How the U.S. pays for its involvement in Iraq

Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

The Obama Administration says 275 troops are deploying to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy and other interests. We don’t yet know the full cost of any U.S. action in Iraq, but we can lift the curtain a bit on the economics behind military intervention, and what the Pentagon gets for its half trillion dollar baseline budget.

What’s included and what’s not?

Let’s start with the USS George H.W. Bush. That’s the aircraft carrier that sped to the *Persian Gulf this weekend (other ships are joining too).

Is the Bush covered in the defense budget?

“On any given day, we have about three aircraft carriers floating about the world in order to respond to crises,” says Janine Davidson, senior fellow for defense policy with the Council on Foreign Relations. “That money is already paid for. It’s the operational account for what we would call posturing our military forces abroad.”

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the U.S. routinely rotates carriers.

“But if you actually take it a step further,” he says, “and you start conducting things like air strikes, then that picks up the pace of operations of the aircraft operating off the aircraft carrier, which is an additional cost. And then you’ve got the cost of munitions that are expended – you know, bombs and missiles and the like.”

But here’s the thing about bombs and Tomahawk missiles: You don’t have to pay for them when you use them. Payment comes later, to replenish them. That provides flexibility.

Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says President Obama would rather fund operations like no-fly zones by moving money around than asking Congress for more.

“That’s what we saw happen in Libya, when there was a multi-month no-fly zone which the US participated in and the Pentagon paid for that out of hide,” she says.

That operation cost about a billion dollars.

Todd Harrison says the costs of intelligence sharing, air support, and limited air strikes are probably small enough for the regular defense budget to absorb. He says the big potential cost for the Department of Defense is troops on the ground.

“So when you start putting in 10,000, 20,000 troops, that’s when DOD would need to request supplemental funding to pay for those operations,” he says.

Those are the kinds of numbers last seen from the US for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, the force committed this time around is much, much smaller.


*NOTE: An earlier version of this story used the term Arabian Gulf, which is used by the military, to describe the Persian Gulf.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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