U.S. share of war's cost has topped $400 million

Rising bill could prompt budgetary, political problems in Congress

War In Yugoslavia

April 08, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The cost of the 2-week-old U.S. air campaign against Yugoslavia has topped $400 million and is likely to skyrocket if the mission continues to escalate, threatening to set off budgetary and political explosions on Capitol Hill.

Estimates by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments suggest that if the airstrikes proceed for even a few weeks longer, the price tag could quickly grow to between $2 billion and $4 billion, particularly as the administration expands the scope of the mission.

The center's calculations, widely accepted as the best available, mainly reflect the cost of cruise missiles fired from U.S. ships and planes. The Pentagon has not issued its own cost projections.

The preliminary cost estimates do not include either the huge humanitarian aid program that the United States and its allies are beginning or the expense of providing peacekeeping troops and a military escort for returning refugees if a peace accord is eventually signed.

No matter what the outcome, the war is likely to aggravate budget battles being waged on Capitol Hill, where the parties are fighting over how to shore up the Social Security trust fund, maintain fiscal discipline and limit backdoor "emergency" spending.

Threat to budget caps

If the bill for the Kosovo operation is handled through regular budgetary channels, it could easily burst the once-inviolate budget "caps" that limit spending by broad categories, cut into military modernization funds, and possibly starve domestic programs.

If lawmakers decide to handle the request as an "emergency" appropriation, which would exempt it from the budget caps, it would eliminate such concerns. But the outlay would still erode the overall budget surplus, leaving less room for debt reduction or tax cuts.

Stanley E. Collender, an analyst at the nonpartisan Federal Budgeting Consulting Group, said there's little doubt among most Congress-watchers that the request will be treated as an emergency appropriation. But he argues that that does not make it any easier politically.

The drive by both parties to escape budget caps on domestic spending programs last year prompted lawmakers to push through a $21 billion emergency appropriation measure, setting off a backlash among GOP conservatives, who viewed it as an abuse of the system.

As a result, when the administration sought emergency funding this year to help Central American hurricane victims, Republicans insisted that Congress "pay for" the add-on by cutting other programs.

Robert D. Reischauer, a Brookings Institution budget analyst, said a money bill confined exclusively to the Kosovo campaign would be "relatively noncontroversial," but adding money for other programs -- as congressmen frequently do -- would be a political nightmare.

Millions for cruise missiles

The Air Force and Navy together have fired some 220 cruise missiles -- about half from each service. The Navy's sea-launched Tomahawks cost about $1 million apiece. Air Force missiles are roughly $2 million each.

The cost of the precision-guided bombs being dropped by B-1 and B-2 bombers and strike fighters also adds up. Steven Kosiak, the budgetary center's chief analyst, estimates that each bomb costs about $60,000 -- a total of $100 million worth so far.

The munitions carried by fighter jets probably add $70 million or so, according to Kosiak. The downed F-117A stealth fighter cost $70 million initially.

But the air war is a relative bargain compared with the peacekeeping forces that the United States would have to provide if Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic signs a peace accord with the ethnic Albanians who are being forced out of Kosovo.

Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre told the Senate Budget Committee early last month that the original plan -- to put 4,000 American troops into a NATO peacekeeping force of 28,000 -- would cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion a year.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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