Pentagon Seeking to Avoid Congress on Syria Strike CostsLaura Litvan
President Barack Obama is fighting Congress over authorization to attack Syria. He may not have to fight for the money to pay for it.
The Pentagon has notified congressional appropriators that it won’t seek added funds to pay for a strike, said a Defense Department official and a Republican aide on the House Appropriations Committee. Both requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Defense budget analysts say weapon systems like Tomahawk cruise missiles are already in the Pentagon’s inventory, and personnel costs are on the books. The added expenses of any limited operation probably will be small enough that the Pentagon can absorb it from existing funds, which include a wartime contingency budget of $93 billion this fiscal year.
Two defense analysts estimated the total cost of the limited strike envisioned by Obama as between $300 million and $1 billion, depending on how many cruise missiles are launched and how long the attack lasts.
Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters today that he doesn’t think an added funding request would be needed, saying that a strike the U.S. is contemplating is a “fraction of the magnitude” of past military actions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week that the immediate costs of any operation would have little effect on the federal budget.
“We have looked at the different costs, depending on the different options, depending on the decision the president makes,” Hagel said. “We have given some ranges of this. It would be in the tens of millions of dollars, that kind of range.”
If Obama can make the case to Congress that a strike on Syria won’t bust the budget, it might help him win over wavering members worried about government spending. It also may help Obama by keeping the decision about military action separate from the debate over a temporary funding measure needed to keep the government operating after Sept. 30.
Some Republicans worry that added costs may stretch the Pentagon at a time when it’s already living with automatic budget cuts. Others in Congress are concerned that a limited strike would balloon in cost if it goes longer than expected.
“Everything we do costs money -- there’s no free ride on any of these, so someone’s going to have to pay for this,” said Alaska Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat who will seek a second term in 2014.
The administration’s drive for a measure authorizing Obama to conduct a strike gained ground Sept. 4 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution allowing a limited use of force. The House’s two top Republicans, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said they would support military action.
Still, opposition from an unusual alliance of Tea Party Republicans and antiwar Democrats raises risks that the resolution won’t pass, particularly in the House. A Bloomberg tally shows only 22 House members are publicly supporting a military strike so far.
On the cost of a strike, the Pentagon has told appropriators that it could finance a limited action in part by tapping unspent money in a contingency fund designed to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Republican aide said. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the fund has about $93 billion in it this fiscal year.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, doesn’t object to handling the strike-operations funding this way, the aide said.
Gordon Adams, a professor at American University in Washington and former Office of Management and Budget official in President Bill Clinton’s administration, said an operation lasting several days probably would entail between three-dozen and 180 Tomahawk missiles.
If the U.S. were to later replace the missiles destroyed in an attack, it would probably come in the fiscal 2015 budget, amounting to as much as $200 million to $300 million, Adams said. That would be on top of his estimate of $100 million in costs for fuel and other unbudgeted items.
“If it’s that, it’s fundable completely out of the hide of the Pentagon’s budget,” he said.
If an attack were as protracted as the full three months covered by the proposed war-powers resolution, the cost would probably reach about $3 billion, Adams said, with the costs covered next fiscal year.
Todd Harrison, a budget analyst, estimated a higher total, with a week-long strike costing between $500 million and $1 billion. The total would depend on the selected targets, bombs and the delivery methods used.
The March 2011 U.S. strikes on Libya would be the best comparison of what would be required for an attack on Syria, said Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments, a research organization in Washington.
During the opening rounds of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, the U.S. launched 112 Tomahawk missiles to clear the way for manned aircraft. Because each Raytheon Co. Tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.4 million, a similar attack on Syria would cost the U.S. $157 million.
Harrison said that if the U.S. sent Northrop Grumman Co. B-2 bombers, they would fly 36 hours round-trip from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Syria, with aerial re-fueling. The hourly cost of flying the B-2 bomber is about $55,000, according to estimates by the Pentagon comptroller.
The B-2 would be used to drop satellite-guided JDAM bombs. One such bomb costs about $61,000, including the guidance system made by Boeing Co. and the BLU-109 bomb it guides, according to contracting and Pentagon data. The KC-135 aerial refueling tanker costs about $11,000 per hour to operate, according to the Pentagon comptroller.
At the same time, tension exists between the Obama administration and some lawmakers over the notion of putting added pressure on the defense budget when the department is absorbing across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. Those cuts will reach $52 billion next fiscal year.
“We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over our heads,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon said Sept. 2 on CNN. He has scheduled a Sept. 10 hearing on Syria, with testimony from Hagel and General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The automatic budget cuts also make the cost of an operation a sticking point for some Democrats who don’t want to spend more on the military at a time when food stamps and other domestic programs are experiencing reductions.
“I just sat through a Congress that decided we couldn’t afford food stamps for hungry Americans, so clearly I am concerned about cost,” said Representative Joe Garcia, a Florida Democrat.
Pentagon spokesman George Little yesterday declined to provide more details about the potential cost of any operation, though he said he has little doubt the costs will be covered.
“We have said that this is in the national security interests of the United States,” Little said at a Pentagon briefing. “And if this operation goes forward, if we’re asked by the president to conduct a military mission, we will conduct it. When something is that important, we’ll find a way to pay for it.”