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Cost estimates for Syria attacks vary widely

An AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft takes off from the flight deck of the forward deployed amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6).
Source: U.S. Navy | Flickr
An AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft takes off from the flight deck of the forward deployed amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6).

How much could an air strike on Syria cost U.S. taxpayers? Estimates this week have ranged from "tens of millions" to "billions" should President Barack Obama take military action against Bashar Assad's regime.

For all the uncertainty, defense experts agree the cost of attacks on Syrian leader Bashar Assad's forces would be relatively small in the big picture of total Pentagon spending of about $630 billion a year.

But congressional testimony this week by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and previous estimates by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey create some doubt about what the operation could cost and even about who might for pay for it.

"For the remainder of this (fiscal) year, for the remainder of the weeks in September, we're comfortable that we could accommodate the operations that would occur there," Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said Thursday in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. "Many of those ships are already over there and already budgeted to be over there."

Four Navy destroyers are now in the eastern Mediterranean and would launch Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria if an attack order is given. The aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, is in the Red Sea, a few hundred miles southwest of Syria.

"The Syrian thing, to quote one of our guys is 'budget dust,'" – that is, small relative to overall Pentagon spending, said Steve Bell, a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee who is now senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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But the cost question is troubling some lawmakers and the Obama administration seems to be acutely aware that cost concerns could undermine support for an attack. Kerry asked skeptically on Tuesday, "Is the Congress of the United States ready to pay for 30 days of 30,000 air strikes to take out (Bashar Assad's regime)?" Kerry implied: No, Congress wouldn't be willing to pay for such a large operation.

Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, R- Fla., said at Wednesday's House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, "Even a limited engagement -- if it ends up being only limited -- could potentially cost taxpayers billions. With members of the Arab League so eager for U.S. participation, have they offered to offset any of the costs associated with this action?"

Kerry replied, "the answer is profoundly yes. They have. That offer is on the table." But when Ros Lehtinen pressed him for details, Kerry backtracked.

While some Arab nations "have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Kerry said, "obviously, that's not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it."

Responding to a question from Rep. Tom Marino, R- Pa. on the cost of the operation, Hagel said, "it would be in the tens of millions of dollars – that kind of range," an estimate that contrasted sharply with one provided by Dempsey in a July 19 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D- Mich. Dempsey at that time said "limited stand-off strikes" designed to achieve "the significant degradation of regime capabilities" would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers." Dempsey told Levin, "Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions" of dollars.

Once the attack begins, the cost "depends on what weapons platforms we use. Standoff strikes using Tomahawk cruise missiles, for example, would cost more" than air strikes by U.S. aircraft, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. "These missiles cost roughly $1.5 million each, and we typically use multiple missiles per target because they only carry a 1,000 pound warhead."

Harrison added that "GPS-guided bombs dropped from a stealthy aircraft like the B-2 bomber, would cost less to employ. The bombs themselves cost roughly $50,000 each, plus you have to add the cost of flying B-2s from Missouri (where they are based) to Syria and back."

Harrison said, "limited airstrikes over the course of a few days designed to be punitive in nature (rather than trying to topple the regime) would likely cost somewhere on the order of $500,000 to $1 billion. If the objective widens to include a no-fly zone, severely degrading Syria's military capabilities, and providing tactical support to rebels, the costs would go up."

The biggest cost would be buying replacements for the bomb and missile inventories "in the future, not this year or using existing funds," he said.

Dov Zakheim, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as undersecretary of defense and Pentagon comptroller during the Bush administration, figures that the cost of an operation would be higher than Harrison or Bell estimate. Zakheim opposes the Syrian attack on policy grounds.

"If you look at Libya, we spent something north of $1.5 billion. In that case we were 'leading from behind.' Here we would be leading in front," Zakheim said. "So when the chairman of Joint Chiefs talks about billions of dollars, he's probably talking closer to $5 billion, and maybe more, just depending on how long you go on, how may targets you go after and how many times you have to go after the same targets."

He said, "These things don't just run two weeks, three weeks, four weeks. You have to deal with a lot of targets, you have to deal with the fact that the Syrians are likely to move things."

—By Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News.

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