Libya War Costs M.I.A.
Spencer Ackerman, Wired, April 5, 2011
How much will the Libya war cost America, now that NATO jets are hitting Moammar Gadhafi’s forces? Good luck figuring out an answer.
Michael Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, leveled with reporters that the cost estimates for the war are coming “by the hour” now that U.S. “participation in strike operations has now gone away.” NATO says it’s now done with U.S. combat planes like the A-10 Warthog or the F-15 Strike Eagle. It’s now the job of foreign warplanes to hit Gadhafi loyalist tanks and artillery. The U.S. is moving on to refueling, spying, and jamming missions instead, with its planes on “standby” if needed.
Donley’s best estimate, given to reporters at a breakfast meeting on Tuesday, was that the war has cost the Air Force about $75 million so far, with expenses running to $4 million a day. That was the bill when 89 U.S. planes were directly or indirectly involved in the combat mission. Now he expects it to drop, but to what, he didn’t say.
By contrast, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress last week that without a U.S. combat role in the Libya war, he expects the bill to run to $40 million per month. That doesn’t exactly match the Air Force’s tally. By Donley’s figures, if the Air Force slashed its costs for the war in half, it would still exceed Gates’ totals — and that’s not counting the Navy’s contribution.
Donley disclosed that about “39 support aircraft” have been used in the war, from KC-135 flying gas stations to the Commando Solo communications airplane. How much can it cost for them to stay flying, as part of the U.S.’ enduring contribution to the war? And that doesn’t even count the prospect of U.S. fighter planes returning to the fight at NATO request, as Gates conceded will happen last week.
Donley wasn’t really looking to that possibility. There are “a number of partners and allies that are part of this picture,” he said, “and we need not do all this work ourselves.” But the 50 combat aircraft employed during the war’s first two weeks came from Air Force bases in Europe, which is where they’re likely to remain. He declined to specify how many will remain on “standby” for the war.
According to the latest NATO figures, on April 4, the coalition flew 58 strike sorties against loyalist forces, down from 70 the previous day. U.S. warplanes participated in those. We’ll see how many strikes NATO maintains without U.S. pilots conducting them — and if the coalition requests those planes to come back into the fight.
Meanwhile, the Libyan opposition is pressing for far deeper commitments of cash and guns in order to bring the war to what they assure will be a speedy close, but they’re overmatched by Gadhafi’s loyalists.
Oh, and by the way: why wasn’t the F-22 given its combat debut in Libya, as the Air Force chief of staff predicted? “The short answer was that if the F-22 were viewed as a requirement for the operation,” Donley said, “it would have been used.” Satisfied, Lt. Gen. Deptula?