Syria Damascus April 2013
A destroyed car is pictured near a damaged building after an April blast at Marjeh Square in Damascus. Reuters
The Syrian Front
A Free Syrian Army fighter throws a hand grenade inside a Syrian Army base during heavy fighting in the Arabeen neighbourhood of Damascus, February 3, 2013. Reuters

Belts are tightening in Washington, D.C., as the American economy struggles to bounce back from the 2008 downturn. Elected officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill are talking a big game about keeping debt down, or else prioritizing domestic growth.

Meanwhile, 5,900 miles (9.495 kilometers) away from the U.S. capital, blood is spilling in the streets of Syria. The fight between rebels and the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has killed 80,000 men, women and children over the past 26 months. It has pitted communities against each other, displaced millions, and created serious humanitarian crises across the country.

The pressure is on for the U.S. to intervene -- but at what cost? Whether that would be in the U.S.' humanitarian and geopolitical interests is a matter of fierce debate, and questions about economic viability only add fuel to the fire. Recent defense expenditures have fed a national debt of $16 trillion and counting. More than 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the lives of 6,648 servicemen and women, and an oft-cited report from Brown University puts the total economic cost at more than $4 trillion once all obligations, debts and interests are paid.

Speculation about a Syrian intervention is clouded by contingencies; there are no cheap or easy answers. It is possible to intervene without plunging headlong into a ground war; the options include arming the rebels, perpetrating one-off strikes against regime facilities, or enforcing safe havens to give the rebels some breathing room.

One option – the implementation of a no-fly zone – has been the subject of particular focus. The U.S. has engaged in similar missions before, for instance, in Libya, Bosnia and Iraq, and this option has been frequently and forcefully recommended by U.S. Senator John McCain. This week, the White House asked the Pentagon for a plan to implement a no-fly zone across the whole of Syria, though this does not signify intent to follow through.

At present there are no public official estimates of the expense of such an operation; realistically, the United States won’t know the true cost until long after it commits to action. But a look at current capabilities and past precedents shows that a no-fly zone over Syria’s troubled territory could become very costly.

Assessing Syria’s Strengths

Given the level of turmoil in Syria, it is impossible to pinpoint the capabilities of the regime at any given moment. But when it comes to the early stages of an intervention, assessing likely targets is a good place to start.

Brian Haggerty, a defense expert with the MIT Security Studies Program, has noted that establishing air superiority over Syria could entail strikes against more than 448 targets, including at least 22 Integrated Air Defense Systems and radar sites, 150 surface-to-air missile batteries, and 205 aircraft shelters.

Haggerty first published his report in 2012, but he notes that not much has changed since. “A number of air defense facilities have fallen to the rebels in the past year,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s large enough to change the overall number of targets.”

The initial stages of a Syrian intervention would likely involve a barrage of Tomahawk missiles, which can be launched from naval vessels. The Congressional Research Service, or CRS, has estimated that a single Tomahawk costs $1.4 million. If past interventions are any indication, anywhere from 100 to 200 of these cruise missiles might be launched in the beginning of a Syrian operation.

Fighter jets and stealth bombers would also be a likely tool in the early stages of a Syrian no-fly zone. Two years ago in Libya, the U.S. Air Force relied heavily on B-2s, stealth bombers manufactured by Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) worth at least than $1.15 billion per unit; and F-15Es, fighter jets from the Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) worth at least $31 million each.

B-2 Spirit stealth bomber
Northrop Grumman makes the B-2 Spirit long-range stealth bomber. In March the Department of Defense announced a $2 billion 10-year project to modernize its B-2 fleet, and rumors abounds that the Pentagon is considering an unmanned version. U.S. Air Force

“What you’re going to do in the early phases is drop a fair amount of ordnance,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. He notes that for all aircraft engaged in Syria, replacement costs would have to be factored in. “To be prudent, you can assume the loss of a few planes. Even if we manage to shut Assad’s air forces down entirely and then fly high to avoid shoulder-launched weapons, there’s still potential for mishaps.”

Syria’s own air combat capabilities might be less formidable than they once were. The military had at least 365 combat aircraft at the beginning of the uprising, according to analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A huge portion of those -- perhaps more than half -- could now be inactive, and overall effectiveness has been dampened by limited pilot training.

But grounding Syria’s combat aircraft would be only the beginning of an effort to sustain Western air superiority. The regime’s vast network of air defenses -- including various models of surface-to-air missiles, some aged and others more modern and mobile -- will present longer-term difficulties, even for a superpower like the United States.

“Establishing a no-fly zone initially isn’t the biggest challenge,” Haggerty said. “Once you start striking ground targets, including mobile air defenses, those efforts may persist for a long time. That’s a whole different problem that we need to be paying more attention to.”

The Power of Precedent

Because it happened so recently, the Libyan intervention serves as a point of comparison for a Syrian operation. But when it comes to the logistics of an intervention, the two theaters of conflict are quite different. And it's clear that a Syrian intervention would cost more than the Libyan operation.

At the time of the revolution that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi, the regime’s assets included dozens of stationary surface-to-air missile sites and 10 major air bases. Much of its strike aircraft and other combat machinery were antiquated.

In an effort to stop Gadhafi’s troops from crushing rebel fighters in the eastern city of Benghazi, the United States swooped in with a show of force on March 19, 2011, striking more than 20 targets with at least 112 Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles.

