No-fly zone cost could hit $1 bln in months - analysts

Friday, 25 March 2011 00:13 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

(Reuters) - The no-fly zone over Libya could end up costing more than $1 billion if the operation drags on more than a couple of months, defense analysts say.

Zack Cooper, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the initial cost of eliminating Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses was likely to be between $400 million and $800 million.

The expense of patrolling the no-fly zone once it is established is likely to be $30 million to $100 million per week, he said.

The U.S. military has no official cost figures yet for the operation, which has been going on less than a week. By comparison, however, the much more extensive Afghan war costs more than $9 billion per month.

The operation unfolding in Libya resembles a scenario for a limited no-fly zone analyzed by Cooper and his colleague Todd Harrison. The scenario assumed a limited no-fly zone covering Libya north of the 29th parallel, not the entire country. They made their projections by computing the cost per square mile of previous no-fly zones and applying that to the situation in Libya. The price of munitions, jet fuel and maintenance were the primary cost drivers. Their figures reflected the cost over and above regular operations.

Cooper said the Tomahawk cruise missiles fired so far by Britain and the United States cost about $200 million, putting the price for taking out Gaddafi’s air defenses on target to hit their projection.

“We estimated $400 million to $800 million. Between the Tomahawks and other munitions and flight hours and fuel, it’s probably going to be somewhere in that ... range for the initial cost of suppressing the air defenses,” he said.

The crash of a U.S. F-15 warplane was an unexpected cost. Cooper said the Pentagon was unlikely buy another F-15 and probably would replace it with a joint strike fighter, with an estimated price tag of between $100 million and $150 million.

One thing Cooper and Harrison hadn’t anticipated was significant coalition support, with allies bearing part of the expense. Cooper said it appeared the United States had flown more than half of the sorties and fired most of the Tomahawks.

“In our analysis, we assumed that the U.S. would be picking up the bulk of the cost,” he said. “So even though the U.S. has picked up more than a majority of the cost, I assume, so far, it probably hasn’t picked up as much as we estimated.”

The main European countries enforcing the no-fly zone downplayed the cost of the operation. British Finance Minister George Osborne, whose government has staked its reputation on eliminating the country’s budget deficit, told Parliament to expect the cost to be in the tens of millions of pounds.

While saying it was too early for a “robust estimate” of the price of the Libya operations, Osborn projected the costs would be “modest” compared to operations like Afghanistan.