Legislators at a loss over the costs of war--and where to get the money WAR IN THE GULF

January 27, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- While bombs burst over Baghdad, policy-makers in Washington have launched a little war of their own -- over how much the gulf war will cost and who ought to pay for it.

There is as little agreement on the probable size of Operation Desert Storm's price tag as there is on the likely duration of the war itself -- which is to say none at all. After the initial U.S. raids, for example, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, D-N.Y., projected Iraq's capitulation within 10 days, a date that passed yesterday. Meanwhile, administration officials have girded the public for a war that could last months.

Accompanying such wildly divergent predictions have been similarly scattered estimates over the conflict's cost, which once started at something less than $20 billion and now flirt with $100 billion.

"Whatever the cost, it will be enormous," said Charles M. Bowsher, head of the government's watchdog General Accounting Agency.

Then there is the issue of who will foot that bill. Lawmakers appear satisfied by the contributions promised from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, perhaps the most direct beneficiaries of Operation Desert Storm.

On Friday, for example, the Kuwaiti government in exile announced that it would commit an additional $13.5 billion. Yesterday the Saudi government, which has pledged to donate to the allied powers any windfall oil profits from crisis price increases, also pledged $13.5 billion. It also is providing allied forces with free fuel.

bTC But a simmering resentment has begun to build in Congress toward other allies -- for example, Germany and, particularly, Japan -- who are almost completely dependent on imported oil and who therefore stand to benefit the most from Kuwait's liberation. Some have concluded that the battle for Kuwait has, in the words of Representative Edward F. Feighan, D-Ohio, "cast us in the role of being the century's greatest sap."

Last week's $9 billion pledge by Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu appeared to have mollified some critics who had contended that Asia's industrial giant was once again shirking its global responsibilities. It came on top of the $4 billion already promised by the Japanese. In addition, Germany is expected to come forward with a new financial commitment of its own that may exceed $6 billion.

But with the tab and duration of the war open-ended, many lawmakers fear that the United States will ultimately shoulder an inordinate proportion of the human and financial costs.

"We're doing all the risk-taking; somebody else ought to put up part of the cash," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kansas.

In fact, the allies appear to have fully shared the economic and military burden of the standoff that preceded actual hostilities. The Defense Department recently pegged the costs of Operation Desert Shield during 1990 at $10 billion. By the end of the year, $5.8 billion in cash and in-kind contributions had been received from U.S. allies, and those allies had pledged another $2 billion to meet Desert Shield's 1990 costs.

"I think the president has done an excellent job at getting everyone tothrow something on the collection plate," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo. "Really, I don't see how he could have done much better."

But now the meter is running at a much faster clip. Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a full-fledged war with Iraq could cost as little as $17 billion -- assuming a war lasting several weeks, with limited ground combat -- or as much as $35 billion if fighting were to continue for six months.

In the unlikely event that the Pentagon actually tries to replace all the planes, tanks and missiles that could be destroyed in a longer conflict, the CBO says that the cost could zoom to $86 billion. One defense analyst, former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb, says that the cost of full replacement could be as high as $200 billion.

In all probability, the military won't choose to replace much aging equipment destroyed in combat. Before the gulf conflict, Defense Department planners were bracing themselves for a lengthy reduction of U.S. military forces.

The Navy's A-6 medium-range bombers were supposed to be replaced by an advanced, radar-evading "Stealth" bomber. Although Defense Secretary Dick Cheney canceled that program because of cost overruns, some Navy officials talk of reviving the case for the new plane, rather than seeking to replace the old one.

Similarly, the Air Force may not choose to replace $50 million-a-copy F-15 fighters that become casualties of war. It is looking to add the new Advanced Tactical Fighter to its inventory and, because of budget constraints, may be forced to forgo replacement F-15s to get it.

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