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The Cost of Syria Is Money the Military Doesn't Have

September 10, 2013

By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

As President Obama lobbies members of Congress to support lobbing cruise missiles at Syria, perhaps he has forgotten the sequester that he proposed in 2011 and signed into law last March. Attacking Syria costs money, money that the Defense Department does not have.

The Pentagon is scheduled to face cuts of $54 billion each year until 2021 due to the sequester. For the fiscal year 2014 budget, which begins October 1, that translates into a 9.8 percent cut. This reduction is on top of the $37 billion that was taken out of the Defense Department’s budget last year. All the cuts are part of $500 billion in long-term spending reductions to the Department’s budget.

Last week Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he expected the cost of the options being considered in Syria to be in the range of "tens of millions" of dollars. That price tag may not include the cost of cruise missiles or other munitions.

Consider that it costs about $1.5 million for every cruise missile launched. Even for a limited mission, such as what Obama now envisages in Syria, it is likely that hundreds of these missiles will be used. More than 100 Tomahawk missiles were fired at Libya in 2011.

At tens of millions of dollars, as Hagel suggested, the sum would represent a tiny fraction of the military’s discretionary budget cap, estimated to be just under $500 billion for the current fiscal year by the CBO.

This would put the Syrian intervention in a separate league than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.2 trillion, according to the Congressional Research Service, not including long-term expenses such as health care for wounded veterans.

But military operations have a way of expanding. The 2011 operations in Libya cost U.S. taxpayers about $1.1 billion, according to the Pentagon. The Navy has been trying to husband its resources by limiting deployments of its ships. To now deploy assets to the eastern Mediterranean would cost substantial sums.

With military expenses cut to the bone, it is unclear how the Pentagon would cover pay for a limited venture into Syria, but the Defense Department rarely receives upfront money to launch operations. The funds may be taken out of the military’s base budget, as was the case with Libya, or they could come from a special supplemental appropriation.

On Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, outlined the additional costs of two or three months of Syrian operations.

A round-the-clock carrier strike group for extended operations would cost the United States about $40 million per week, while a destroyer costs around $7 million for every week of use. Six U.S. war ships are now operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, five of which are ready to fire missiles on Syria. That adds up to more than "tens of millions."

In July, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey wrote a letter to Congress laying out possible options for the potential use of U.S. military forces in Syria. In his assessment of limited stand-off strikes, Dempsey said potential targets include regime air defense, air ground, missile and naval forces and supporting military facilities, involving "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers."

Dempsey stated, "We must also understand risk - not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities. This is especially critical as we lose readiness due to budget cuts and fiscal uncertainly....Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid." Last week, he told members of Congress in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "I can never drag the risk of escalation to zero."

Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) is in favor of restoring funds that were cut from the military through sequestration, so that the military will not continue to be asked to do more with less.

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an official statement on August 29th, "Whatever is decided upon, it’s going to take military resources that are at decreased readiness levels due to a lack of funding." He continued, "We have a financial crisis in our military. We have a starving military."

Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), who chairs the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, has already pledged to oppose any request for additional funding for operations in Syria "until the president acts to remove the burden of sequestration from our military." The Ohio Republican told Politico, "At this point, [White House officials have] been publicly stating they intend to use existing funds [to pay for an attack], which complicates the issue of sequestration that much more."

The federal government is once again rubbing up against the dreaded debt ceiling, the $16.7 trillion cap to the nation’s borrowing power, an issue that must be addressed before 2013 draws to a close.

In mid-August, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) laid out his plan for the looming fiscal fight. In interviews, Van Hollen made clear that Democrats saw the deferred Pentagon pain as a point of leverage. He told the Washington Post that any increases in the defense budget would need to be accompanied by an equal increase in the non-defense budget. No matter that the defense budget absorbs half of the sequester, but accounts for less than 20 percent of the federal budget.

Van Hollen forgets that pork-barrel spending programs and useless government agencies are not in the business of saving lives and protecting American interests abroad. America’s strength is based on its stability and safety. If Americans cannot sleep soundly, nothing else-not Obamacare spending, not loans to failing solar panel companies, not even the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s baseline budget-matters.

Whether intervening in Syria is within our interests is a legitimate policy debate. It is clear, however, that had President Obama acted sooner, the situation might be less complicated. What is also clear is that the President might not have as much warning for the next major crisis that hits.

Whether it is a terrorist attack, a nuclear missile from North Korea, or some other threat as yet unknown to us, we cannot afford to have a cash-strapped military. America must be prepared to respond.

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