Possible Strikes Against Syria and the Sequester Debate

Published Sep 5, 2013. By Cheryl Bolen. In Bloomberg BNA (Subscription required).



The cost of a military strike against Syria would have a marginal impact on the defense budget, but the psychological impact of authorizing military action could spur lawmakers to rethink sequestration, budget analysts told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 4.

As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafts a resolution to give President Obama the authority to launch a limited military strike, analysts said the least of senators' concerns is likely to be financial cost.

Sending over a few cruise missiles would not dent the federal budget by much, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition.

“But it does serve as a reminder that all the discretionary programs, including defense, are being squeezed by sequester,” he said.

On July 19, in response to a request from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said efforts to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons in Syria could average well more than $1 billion per month.

Establishing a no-fly zone over Syria could cost an estimated $500 million initially, Dempsey said in a letter to Levin. Additionally, analysts said, Tomahawk cruise missiles, manufactured by Raytheon, cost about $1.4 million each.

A spokesman for the Department of Defense said no cost estimates had been announced because no decisions had been made.

More Mission, Less Money?

Bixby said that if Congress authorizes military action, it would be a tough sell for them to impose more mission for less money. “And that may provide an opening for a discussion about sequester,” he said.

The sequester does not have to be resolved through a larger budget agreement, although there is the opportunity to do that, Bixby said. “They could do what they always do and find a few dollars here and there and kick the can down the road,” he said.

But ultimately Congress has to figure out spending levels, Bixby said.

If Congress was talking about something bigger, rather than launching a few missiles, it would be more of fiscal deal, Bixby said. “It's not enough to change the dynamic. The psychological impact is probably greater than the dollar impact,” he said.

“Going to the public and saying, ‘We're authorizing military action, and by the way we're cutting the military budget or we're going to shut down the government,' is a very inconsistent message,” Bixby said.

Small Potatoes

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, downplayed the cost of the military action. Korb previously was a senior fellow and director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Well, you've got a lot of issues, but money is not one here,” he said.

A military strike would not mean a whole lot to the budget process, Korb said. The personnel, ships, and missiles are already there and paid for. Even in a normal year, there are practice and training costs, he said.

In 1998, for example, during Operation Desert Fox, which struck military targets in Iraq, the U.S. fired 250 cruise missiles and there was no supplemental, money was just moved from within the defense budget, Korb said.

Sequestration only dictates that every account must be cut equally, Korb said. “You would hope” that the president's decision to seek congressional authority would ultimately lead to a grand bargain on the budget, he said. But if not, the defense budget simply returns in real terms to where it was in 2007, he said.

Under sequestration, the defense budget will be $475 billion this year, compared to the end of the Nixon administration, when it was $375 billion, Korb said. “So we're way above where we've been previously,” he said.

Even a $1 billion cost pales next to a $475 billion budget, he said.