Everyone knows that wars are expensive. Choosing to go to war presents risks in both blood and treasure for any nation that engages in military action abroad. But what about the so-called "limited" strike envisioned by the Obama administration? What are the costs involved in the idealist approach to a proposed short-term, low-risk missile strikes in Syria?
According to experts and government documents, a cruise missile strike against Syria could still cost the Pentagon hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons within only a few short weeks. Of course the material costs should only be considered in conjunction with political and human costs alongside mitigating factors like the risks of inaction, but the numbers are worth considering.
While there is no perfect comparison, the Obama administration is using language about limited action that draws its closest strategic comparison to Libya. All told, defense analysts say that the first two weeks of military action in 2011 in Libya alone ended up costing the U.S. around $600 million. Much of the expense related to establishing a no-fly zone, which, of course, is less plausible in Syria. Still, Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (T-LAMs), considered a lynchpin tool in a possible Syria strike, can cost up to $1.4 million each. In Libya, around $340 million of initial expenses was directly spen on munitions (such as sea-launched Raytheon Tomahawk cruise misssiles and air-launched Boeing Joint Direct Attack munitions, according to a Congressional Research Service report).
In the Syria case, the U.S. Navy has multiple destroyers poised in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, each with up to 96 missile cells. Missile-armed submarines are also an option that is not off the table in Syria. A single U.S. submarine reportedly launched as many as 99 Tomahawks at targets in Libya in March 2011.
Intelligence aircraft, such as E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) and E-8 JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System), would likely add expense as support for any form of military strike in Syria. Operating these systems can cost several million. Refueling tankers would also be needed, and can add millions as well. Other support expenses include safety and rescue teams. In Libya, only one U.S. aircraft was lost due to technical malfunctions, but all crewmembers were rescued by support teams which remain a necessary element in this type of military action.
These high dollar costs of military action should not be surprising. Further, some might view the short-term high-cost nature of the limited strike as financially beneficial, preventing the longer term costs of weak initial action and security threats down the road.
Still, the potential economic costs of military action in Syria as the country continues to tighten its budgetary belt are significant. What's more, major U.S. companies in the defense sector such as Boeing, Honeywell International, and Lockheed Martin have an opportunity to profit off of military action in Syria. According to Wired Magazine, despite the fact that defense contractors have spent less this year on lobbying practices in Washington, actors from the defense sector invested a whopping $1,006,887 in campaign support overall for the 17 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What's more, according to Wired's mesaures, those senators that voted in favor of military action in Syria on Wednesday received, on average, 83% more campaign financing from defense contractors than senators voting against war.
Of course, the hundreds of millions of dollars required for the so-called "limited" strike would cost, in theory, nowhere near the budget-busting expenses of wars in Iraq (an estimated $2.2 trillion) and Afghanistan (where estimates are also in the trillions and counting).
But as tragic figures regarding the toll of violence continue to roll out from Damascus, Syria, and the region, Americans must consider all the costs of action. It can, of course, be challenging to evaluate any costs of action (political, material, or otherwise) when facing the complexities of the situation unfolding in Syria. But the material costs should not be lost from the equation.