War Drums: How Much Might Military Strikes in Syria Cost the U.S.? (Updated)

Will a second war-funding bill be needed to pay for the Obama administration's expected military mission in Syria? (PM Images via Getty Images)

Much of the debate in Washington about the Obama administration’s march to war in Syria has centered around the end goal, target list and a president’s war powers under U.S. law.

For the record, the final objective is murky. A commander in chief’s war powers also are murky, and whether Obama is required to get congressional approval depends on whom one asks — and their political party affiliation. The target list is more clear, focusing mostly on Syrian military targets, as detailed Tuesday by the New York Times.

But there’s another question that has received little attention: How much will it cost? The answer: A lot.

Pulling back the news-making curtain, this question was floated Tuesday in the Defense News newsroom by our resident defense budget guru, Marcus Weisgerber.

The cost issue also has been raised by Republican Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas:

“Before any action is taken regarding Syria, it is imperative that President Obama make the case to the American people and consult with Congress. He needs to explain what vital national interests are at stake and should put forth a detailed plan with clear objectives and an estimated cost for achieving those objectives.”

On Wednesday, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., also pointed to cost concerns in his surprising announcement that he opposes U.S. military strikes:

“No red line should have been drawn without the strategy and funding to support it.”

It’s odd the cost of the expected Syria operation failed to get much attention until the eve of war. That’s because Washington and the nation have been embroiled in a battle over federal spending for over three years.

So we all should be glad Marcus raised the issue. It turns out credible work on this question already has been done.

U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey addressed the cost issue in a July 19 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee leaders:

“Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes. This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes. Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing. Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions. Over time, the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions. There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”

With the Obama administration eyeing a less-complicated, days-long series of strikes, it is reasonable to assume the price would come in under Dempsey’s predicted “billions.” That means the opening days and weeks of the Libya intervention might be a more-accurate baseline:

“The Pentagon said Monday the military intervention in Libya cost the U.S. an estimated $608 million in the first few of weeks of the operation. Spending is down significantly, though not as much as expected.”

Think the costs for Washington and its allies would stop with replacing any Tomahawk missiles and other munitions fired at Syrian military targets, and the costs of operating U.S. ships and aircraft, possibly a little less than that $608 million mark? Think again.

The Congressional Research Service, in a June report, weighed in on the costs of rebuilding the civil war-savaged nation if and when Assad’s regime falls. And, remember, when a nation rains down Tomahawks on another nation, it typically takes on a big part of the burden in cleaning up the mess.

“Syria’s economic situation was difficult prior to the conflict, and the Obama administration expects that security and reconstruction costs in Syria will be considerable and will require international contributions.” 

Several Washington insiders tell me they expect the White House likely will send a second war-funding request to Congress to pay for whatever is coming in Syria. Congress always pays for the nation’s wars, but expect a noisy process this time, if a new war-financing measure is needed.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett