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Debunking Claims of Soaring Military Costs in Libya

Scott Lilly examines the so-far negligible costs of our intervention in North Africa.

Nearly everyone is in agreement. President Barack Obama’s decision to commit U.S. military forces to protect dissident citizens in Libya will put another big hole in the federal budget. Liberal opponents of military action are saying it. Republican critics of the president on this and virtually every other issue are saying it. Pentagon advocates for passage of the new military spending legislation are saying it. Nearly everyone in the media is saying it. But is it true?

The answer is that in the larger scheme of things the expenditures that have been made so far in support of U.S. activities in Libya are nearly imperceptible in a defense budget that has been running in excess of $700 billion a year.

Let’s start with the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were used to take out Moammar Qaddafi’s radar and missile defense system. The Pentagon says we used about 160 of these weapons since the first attacks began on the evening of March 19. We pay about $1.4 million a piece for these missiles, which led some news organizations to extrapolate that we are spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Libya based solely on the cost of the Tomahawks. But that is not exactly how Pentagon’s budget works.

We have a very robust inventory of Tomahawks. Prior to the attack on Libyan radar and anti-aircraft facilities we had 3,500 Tomahawks in our inventory. The 160 fired since last Saturday bring the inventory down to 3,340, or a reduction of less than 5 percent. So do we need more?

There is no record of our having used any of these missiles since we fired about 750 at Iraq eight years ago. We now have more than four times the number of Tomahawks on hand than we used during the entire Iraq war. Furthermore, we buy more each year not because we have any immediate need for them but simply to maintain the capability to produce more should they be needed in the future. The Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2012 beginning in October calls for the purchase of another 196 missiles, which will more than replace the ones fired in Libya and leave us with a stock pile larger than we probably need.

So what about the $30 million price tag on the F-15 E that crashed due to mechanical problems in Libya? F-15s are old planes. The first F-15s were delivered to the Air Force in 1974—nearly a decade before most current pilots of the plane were born. The version of the aircraft that crashed in Libya, the E variant, is the newest of the five versions of the F-15, but the first of those were delivered starting in 1987 or nearly a quarter of a century ago.

The one that crashed in Libya is the 14th F-15 to have crashed in the history of the program, and the 7th to have crashed in the last five years. After a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 C crashed in 2007 as the result of the front of the fuselage separating from the rest of the plane the entire fleet was grounded for a period of time. The age of the plane that crashed in Libya has not been made a matter of public record, but it is not at all clear that the crash might not have happened during normal training exercises. The Air Force still has more than 220 F-15 Es in their inventory so it is unlikely that the plane will be replaced.

Fuel, spare parts, and other operation and maintenance expenses are also mentioned as budgetary problems with respect to continued military operations in Libya. But the large majority of ships and planes thus far engaged in Libyan operations were already deployed in the region and are not engaged in activities that would appreciably increase “steaming” time or flight hours for the missions they were on prior to the commencement of hostilities in Libya.

Some of the missions assigned to our armed services require extraordinary outlays of tax dollars. Nothing has been more expensive than the deployment of large numbers of ground troops to Afghanistan, where the cost of maintaining a steady flow of food, medicine, ammunition, fuel, and other necessities to a land-locked country on the other side of the world has raised the cost of deploying one soldier to that country to more than one million dollars per year. But the costs of military missions vary greatly depending on length, location, and battle plan.

So far, Libya is cheap.

There are serious questions that can be raised about the unfolding U.S. strategy in Libya—whether it can succeed and what precedent it sets for future military and diplomatic actions. But even if you estimate that the cost of our operations in and around Libya may run as high as several hundred million dollars (an estimate that my preceding analysis would call into question) it would still be only about a quarter of what we spend each month in Afghanistan.

Another useful perspective is the impact Libya has had on Pentagon spending excluding military activities. The nearly $20-a-barrel increase in world oil prices that has occurred since political demonstrations first erupted in Tripoli more than a month ago will cost the Department of Defense $2 billion over the next 12 months if fuel prices remain at current levels.

Much of the current debate over the budget is seriously lacking in perspective. Repeatedly we have issues of major budgetary import being ignored while miniscule measures that have virtually no noticeable impact are debated as though they were the crux of the problem. These debates not only fail to solve the problem but confuse public understanding in a way that is likely to make a solution more difficult to achieve. There are many implications to our current efforts in Libya. But from a budgetary perspective we are talking about a tiny amount of money relative to what is at stake either in humanitarian terms or the long-lasting political, security, and economic implications this conflict entails.

Our efforts in Libya should be judged on their chances for success—not their very modest budgetary implications.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow