Cost of a strike on Syria is now a concern | Virginian-Pilot

By Bill Bartel

Launching a limited cruise missile attack on Syria wouldn’t cause immediate financial problems for the cash-strapped U.S. military.

But if the assault continued for a long time, or escalated to more intense operations, the Pentagon could be forced to make deeper cuts or approach a reluctant Congress for more money, analysts and defense officials say.

Unlike more than a decade ago, when President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, and as recently as 2011, when President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes in Libya to assist rebel fighters, the cost of a new military engagement is a big consideration.

What’s different this time is sequestration – the $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts, spread over 10 years, that began in March. The Pentagon was forced to trim $37 billion this year and has to cut $52 billion in 2014. More cuts will be required annually through 2022.

The price tag for a short-term missile attack would mostly be covered by operating expenses that have been budgeted, said analysts and a defense official. Obama is considering military actions in response to Syria’s Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons that killed an estimated 1,400 Syrians.

It’s likely the U.S. response would involve some or all of the five Norfolk-based destroyers now on alert in the eastern Mediterranean Sea – each armed with 40 to 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles and other weapons.

Although the Navy typically keeps only two destroyers in the region, the stronger presence comes at a relatively small extra cost, said Russell Rumbaugh, a Stimson Center defense budget analyst.

“Most of the ships are already budgeted to be afloat. The sailors are being paid. Even the missiles they might fire have already been bought,” said Rumbaugh, who has worked for Congress, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency. “Right now, they’re thinking of a few days of missiles firing.”

Launching scores of Tomahawks – one of the nation’s most technologically advanced weapons, costing about $1.2 million apiece – isn’t cheap, but it would be a manageable expense under the Defense Department’s operations and maintenance budget, said a Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

During the airstrikes on Libya in 2011, the Navy fired 221 Tomahawks and later asked Congress for more than $300 million to replace its stockpile.

But given the uncertainty of Syria’s response to a missile attack, or the chance that the U.S. could be pulled into a more intensive operation, costs could quickly spike.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in a July 19 letter to the Senate that establishing a no-fly zone over Syria would cost as much as $1 billion a month. Given the risk to American aircraft, he wrote, it would also “require us to insert personnel recovery forces.”

Dempsey noted that other options, such as setting up U.S.-protected “buffer zones” where rebel forces could be trained, or conducting a systematic effort to secure or destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, would each cost $1 billion a month.

“Now you’re talking real money,” said Gordon Adams, an American University professor and former White House national security budget expert during the Clinton administration.

Dempsey acknowledged that financial pressures on the military, driven in part by automatic budget cuts, can’t be ignored when considering responses in Syria.

“We must understand the risk – not just to our forces, but to our global responsibilities. This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty,” he wrote. “Some options may not be feasible in time or cost without compromising our security elsewhere.”

U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, a leader on the House Armed Services Committee, has supported a larger defense budget but is opposed to a military strike against Syria because it would be too costly.

Forbes opposed sequestration and almost $500 billion in other defense reductions already begun by the Obama administration.

“This Syria operation would clearly exacerbate an already perilous defense budget,” the Chesapeake Republican said in a statement Friday. “As the Air Force’s top officer said recently, sequestration has left the military far less prepared for combat than would otherwise be the case. The President would do well to heed that warning.”

Forbes, along with almost 200 other House members, petitioned Obama this week to not take action without first bringing the issue to Congress for debate and a vote. If Obama consented, legislators would have to return early from a five-week recess.

Bill Bartel, 757-446-2398, bill.bartel@pilotonline.com
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