Battleland

Basic, Preferred or Supreme No-Fly Zone?

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The cheapest no-fly zone, costing an estimated $20 million a week / CSBA

On Wednesday we noted how in some Pentagon quarters, advocates of putting a no-fly zone over Libya see opponents of such a zone cravenly motivated by their desire to preserve budgets for Army and Marine ground-pounders. The next chapter in this epic involves price, and today there’s a report out on how much a no-fly zone would cost, depending on what type might be imposed. It’s just like the oil changes now being offered by your local Meineke Car Care Center — $19.95 for Basic, $29.95 for Preferred, or $49.95 for Supreme.

In this case, Todd Harrison and Zack Cooper at the non-profit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments say the weekly cost of a Libyan no-fly zone would likely run taxpayers $20 million for Basic, $65 million for Preferred, and $200 million for Supreme.

None of this is meant, of course, to boil down the humanitarian tragedy now tearing Libya apart into a simple cost-benefit analysis. Real people are dying, and NATO officials are meeting today in Brussels to figure out what, if anything, the world’s most powerful military alliance can do to stop the slaughter on their doorstep. But cost is always a consideration, especially in a case like this where the imposition of a no-fly zone — which may not lead to Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster — might be only an initial down payment.

The Supreme option would buy blanket coverage over the entire country, after an initial investment of between $500 million and $1 billion to kill Libya’s anti-aircraft radars and missiles. The operating cost of this full-court press would run between $100 million and $300 million a week. “Libya is some 680,000 square miles in size, which is significantly larger than the 104,600 square miles covered by the northern and southern no-fly zones in Iraq,” the report notes. “Because US and allied aircraft would be flying directly over hostile territory and would be within range of Libyan surface-to-air missiles, establishing this no-fly zone could require a series of coordinated strikes to degrade Libyan air defense systems.”

The Preferred option, covering the northern third of the country closest to the coast — where the bulk of the people, economy, oil and military assets are — would run between $30 million and $100 million weekly. Wiping out the anti-aircraft sites beforehand would add between $400 million and $800 million to the bottom line. “A similar but less resource-intensive option would be to establish a limited no-fly zone over the country, covering the major population centers and the locations of reported air strikes against rebels,” the CSBA report says. “Since Libyan air defenses are concentrated along the coastal areas, an area that would be covered by a limited no-fly zone, the number of targets would only be slightly less than in the case of the full no-fly zone.”

The Basic option would involve sophisticated Aegis warships, as well as U.S. warplanes, loitering off the Libyan coast and only downing from afar Libyan aircraft that had the temerity to take off. This would cost an estimated $15 million to $25 million a week, and wouldn’t require an initial flurry of ground attacks. “A combination of sea and air assets operating off the coast could enforce a no-fly zone covering most of Libya’s contested cities, including those hit by recent air strikes,” the report says. “Aircraft violating the no-fly zone could be intercepted using ship-based SM-2 surface-to-air missiles or land-based fighter aircraft armed with beyond-visual-range AIM-120 air-to-air missiles.” (Caution: see Iran Air Flight 655, an A300 Airbus shot down by the Aegis cruiser USS Vincennes, over the Strait of Hormuz on July 3, 1988, killing 290; and the two U.S. Army Black Hawks downed by a pair of U.S. Air Force F-15s enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq on April 14, 1994, killing 26).

All of the costs and assumptions are “notional,” which is the Pentagon’s technical way of saying “guess.”

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