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In the first days of Operation Odyssey Dawn, America lost a $55 million F-15 fighter and fired more than $250 million worth of Tomahawk missiles. Jets consume millions of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs daily as they enforce the no-fly and no-drive zones. Analysts who have looked at similar efforts say that the costs of the operation could total about $1 billion – potentially more if it drags on or escalates beyond expectations.
Those new costs have arrived in the middle of tense budget negotiations at home. Congress has been reduced to funding the government a few weeks at a time as Democrats and Republicans debate how much to reduce domestic spending.
In that debate, a billion dollars is a lot of money. Indeed, many of the specific items at issue – the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and new enforcement activities by the Internal Revenue Service – each cost less than $1 billion a year.
In terms of the overall federal budget, however, a billion dollars is a pittance. The United States is on track to spend about $3.7 trillion this year. If this column represented all that spending, $1 billion would amount to a single letter.
Odyssey Dawn is thus important to the budget debate not because of its initial costs, but because it puts military spending back in the headlines, where it belongs. The real money in defense, however, lies elsewhere.
This year the US will spend about $110 billion in Afghanistan and $44 billion in Iraq. Regular defense spending is even larger, at about $550 billion. Military spending will total more than $700 billion this year.