Libya costs won’t stop spending debate

The Obama administration’s military campaign in Libya is unlikely to significantly change the debates over cutting federal spending and the Pentagon’s budget, according to an array of defense analysts. 

The Libyan operation could cost as much as $100 million a week, not including the hundreds of millions that already have been spent knocking out Libyan air defense and communications systems, according to independent analysts. 

But those costs are peanuts compared to the $50 billion Democrats and Republicans are haggling over in the debate on spending for the current fiscal year. The costs of the Libyan intervention also pale in comparison to the Pentagon’s budget, and to this year’s projected budget deficit. 

“We are only talking about a few billion dollars for operations in Libya, compared to a projected $1.6 trillion deficit,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “While the cost of this operation may attract a lot of attention, in reality it has a negligible effect on our budget deficit.”

Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the Clinton era, echoed Harrison. 

“I really doubt this will affect the politics of the broader budget debate,” he said. “The negotiations on the budget are coming to a crossroads on the next continuing resolution whether we are in Libya or not.”

The Pentagon has increasingly become a target for members in both parties looking to trim the federal budget. 

As long as the U.S.-led mission in Libya is swift, experts say, this is unlikely to change, but if the mission drags on, it could limit cuts to the Defense budget. 

One Pentagon budget official told The Hill the administration’s decision to use military force to aid rebels in Libya gives new material to proponents of larger annual military budgets.

“It should” change the debate, the Pentagon official said. “We have spent $200 million on missiles and fuel so far. … [F]olks who believe that all is well in the world and that Iraq and Afghanistan are simply mistakes, and that we can wind down and focus internally, should have cause to rethink.”

But Adams said the Pentagon will likely continue to come under budget pressure from lawmakers looking for cuts unless the Libyan conflict becomes “a shooting war that requires U.S. ground troops.” 

He noted that the politics of the defense budget did not change when the U.S. military operated no-fly zones in the skies over northern and southern Iraq while Adams was at OMB.

“There was very little shooting going on, and most of Saddam’s planes stayed on the ground,” said Adams, now with American University and the Stimson Center. “We were running at $100 million to $200 million per month.”

Harrison agreed, saying “the direct cost of this operation is quite small compared to current operations in Afghanistan, so this doesn’t worsen the overall fiscal situation appreciably.” Nor will it affect congressional action on major hardware programs like the F-35 fighter, he added.

“The fundamental battle lines within the defense budget — between personnel costs and weapon systems costs, for example — remain the same,” Harrison noted.

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Monday called for “a full congressional debate on the objectives and costs” of the Libya air campaign.

“Congress has been squabbling for months over a budget to run the federal government for a fiscal year that is almost half over,” Lugar said in a statement Monday. “We argue over where to cut $100 million here and there from programs many people like. So here comes an open-ended military action with no endgame envisioned.”

The Pentagon budget official said the high costs of bombing Libyan targets likely will get some lawmakers’ attention.

“They spend months and months cutting a few billion, but they’ll see that we can spend that in a few days or weeks” when ordered to launch combat strikes, the Pentagon official said.

Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute analyst and industry consultant, said if the Libyan air mission goes smoothly, “that could help protect the Pentagon’s budget — but if the operation is inconclusive or leads to a broader U.S. involvement, it could actually hurt the case for robust defense spending.” 

As far as the operation’s impact on the mounting U.S. deficit, Thompson said: “Aside from replacing lost planes and expended munitions — Tomahawk [missiles] cost $1.5 million each — the impact is negligible.”

Pentagon officials are still tabulating the costs of the effort as they grapple with how it might alter the fiscal 2012 budget request they sent Congress last month.

“We have no idea how long the Libyan operations will continue; therefore, it is impossible to ascertain any impact on the [fiscal year] 2012 budget request,” Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said Monday. “If and when it becomes clear that operations might continue into FY 2012, we will address the impact on the FY 2012 budget request at that time.”