After evidence surfaced that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces used chemical weapons that allegedly killed more than 1,000 people, including women and children, President Obama has gone to Congress to authorize military action in the country. House members and Senators are considering whether to support the resolution, with a vote expected this week at the earliest.
What would intervention in Syria, even a limited air strike, cost the United States? The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) basically threw up its hands on Monday, saying that because the administration “has not detailed how it would use the authority that would be provided” by a Congressional resolution allowing President Obama to use military force in Syria for up to 90 days, “CBO has no basis for estimating the costs of implementing” such a resolution.
But that doesn’t mean there is no way to predict what it might cost.
A limited cruise missile strike: hundreds of millions. While Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has estimated that an operation would cost “tens of millions” of dollars, the price tag could be much higher. The action the administration is talking about taking would be a limited strike, which would likely be similar to the NATO operation in Libya in 2011, although there isn’t talk of implementing a no-fly zone as there was in Libya, which is costly. But this sort of action could still cost hundreds of millions in weapons. The first few weeks of the operation in Libya cost about $600 million, $340 million of which went to munitions. Each Tomahawk Land Attack Missile costs $1.4 million.
Meanwhile, the Navy’s USS Nimitz and other vessels were scheduled to return home from deployment, but they have now been ordered to remain within striking distance of the country at an estimated cost of $25 million per week. If the U.S. fires missiles and those ships engage in combat, it’ll cost an additional $30 million per week.
Refueling tankers would also likely be needed, which cost $9.3 million in the Libya operation for more than 800 hours of flight. There are also potential costs associated with safety and rescue teams if anything goes awry.
If it escalates to troops on the ground: billions. Although the administration has been adamant that any action will be very limited, in July Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey warned, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” One path could be to train the rebels, which would cost $500 million a year and “several thousand” troops, he estimated. Another, a no-fly zone, would cost $1 billion a month.
If the administration ends up deciding the end goal should be to oust Assad, the Brookings Institution has estimated that such a move could lead to an all-out invasion, costing up to $300 billion a year and requiring 200,000 to 300,000 troops. But so far no one has called for anything close to this move.
Impact on the markets: potentially higher oil prices. The increasing likelihood of military action in Syria is roiling oil markets. But the country produces very little oil, only half a percent of world production. As Brad Plumer at Wonkblog explains, traders are nervous not because of the impact on Syria itself but what it might mean for the region. If war spreads, it could impact oil-rich neighbors such as Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, plus the Turkish city of Ceyhan which is a crucial pipeline terminal, disrupting production. These potential reductions in supply weigh heavily on traders because there is little spare capacity. Because of all of this, the International Energy Agency estimates that recent conflicts in Syria and elsewhere have increased the price of oil by about $9 a barrel, which typically means a 22 cent increase in the price of gasoline here at home. These jitters in the oil markets may also be impacting the stock market, which have been volatile as action is awaited.
If the administration gets Congressional authorization and sticks to a limited action, it probably won’t have to ask Congress for the funds. Such a move wouldn’t require a supplemental appropriations bill, an administration official told the Huffington Post, given that a strike that lasted shorter than 90 days and didn’t involve combat troops wouldn’t likely cost any more than is already appropriated. The overseas contingency operations fund, which supports combat operations abroad and is separate from the Department of Defense’s baseline budget, would likely be where the money comes from, which stands at $86.5 billion in fiscal year 2013.
The Pentagon has been no stranger to budget cuts under sequestration, and Republicans are now threatening to hold up a continuing resolution that would keep the government funded and operational. Yet a limited strike would still likely get funded even in the face of these pressures.