Libya Could Add To Pentagon's Money Woes

A US Navy F-16 fighter jet based at Sigonella airbase on the Italian island of Sicily takes off for operations in Libya. i i

A US Navy F-16 fighter jet based at Sigonella airbase on the Italian island of Sicily takes off for operations in Libya. Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty Images
A US Navy F-16 fighter jet based at Sigonella airbase on the Italian island of Sicily takes off for operations in Libya.

A US Navy F-16 fighter jet based at Sigonella airbase on the Italian island of Sicily takes off for operations in Libya.

Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty Images

It probably came as no surprise to the Obama administration that The Daily Show's Jon Stewart should see a certain irony in bombing Libya just days after the president said he agreed federal spending should be cut.

"You know, you can't simultaneously fire teachers and Tomahawk missiles," Stewart said.

President Obama, for his part, sought in El Salvador on Tuesday to assuage concerns about the costs of the new military campaign: "We will continue to provide details to the American people about the cost of this operation. But because it is limited in time, scope with a well-defined mission, we're confident that this is something that we can budget as part of our overall operations."

As soon as President Obama returned, he received a letter from House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner wrote the president on Wednesday to voice his concerns about the mission in Libya. He said he and many other House members were troubled that U.S. resources were committed, as he put it, "to war" without a clear definition of the mission and the U.S. role. Boehner also wanted to know whether the Pentagon has estimated the cost of the mission.

Obama's decision to use military force in Libya not only involves the U.S. in a third armed conflict. It also means additional expenses for the Pentagon amid an outcry in Congress and beyond over this year's projected $1.6 trillion budget deficit.

While the tab run-up so far in the Libya campaign may be relatively modest, the longer-term price is still unknown.

Taking The Lead On Another No-Fly Zone

This is, after all, not the first time the U.S. has taken the lead in creating a no-fly zone. Back in the Clinton administration, when a no-fly zone was enforced over Iraq, Gordon Adams handled spending on that effort at the White House budget office. The cost of the U.S. action against Libya, he says, pales in comparison with the two other wars the U.S. is still fighting, which together cost more than $300,000 a minute.

"This is a lot cheaper than Iraq and Afghanistan. We're flying planes around and shooting bullets," Adams says. "You know, Iraq and Afghanistan is a serious ground combat exercise with a huge supply chain and support chain that it requires. This is operating largely out of existing assets and with existing munitions. So, for the moment, it's affordable."

Tallying Missile Expenses And A Downed F-15

Most of the expense so far in Libya will come due later, when the scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched and a downed F-15 fighter jet have to be replaced.

Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon's comptroller when the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, says the Pentagon is financing the Libya operation with money earmarked for those wars.

"It's not clear that if things continue in Afghanistan and Iraq as they have and the Libya thing goes on for months instead of weeks that they can finance it all on their own," he says. "Right now they can do it. How long they can do it for is really a function of the nature of the operation, which is looking pretty open-ended right now."

And that's why retired Navy Adm. John Stufflebeem, who once commanded the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, thinks anxieties are growing about adding the expense of Libya to that of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"And I'm sure that there are a lot of questions that will come back from [Capitol] Hill of how long does the Department of Defense expect to be doing this, which is probably why we're all seeing the rhetoric coming from the administration officials that we intend to turn this over relatively quickly" to allies, he says.

Coalition Assistance Promised

Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised in Moscow that other members of the coalition enforcing the no-fly zone will be the ones who keep it going. Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, estimates it could cost up to $100 million a week just to maintain the no-fly zone over Libya, an expense he says the Department of Defense can absorb for now.

"But you know, depending on how long this goes on, it'll get more and more difficult for [the Department of Defense] to move money between accounts and keep funding this without getting some additional funding from Congress," he says.

And that economic imperative might eventually give Congress a say on a U.S. intervention that lawmakers so far have neither debated nor authorized.

In his letter, Boehner specifically asked whether President Obama will be asking Congress to approve funds for the Libya operation.

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