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Libya War Cost $100 Million on Day One

Megan Scully tallies up the bill from the first day of fighting in Libya for the US portion of the coalition, and the price tag was steep:

With U.S. and coalition forces bombarding Libya leader Muammer al-Qaddafi’s forces from the sea and air, the cost for the first day alone of the operation was well over $100 million with the total price tag expected to grow much higher the longer the strikes continue, analysts said.

With allies expected to shoulder some of the bill, the initial stages of taking out Libya’s air defenses could ultimately cost U.S.-led coalition forces between $400 million and $800 million, according to a report released by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments earlier this month.

Maintaining a coastal no-fly-zone after those first strikes would cost in the range of $30 million to $100 million per week – not pocket change by any means, but far less than the $100 million to $300 million estimated weekly cost for patrolling the skies above the entire 680,000-square-mile country.

These unanticipated costs come at a time when the Pentagon is putting pressure on Capitol Hill to pass a fiscal 2011 defense budget. Continuing to operate under a stopgap continuing resolution through September, senior defense officials argue, would amount to a $23 billion cut to the military’s request for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The Pentagon wants $708.3 billion for this year, including $159.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I think we could see an emergency supplemental to pay for this, which could get extremely interesting. A former Pentagon comptroller said that a supplemental would only be needed if costs exceeded $1 billion. Based on the numbers above, we could reach that in a matter of weeks. And most objective observers see this operation going at least that long.

Lawmakers in both parties have begun to question the mission, but they don’t necessarily want to be charged with blessing it in any formal way. With a supplemental they’d have to be put in that position. No doubt the White House would team it with something like humanitarian aid for Japan earthquake victims or something. But essentially it would be funding for the bombs and air sorties over Libya. That’s not a terribly predictable vote.

Republicans have no consistent message on federal spending, so it’s certainly plausible if not probable that they would deficit spend to protect Libyan civilians while telling civilians in this country to go pound sand. But this could also set up another hostage-taking moment for them, where they pair Libya funding with some of their favorite spending cuts. And that would lead to a moment of decision for the White House. We’ve seen this White House twist arms to secure war funding before. Given the choice between continuing a military mission and, say, Planned Parenthood, I’m not at all hopeful about the choice they would make.

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David Dayen

David Dayen