The Potential Budgetary Effect of Military Action in Syria
Over the weekend, President Obama made his widely anticipated remarks on the conflict of Syria, making his case for taking military action against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical weapon attack a few weeks ago. He also stated that while he believed that he had the authority to take action himself, he would leave it up to Congress to vote on. So far, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed a resolution by a 10 to 7 count, with a vote expected by the full Senate next week. Naturally, there has been widespread debate about the merits of engaging in military strikes or not, but questions have also arisen about the potential fiscal implications.
After a decade of significant defense spending increases (85 percent in real terms), the overall defense budget has fallen over the past few years as the Budget Control Act spending caps and the sequester have hit base defense spending while drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan have dropped war spending ("overseas contingency operations") by about half from its peak. Overall, the defense budget has declined from its peak of $720 billion in 2010 to about $600 billion in 2013 after the sequester, although it still well above pre-war levels in 2013 dollars. Beyond 2013 under current law, defense spending will roughly remain flat in real terms, assuming that war spending is drawn down as in CBO's alternative scenario.
Source: OMB, CBO
Note: Assumes CBO war drawdown scenario for war spending after 2013.
The Cost of the Operation
It is uncertain exactly what form the strikes will take, but we can use the military action in Libya in 2011 and in Iraq in December 1998 (Operation Desert Fox) as guides for the Syria operation. A recent article in DefenseNews cites a Congressional Research Service report extrapolating from the first few weeks of military action in Libya a cost of $600 million, with $340 million spent on replacing munitions that were used. The article notes, though, that there doesn't seem to be a plan for a no-fly zone in Syria as there was in Libya. In July, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey estimated that enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria would cost $1 billion per month.
As for the 1998 Iraqi bombings, a CRS report puts the cost of the operation itself and the associated build up at $135 million, which would be $190 million in 2013 dollars. This type of strike would arguably be most comparable to the current operation envisioned in Syria (assuming that it does stay as "limited").
Judging by these two estimates, a targeted military strike in Syria could cost in the low- to mid-hundred million dollar range. That does not account for potential humanitarian costs the U.S. may be obligated to incur in association with the bombings (as they did in Libya to the tune of about $100 million), and it does not account for the possibility of a wider and more prolonged intervention in the country.
Cost vs. Budgetary Effect
There are a few things to consider with these cost estimates as it relates to the budget. For one, the cost of an operation is not necessarily equal to the budgetary impact because of the way discretionary spending works. The operation would only affect the budget overall if Congress appropriates supplemental funds; otherwise, the cost will simply be absorbed within the pre-existing defense spending levels. A Reuters article quotes retired Navy Admiral Gary Roughead as saying that this was the case with Libya and would likely be the case with Syria. Granted, the FY 2014 appropriations process is creating uncertainty about what funding levels will be for defense, so that may change.
Another thing to note is the timing this cost would be incurred within the budget. Some costs, particularly related to munitions, are only incurred when they are replaced, meaning that the actual incurment of expenditures happens in the future. The budget authority for replacement may only come in future years, and the actual outlays spent when the government receives the munitions would happen even further out. Thus, if there were supplemental funds granted for Syria some of the budgetary effect would only come later. Theoretically, this would mean that the cost of a Syria operation would not factor in to when the government breaches the debt limit.
Potential Supplemental Funding
As policymakers debate how to fund efforts in Syria, we would urge them to first look within the base defense budget, since it would seem that the size of the operation being discussed at the moment would not warrant a supplemental bill. If a supplemental does prove necessary, it should be offset with other spending cuts or revenue, and its funds should be used solely for direct spending on the Syria effort, not for unrelated "Christmas tree" items or to backfill the cuts from the sequestration.
There has currently been no discussion of a full-fledged intervention in Syria, and of course it could take many forms, but the Brookings Institution did estimate in March 2012 that "done properly" it could involve to 200,000 to 300,000 troops and cost $200 to $300 billion. For context, the peak of the combined troop strength and cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was at the lower end of those ranges, and in total they have cost almost $1.5 trillion since 2001.
Although the cost of targeted strikes on Syria might be small, it is still a reminder of the value of having fiscal space to be able to respond to new priorities, whether they are related to national security or domestic in nature. This is especially true if there ends up being wider involvement in the country in the future. It also is a reminder about the harmful nature of the sequester and continuing resolutions, since they restrict Congress's ability to be flexible with the defense budget as different aspects may be higher priorities than they were previously.