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March 16, 2011—
The Defense Department, in concert with the defense ministries of NATO allies, continues to mull the possibility of instituting a no-fly zone over Libya. Such an effort could cost US taxpayers many millions, if not billions, of dollars at a time when the Pentagon is already strapped for cash, according to a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Estimates are that a flight-exclusion zone would cost between $15 million and $300 million per week, depending on the approach taken, states Selected Options and Costs for a No-Fly Zone over Libya, a newly issued report from Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (full document; caution, large file).

For example, implementing a full no-fly zone covering all 680,000 square miles of Libya "might be in the range of $100 [million] to $300 million per week," reads the report. A limited no-fly zone, which would only cover the major population centers and the locations of reported air strikes against rebels, likely would have a weekly price tag between $30 million to $100 million, it states.

A standoff no-fly zone would be the cheapest option by far, carrying a price tag of $15 million to $25 million per week. This third option would utilize a combination of air and sea assets operating off the coast, to include Aegis radars and land-based E-3 AWACS air-surveillance aircraft, to enforce the flight-exclusion zone only over major cities. Aircraft violating the exclusion zone would face Navy Standard Missile-2 surface-to-air missiles or AIM-120 air-to-air missile attacks. There is "no historical cost basis" for such an operation, but the CSBA report assumed that it would require three Aegis destroyers and "persistent day and night coverage from AWACS aircraft and an associated combat air patrol" to pull it off.

US and allied forces also would have to consider the added cost of a one-time strike operation to degrade Libyan air defense systems—something the report's authors Todd Harrison and Zack Cooper estimate would cost between $500 million and $1 billion, "depending on the number of ground targets." The pilots would have to fly over hostile territory and would be susceptible to Libyan surface-to-air missiles, they noted. Harrison is a CBSA senior fellow for defense budget studies. Cooper is a senior analyst with the think tank.

These findings are based on the costs of previous no-fly zones that the United States and its allies enforced, such as the one implemented over Iraq in the 1990s up until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. That mission comprised two components: Operation Northern Watch covered 16,871 square miles and Operation Southern Watch covered 87,729 square miles. Despite the difference in coverage area, both missions averaged $1.3 billion (in today's dollars) per year, according to the report.

Operation Southern Watch—conducted by US Central Command—operated out of Saudi Arabia with support from Navy aircraft carriers based in the Persian Gulf. US European Command led Operation Northern Watch using mostly Air Force assets based out of Turkey.

Operational costs associated with Operation Southern Watch spiked in 1998—from just under $10 million per square mile in Fiscal 1997 to more than $20 million per square mile in Fiscal 1998—due to increased activity in the lead up to Operational Desert Fox in December of that year, according to the report. That indicates "that the cost of maintaining the no-fly zones was highly sensitive to the operational tempo," wrote Harrison and Cooper.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who just returned from a trip to North Africa with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to discuss the situation on the ground, said Monday NATO defense ministers agreed "to continue planning for any and all military options, including a no-fly zone." Morrell said the high operational tempo in Afghanistan and Iraq would not prevent the United States from conducting such an operation, but he reiterated the need for NATO cooperation if that decision is made.

"It's important that we not do it alone. But this is not a question of 'can.' It's a question of whether we should. And, that's a decision that the President will make at some point," said Morrell during his interview with MSNBC.

(AFPS report by Jim Garamone)