $268.2m. US aircraft also dropped around 455 precision-guided bombs, which cost around $40,000 each and the F-15 and F-16 attack aircraft were running up a tab of around $10,000 an hour while in the air. With three Stealth bombers carrying out a 25-hour round trip, that's a whopping $750,000 per mission. In addition, there are also the operational costs for around eleven US warships and subs deployed off the Libyan coast, not to mention the small matter of the $75m lost when an F-15 that crashed in the early days of the operation.
In the report he authored on the options and costs involved in operating a No-Fly Zone in Libya, Harrison laid out three possible scenarios for implementation. The first was an extensive Full No-Fly Zone covering the whole of Libya; the second was a Limited No-Fly Zone focusing on the northern third of the country above the 29th parallel and the third was a Stand-Off No-Fly Zone focusing on protecting coastal areas using air and naval vessels operating beyond Libyan territory.
Option one, a Full No-Fly Zone, was the most resource-heavy and would cover the entire 680,000 square miles of the country. Harrison estimated that this would cost around $500m to $1bn to set up and would incur ongoing costs of around $100 to $300m per week to implement.
With the aircraft located close to enemy lines, the US and allied forces would also need to launch a series of coordinated strikes against Libyan air defense systems, which would add another $500m to $1bn to the bill.
The second option available was the less costly Limited No-Fly Zone approach and would cover the major population centres where the majority of attacks on rebels are taking place. This would have been extend north of the 29th parallel and would cover around 230,000 square miles of Libyan territory, around a third of the country.
While several attacks on Libyan air defense systems would also be required, Harrison estimated the cost would be lower as there would be fewer targets to focus on and therefore the set-up bill would come in at around $400 to $800m, while the weekly bill would run at around $30 to $100m.
The final and most cost-effective option available was a Standoff No-Fly Zone, which would focus on the fact that the majority of Libya’s main urban areas and air bases are located along the coast. This would have required just a series of ship-based radars located off the coast and some land-based aircraft to implement any violations. This option had little or no set-up costs and the tab would have run at around $15 to $25m a week.
Harrison says the option that US and allied forces opted for is the Limited No-Fly Zone option with some additional strikes against ground targets. “The no fly zone has been focused on the northern third of the country, which is similar to our Limited No-Fly Zone option. [However] it is not just the no-fly zone it involves strikes against ground targets so it is a partial no-drive zone as well, which is fundamentally different from what we were costing initially,” he says.
With the extra focus on ground work, the cost would have been likely to have driven towards the $100m a week mark, except for the fact Harrison says the US is getting increasing support from other allied forces, which pushes down its price burden.
“We cost it assuming that the US would pay for everything. So now that a lot of that is getting handed over under NATO control it looks like half the sorties are being flown by our allies and partners, so that reduces the cost from what it would have been with just the US going it alone.
“It would end up towards the lower end of that range from $30m to $100m a week,” he estimates. While the Pentagon has said the allied forces are beginning to take a more active role, commanders on the ground claim that the US is still shouldering the bulk of the burden, and therefore the cost of Operation Odyssey Dawn.
In the early days of the implementation of the Limited No-Fly Zone, the US flew 113 sorties — or aircraft units — in two days, while the allied forces issued 63 between them. However, the allies have increased their participation as the non-US forces originally only accounted for around fifteen percent of sorties issued in the very early stages of the operation.
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While the White House has said the operation will not require any additional funding, there has been grumblings on Capitol Hill about the burden the Libyan operation will have on the Pentagon’s budget, especially as the $1bn cost looks increasingly more likely.
Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, criticised the US administration in an interview with the BBC, saying he was surprised Obama was increasing its military expenses at a time when the Congress is constantly discussing budget deficiency and the crippled economy.
At the same time, the US Department of Defence is putting pressure on Congress to approve its 2011 budget and the Pentagon is looking to sign off on its $708.3bn budget, of which $159.3bn has already been allocated for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Harrison believes that the budget talk “has played a larger part in the public debate [and] there has been a lot of public interest in how much this is costing,” he believes it is not a major factor for those running the operation.
“In terms of the public debate that is a factor but inside the administration, where people really have to look at the numbers, this is very small and does not add to the deficit because our budget is already so large and the deficit is already so large.”
On the plus side, a report compiled by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) reviewed the Libyan regime’s military capabilities and concluded that its air defence system relies on Soviet and Russian systems, is at least 20 years old and is at least two generations behind current technology.
It also estimated that Libya is flying only “multiple tens” of sorties per day and Libyan pilots are generally believed to average only around 85 flight hours per year. The CRS report concludes that “even those aircraft which are operational may not be flown effectively.” Evidence of the state of the aircraft and expertise of the pilots was evident from the two Libyan Air Force colonels who defected to Malta in February.
Despite this, there is talk that if the operation escalates it may lead to the Pentagon being forced to look for additional emergency funding. “That depends on how long the operation lasts and how much we turn over to our allies,” says Harrison.
“If we are able to turn more and more over to our allies to the point that they are flying 80 to 90 percent of the sorties then the cost to us ongoing will be pretty minimal and we will probably absorb a lot of that from the existing base budget. But, if this does drag on and we are still flying half the sorties the costs will start to build up and I would expect that the administration could very well come back at that point and ask for supplemental appropriation to help offset the cost of this.”
While the Libyan regime’s armour may be antiquated and over half of Americans in a recent US poll agree with Obama’s decision to implement ‘Odyssey Dawn’, the longer the conflict goes on, and the more it escalates, the higher the costs will grow.
For example, the long-running conflict in Afghanistan is costing the US around an eye-watering $2bn a week. Harrison points out that the US has learnt from its operations there and will be reluctant to insert any ground forces into Libya.
“Having a large presence of ground troops, particularly in an area where it is difficult to supply them, that is what drives the cost and that is what is driving the cost in Afghanistan.
“The decision not to put boots on the ground is driven by politics here and policy considerations but that also has a big impact on the cost so that may be one of the lessons we have learnt from Iraq and Afghanistan that a large presence of ground troops is going to raise the cost and therefore the budget and economic impact in the long run.”
Therefore, as Admiral Locklear sits offshore aboard USS Mount Whitney and strategises ‘Odyssey Dawn’s’ next move, many in the Pentagon will be sweating over the cost implications and whether the US can ill afford a third costly war on its hands.
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The cost of going to war
Air and Peacekeeping force as part of the United Nations Protection Force
Cost: $2.5bn ($3.4bn after inflation)
Three-month NATO air strikes against Serbian forces
Cost: $1.9bn ($2.4bn after inflation)
1991 – 2003:
US and allied enforcement of the No-Fly Zone
Cost: $1bn ($1.3bn after inflation) per year from 1996-2001.
2001 – Present:
War in Afghanistan
Aim was to dismantle the Al Qaeda terrorist operations and remove the Taliban regime from power.
Cost: Around $2bn per week, according to government figures
Source: Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and USA Today