The cost of possible military strikes against Syria would not be “extraordinary,” the U.S. Navy chief said Thursday, downplaying the potential price tag of the operation.
Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s comments appeared to confirm a rough estimate from Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel on Wednesday, who told lawmakers the punitive strikes would likely cost “tens of millions” of dollars.
Naval ships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles are expected to play the primary role in punitive strikes proposed by President Barack Obama, who has asked Congress to back intervention to punish Damascus over the alleged use of chemical weapons.
In outlining the funds required, Greenert said that a single Tomahawk missile costs $1.5 million and that keeping some ships in the area would costs millions more.
“The numbers are nagging but they’re not extraordinary at this point,” Greenert said at an event organized by the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
The Navy currently has four destroyers in the Mediterranean ready if called upon as well as the aircraft carrier Nimitz and accompanying warships in the Red Sea.
“Many of these ships were going to be out there anyway,” Greenert said.
“In the case of the Nimitz, she was to be headed home,” he said. “So if we extend her much beyond say a week or so, she starts going in that theater longer than what we had planned.”
He said a carrier strike group costs up to $40 million a week if its aircraft are engaged in special combat-related flights, as opposed to routine operations that cost $25 million a week.
It was the first time a senior U.S. military officer had openly acknowledged the Obama administration was considering using Tomahawk missiles in a strike against Syria, though officials had privately leaked that possibility previously.
The ships deployed in the region “are fully ready for a vast spectrum of operations, including operations that they may be asked to do, from launching Tomahawk missiles to protecting . . . the ships themselves,” he said.
The admiral described Tomahawks as an effective weapon that provided “a really good option” for commanders.
At a House hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers asked the defense secretary about the possible cost of military action.
“It would be in the tens of millions of dollars, that kind of range,” Hagel said.
The Pentagon’s estimates are apparently based on the assumption that any intervention would last no longer than a few days, as officials have repeatedly pledged that punitive strikes would not be open-ended or aimed at toppling the regime.
Unless Washington chooses to employ B-2 stealth bombers or other warplanes, the main factor determining the cost of the operation could depend on how many Tomahawks are launched against Syria.
On the first day of the NATO air war against Libya in 2011, 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired. The total cost of the intervention for the United States came to about a billion dollars, according to the Pentagon.
Greenert held out the possibility of Congress having to approve a “supplemental” spending measure beyond the current defense budget in the case of a more prolonged operation against Syria.
“A supplemental might be the order of the day,” he said when asked about a protracted intervention.
Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and former White House budget official, said action against Syria would bring “incremental costs” of roughly $100 to $200 million to cover hazardous pay duty for troops and fuel consumption.
And replacing Tomahawk missiles fired could come to another $200-$300 million, Adams wrote in Foreign Policy in a “back of the envelope” estimate.