Aircraft including B-2s, F-15Es and F-16s were also out in force shortly after the beginning of the Libyan intervention. These craft incurred flying costs --mostly for fuel-- and the CRS found that in the first 10 days of combat operations, the B-2s logged 75 total flying hours at a cost of $2.3 million, while the F-15Es and F-16s logged 1160 total flying hours and cost an estimated $16.5 million.

All of these costs, combined with other expenses for support sorties, search-and-rescue capabilities and intelligence gathering, racked up an estimated total of $373 million in the first 10 days alone. Similar missiles and aircraft would likely be used in a Syrian intervention. The expenses involved would also be dispersed over time in a similar manner, with the bulk of costs incurred in the mission’s earliest days.

Ultimately, however, a Syrian operation would have to be much more intense. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that Syria has five times as many air defense systems as Libya did.

The Libyan intervention ended in seven months and cost about $1.1 billion for the United States, according to the Pentagon. A similar operation in the more challenging theater of Syria would be certain to cost at least that much.

An earlier no-fly zone operation might give a better clue as to the cost of a Syrian intervention. A years-long implementation of two no-fly zones in Iraq, Syria’s eastern neighbor, ended a decade ago -- but its relevance regarding Syria should not be underestimated. “I think the most likely analogy in terms of scale would be the no-fly zones in Iraq,” O’Hanlon said.

Of the two no-fly zones established in Iraq’s north and south following the Gulf War, the larger -- Operation Southern Watch, which expanded to cover about 87,700 square miles (225,329 square kilometers) -- covered just a bit more territory than Syria's, which has an area of 71,500 square miles (185,185 square kilometers).

According to a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the average yearly cost of the Iraqi no-fly zone from 1996 until 2001 was $1.319 billion in FY2011 dollars.

But even that intervention met with less air defense than a Syrian operation likely would.

“In Iraq, U.S. forces were flying air combat patrols with basically no hostile fire from the ground,” said Gordon Adams, a security and defense expert at American University. “The regime’s radar missile defense systems would occasionally light up, but for the most part they didn’t want to fire. The Syrians, on the other hand, have the aircraft and more sophisticated air defenses, so we couldn’t assume that they would let an intervention happen.”

That means that the price of a Syrian intervention would likely exceed not only the Libyan mission but also the more expensive Operation Southern Watch in Iraq in terms of costs incurred, bringing a realistic estimate of costs up to at least $1.4 billion per year.

Too Many Loose Ends

An operation in Syria would not necessarily go on for a full year, but analysts project that it very well could. Western allies like France and the United Kingdom would help to mitigate the military and monetary costs. But if history is any indication, the United States, home of the world’s most powerful and well-equipped armed forces, would likely bear the brunt of the expenses -- especially in the initial stages.

“Even after air superiority is achieved, who patrols the no-fly zones? And who pays for the operations of flying air patrols once a no-fly zone is initially established?” said Christopher Chivvis, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “It’s possible that our allies and partners would take up more of the burden at that point, but there would still be significant costs for air refueling and providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”

Then there’s the possibility of mission creep -- the broadening of objectives in response to ongoing challenges. Dempsey has estimated that only 10 percent of the deaths in Syria were caused by air strikes, which means that a no-fly zone wouldn’t save rebels and civilians from the ground-based attacks that kill the most people. That could spur intervening powers to do -- and spend -- even more than initially planned.

Even if Assad is ousted, a cut-and-run exit could engender resentment in Syria and its neighboring countries, especially since the rebellion now incorporates extremist groups, at least one of which is linked to al-Qaeda. Security will also be an ongoing concern.

At the very least, the United States would likely continue committing humanitarian aid to Syria. Already, assistance for refugees, internally displaced citizens and other Syrians in need has amounted to about $514 million, according to data from USAID.

Syrian Rebels Grieve
Free Syrian Army fighters comfort their comrade mourning at the grave of his father, who was killed by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in a public park that has been converted into a makeshift graveyard in Deir el-Zor March 11, 2013. Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Altogether, these expenses could begin to add up. But analysts note that it wouldn’t be too hard for the Pentagon to come up with the necessary funds – even considering budget woes in Washington.

“I don’t think the cost would be a primary factor in a decision to intervene,” Chivvis said. “I think it would have an influence at the margin, but the cost of a no-fly-zone is not nearly in the same category as the cost of ground force deployments we’ve had in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

It is true that expenditures of at least $1.4 billion in Syria – or even five or 10 times that amount – would be only a drop in the bucket relative to current defense spending. The FY2013 budget for defense was more than $600 billion, and $87.2 billion of that went to Overseas Contingency Operations which covers ongoing efforts in Afghanistan.

“I don’t think the budget’s going to be a big issue,” O’Hanlon said. “If a no-fly zone in Syria could actually bring this conflict to an end, that would be a bargain.”

In the best-case scenario, a successful no-fly zone operation would hasten the end of a regime and bring years of bloodshed to an end, with the added benefits of weakening Assad’s allies Hezbollah and Iran. But there are also great risks – internecine violence could easily erupt if the regime falls. Relations with Russia could deteriorate. Extremist groups could destabilize not only Syria but the entire surrounding community, including Lebanon, Iraq and Israel.

The chances of an intervention all come down to a cost-benefit analysis -- something Washington officials are now researching behind closed doors. Their decisions will help to shape the fates of millions of Syrians enduring the turmoil of an increasingly bloody conflict.