By Rebecca Shabad - 09/25/14 06:00 AM EDT
The United States launched nearly 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles, each of which cost about $1.5 million to replace, at Islamic militant targets in Syria on Tuesday.
The military also used F-22s, F-16s and B-1 bombers, which cost between $20,000 and $65,000 per flying hour, to pound Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions.
The fight against ISIS looks to be much less expensive than those other wars, which saw hundreds of thousands of combat troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama has repeatedly insisted that no ground troops will be used in the new campaign.
Still, more than 1,600 military advisers have been authorized to go to Iraq. While nearly 800 of those advisers will provide diplomatic security, military leaders have suggested more troops on the ground could be necessary.
“My guess is we’re going to have a lot of ground troops waging this war,” predicted Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who worked on assessment teams for Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2009 and Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad in 2007.
The average cost of sending a single soldier to the region would be $1 million per year, Biddle said.
That would still make the campaign against ISIS “dirt cheap,” he said, compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, which have each cost more than $730 billion and $550 billion, respectively.
The White House and Pentagon have refused to offer estimates of the cost of the conflict, though military officials have said they have enough money in fiscal 2014’s $85 billion budget for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to carry out the fight for now.
The Pentagon said in late August that the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq cost about $7.5 million per day. Expanding the fight to Syria could raise that figure.
The administration is expected to ask Congress for more funding in November — after the midterm elections.
“Do you ask before the election? Doubt it, which is why I think the Pentagon is signaling by saying, ‘At this point, we’re okay because we have this cushion,’ ” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who served as an associate director at President Clinton’s budget office, working on national security and foreign policy.
“If I were the administration, I would go earlier rather than later … at least the lame-duck, because frankly, you don’t know how this is going to come out. You don’t know whether this is going to look good or look bad,” said Adams.
Even without putting boots on the ground, Adams estimates the fight against ISIS could cost between $15 billion to $20 billion annually — something he said was a conservative estimate.
He based that figure on U.S. military intervention in Bosnia and the Balkans, earlier Iraq missions and the most recent air campaign in Libya.
As a result, he said the administration will have to ask Congress for more than the $59 billion in war funding the administration requested for 2015.
Other budget experts think the cost of the fight could be much less.
Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argued a $20 billion “seems a little high, quite frankly.”
He said airstrikes could dwindle as the U.S. runs out of ISIS targets.
“We’re hitting all the low-hanging fruit now,” he said, but “they’re going to quickly learn and adapt — whatever forces remain — they’re going to go underground, and they’re going to be harder to find.”
Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee won’t speculate on possible funding needs for the fight.
“As always, any and all funding must be fully justified and tied to appropriate oversight,” committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing told The Hill Wednesday.
Lindsay Koshgarian, research director for the National Priorities Project, which studies the federal budget, said the administration might not provide any hard numbers until President Obama submits his fiscal 2016 budget request early next year.
At this point, she said it’s too early to project the cost, but warned President George W. Bush underestimated the cost of Iraq, which he initially said would be $50 billion to 60 billion.
“Without knowing what this involvement is ultimately going to look like, with no clear limits to the mission, no clear plan for exit, the sky is the limit as far as cost.”