Pentagon's relatively small Iraq costs may jump with escalation: analysts
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A big escalation in U.S. military activity against Islamic State militants could force the Pentagon to seek more money from Congress as policymakers draft next year's budget, though it should be able to pay for the current pace of operations from existing funds.
The prospect of seeking more money for the Pentagon just months ahead of congressional elections could raise scrutiny on Capitol Hill of the Obama administration’s decision on whether to step up U.S. efforts against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon has not yet stated publicly how much it has spent so far in the fight against Islamic State, which spilled out of Syria this year and overran the Iraqi military before U.S. air strikes helped stop its momentum in recent weeks.
The U.S. operation in Iraq so far has included relief drops of 636 bundles of food, water and medical supplies, at least 102 air strikes and about 60 reconnaissance aircraft sorties per day, a military official said. In addition, more than 800 troops have been sent to Iraq to evaluate the situation.Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank, said the cost of the operation so far was probably in the range of $100 million.
"To put this in context, DoD (the Defense Department) was already planning to spend more than $800 million in Iraq in 2014 for security cooperation and other activities not related to the current situation," he said.
"DoD is spending roughly $1.3 billion per week on Afghanistan," he added, "so the bill for Iraq is tiny in comparison."
Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, noted the U.S. military intervention in Libya in 2011 was more intensive, including policing a no-fly zone and carrying out more strike sorties over a longer period of time.
The Pentagon estimated its costs for the seven-month operation at about $1 billion, she said.
Gordon Adams, an American University professor who worked in the Clinton administration's budget office, said with intensive reconnaissance and strike flights, the Iraq costs could be running at an annualized pace of $5 billion or more.
All three said the Pentagon should be able to cover the costs of the Iraq operation this fiscal year without asking Congress for more money.
Harrison noted the department's 2015 budget request, which is still being considered by Congress, includes $5 billion as part of a counter-terrorism partnership fund.
"It seems like battling ISIS is exactly the kind of thing that fund should be used to support, so I don't see why they would need more funding than already requested," he said.
Eaglen said any Pentagon request for additional funds would likely be the result of an expansion of U.S. military involvement in the conflict.
Senior U.S. military officials have said countering Islamic State fighters in Iraq may ultimately require action against the group's strongholds in Syria and President Barack Obama is considering further action against the group.
Harrison said the costs in Iraq would begin to ramp up significantly if Obama were to decide to put more troops on the ground, a move the president has indicated he wants to avoid.
"Our previous experience in Iraq suggests that the cost to support each increment of 1,000 troops will be about $600 million per year," Harrison said. "So if we were to deploy 10,000 troops, for example, it would cost around $6 billion per year to support them."
If the Pentagon does decide it needs to ask Congress for more money for the 2015 fiscal year starting on Oct. 1, the request could face a rough ride among lawmakers, many of them facing election in November.
Congress is only in session for a few weeks between now and the vote. It is unlikely to take up any of the appropriations bills normally used to fund the government each year.
Instead, it is expected to fund the government through November with a short-term continuing resolution. Attaching a request for Pentagon funds to that measure might be one of the few chances the administration has to seek more money before the new Congress takes its seat in January, analysts said.
"I don't think there's a (budget) deal coming before Christmas ... especially not if the Republicans win (control of) the Senate," Adams said. "So it's CRs (continuing resolutions) between Oct. 1 and whenever the swearing in is in January."
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Andrew Hay)
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