Robert Gates, the outgoing secretary of defence, said last month that the Pentagon expected to spend “somewhere in the ball park of $750m” in the 2011 fiscal year as part of efforts to protect the Libyan people.
But according to a Pentagon memo which includes a detailed update on the progress and pace of operations, by mid-May US operations in Libya had cost $664m, a figure confirmed by the Department of Defence.
The document, entitled the “United States Contribution to Operation Unified Protector’’, adds that US costs are running at a rate of about $2m a day or $60m a month. The memo has been circulating on Capitol Hill since last week. The DoD declined to comment on the increased costs of the operation.
The pace of spending is higher than reported by the DoD comptroller’s office in late March. In a congressional hearing, Pentagon officials said the US had spent about $550m on Libya, at a rate of about $40m a month.
If spending remains at the increased rate until the end of the recently extended Nato authorisation period, the DoD could face an extra bill of about $274m to pay for a combination of air strikes, refuelling operations and intelligence-gathering missions, putting further strain on its budget.
Any extra spending will further strain the DoD’s budget, which is under pressure from cost overruns on procurement programmes and under threat from significant cuts as part of Congressional efforts to address the federal deficit.
Despite continuing to press the White House for additional funding for Libya operations, in his May comments Secretary Gates suggested that “in the case of Libya, unfortunately, we’re fundamentally having to eat that one.”
Any additional costs could also add to pressure on the US to limit its mission in Libya. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution demanding that President Obama explain the US involvement in Libya, forestalling a more radical measure seeking an end to US involvement.
Although it is working under Nato, the US is by far the largest contributor to operation Unified Protector. As of mid-May it was conducting 70 per cent of reconnaissance missions, over 75 per cent of refuelling flights and 27 per cent of all air sorties.
The US has about 75 aircraft, including drones, involved in the operations and since the end of March has conducted about 2,600 aircraft sorties and about 600 combat sorties. In addition the US military can call on a number of naval assets in the Mediterranean.
As well as its contribution to the Nato operation, US spending on Libya includes its twelve day operation Odyssey Dawn that took place before Nato took over.
In total the US military has fired about 228 missiles as of mid-May. For comparison the US Navy plans to buy 196 or so missiles this year for about $300m or about $1.5m each, according to US budget documents.