The Pentagon can absorb the cost of a limited strike on Syria, defense officials and analysts say, but a longer, more involved engagement could collide with financial constraints as the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year approaches.
Congress has yet to approve a defense-spending bill for fiscal 2014 and anticipates sharp debate over raising the federal debt ceiling in mid-October, as the Pentagon continues to cut its 10-year budget under sequestration.
A limited U.S. military strike on Syria likely would cost $500 million to $1 billion, and consist mostly of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which cost about $1.2 million each, according to Todd Harrison, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Because each missile carries only a 1,000-pound warhead, more than one is typically fired at each target, he said.
Five Navy destroyers each carrying nearly 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles are positioned in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to launch an attack against Syria's regime when ordered. The destroyers already had been budgeted to be at sea, so their deployment does not incur additional costs, a defense official said on background.
B-2 stealth bombers, using GPS-guided bombs that cost about $50,000, also could be used in a limited attack and would incur extra costs only for their fuel in flying from their base in Missouri and back, Mr. Harrison said.
In addition, the Navy has several other warships in the area, including submarines and amphibious assault ships, from the 5th and 6th Fleets, according to a Navy spokesman.
But the longer this situation lasts, the more expensive it will become.
Last week, President Obama deployed the warships in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea for a limited attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime for its use of chemical weapons on Aug. 24. But on Saturday, Mr. Obama announced that he would seek congressional authorization before launching a punitive strike.
House lawmakers are not expected to deliberate a U.S. strike until after they return from recess on Sept. 9.
If the ships' deployments have to be extended, there would be additional costs for fuel and sailors' pay, but those cost overruns are expected to be marginal, defense analysts say.
But if the costs run for too long after Oct. 1, or if a larger response than a limited strike is called for, defense officials would have to request supplemental funding from Congress, a prospect lawmakers are voicing opposition to.
"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," Mr. Harrison said.
Maren Leed, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the Obama administration would try to avoid a supplemental funding request.
"I would be shocked if the [administration] would ask for supplemental funding. I think they will do everything they can to not do that," Ms. Leed said. "It's just another front in the debate that they would just soon avoid. They don't want to introduce the cost variable if they don't need to. It's another reason for people to say 'no' and they're not looking for that."
Any supplemental funding request would likely "be an uphill climb because of the budgetary stalemate," said Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute.
The Defense Department's budget is due to be cut by $1 trillion dollars over the next decade. The 2011 Budget Control Act reduced the Pentagon's spending by $487 billion over 10 years, and implemented budget cuts of an additional $500 billion over 10 years.
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