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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Air War's Cost to U.S. Could Top $2 Billion

April 06, 1999|ART PINE and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The cost to the United States of the 2-week-old air campaign against Yugoslavia may already have topped $500 million and, if the mission continues to escalate, that figure is likely to skyrocket, threatening 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 Clinton 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.

President Clinton promised Monday that the campaign will be "undiminished, unceasing and unrelenting"--and warned that it might not end quickly.

"We are prepared to sustain this effort for the long haul," Clinton said. "Our plan is to persist until we prevail."

Moreover, the preliminary cost estimates do not include either the massive humanitarian aid program that the U.S. and its allies are beginning or the expense of providing peacekeeping troops and a military escort for refugees returning to the disputed Kosovo region if a peace accord is signed.

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

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. It could also 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, that would eliminate such concerns. But the outlay still would erode the overall budget surplus, leaving less for debt reduction or GOP tax cuts.

"I'm very concerned about how we're going to pay for this at a time when we're having to struggle to get everything under the budget caps," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

Emergency Request Likely

Stanley E. Collender, an analyst at the nonpartisan Federal Budget 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 will not make it any easier to deal with 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 appropriations 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 earlier this year to help Central American storm victims, Republicans insisted that Congress "pay for" the add-on by cutting other programs. Both House and Senate versions carry such offsetting cuts.

Although administration strategists hope to hold any new emergency appropriations bill to the cost of the Kosovo campaign and other recent military actions--such as December's bombing of Iraq--others are not so sanguine that lawmakers can avoid temptations.

Collender, for example, can envision a new emergency funding measure that includes money for bipartisan favorites--such as aid to education and health care--that would squeeze Republicans between rank-and-file conservatives and middle-of-the-road voters.

Robert D. Reischauer, a budget analyst for the Brookings Institution think tank, agreed. A money bill confined exclusively to the Kosovo campaign would be "relatively noncontroversial," he said. But adding money for other programs would be a political nightmare, he said.

The budgetary center's calculations for the cost of the air campaign so far primarily reflect the expense of firing cruise missiles, both from Air Force B-52s and from Navy warships.

The two services together have fired about 220 cruise missiles--about half from each service. The Navy's sea-launched Tomahawks cost about $1 million apiece. The price of each Air Force missile is about $2 million.

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 precision-guided bomb costs about $60,000--for a total of $100 million so far.

The munitions carried by U.S. jet fighters to protect bombers and strike aircraft probably add another $70 million or so, according to Kosiak's method of computing defense costs. And the F-117A Stealth fighter lost over Yugoslavia cost $45 million.

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