How much would a no-fly zone over Syria cost?

Tomahawk cruise missiles, fighter jets, aerial refueling tankers, flying hours -- the taxpayer cost for creating and holding a no-fly zone over Syria seems like an expensive operation, right?

Not so fast. According to defense budget analysts, creating a no-fly zone over Syria may be far easier -- and cheaper, as military operations go -- than top brass are letting on. 

There are several factors that contribute to the cost of a no-fly zone, but in short it all depends on just how far the United States and its allies are willing to take it. The size and duration of the operation are top factors. But there's more than one way to keep Syria's Air Force out of the skies. 

"I get why people get so amped up about no-fly zones" said Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. People often tend to think of Iraq, he told the E-Ring, and the 12 year-long complex, high-demand Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch. Those missions cost an estimated $1 billion per year, combined.

But that was a "full" no-fly zone controlling a large adversarial territory. It would take far less to protect the smaller skies over Syria, which maintains far less air power, defense analysts believe.

"Is the goal to establish a classic no-fly zone, or is the goal to ground the Syrian Air Force?" Harmer said. "Establishing a classic no-fly zone is time consuming and costly; grounding the Syrian Air Force is as simple as sending a few cruisers and destroyers from Norfolk over to the Eastern Med and dropping 250 (Tomahawk) TLAM into Syria." 

"That ends the Syrian Air Force in less than an hour."

The actual attack may take a bit longer, like the assault on Libya's air defenses, but still fares better than a sustained no-fly zone.

"Tomahawk TLAM cruise missiles can easily degrade the very limited Syrian Air Force down to almost nonexistence," Harmer contends. "We launch TLAM at the runways, radars, fuel farms, and aircraft themselves, and without U.S. aircraft getting anywhere near the Syrian airspace, we effectively create a no-fly zone -- not by enforcement, but by eliminating the Syrian Air Force."

Let's start some rough calculations here. TLAMs go for an estimated $1.41 million each, so that brings the tab to $352.5 million, just for the hardware. Then there's the cost of the naval vessels and thousands of personnel manning them required to support the mission that otherwise may not be deployed in the area.

So far, that's not bad compared to other U.S. military missions. Consider that the Pentagon in fiscal year 2012 spent $10 billion per month in Afghanistan and once estimated that each soldier in the war zone cost $1 million per year.

Syria is believed to have, Harmer explained in an email, "less than 100 flyable fixed wing aircraft [and] probably closer to 50 at this point. For all practical purposes, they are not flying their MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-29 and SU-22/SU-24 aircraft at all. Why not? Because those aircraft require a lot of spare parts, a lot of maintenance, a lot of jet fuel."

The bulk of the Syrian Air Force's quality fighters are old -- about 30 years -- and expensive to fly. The degraded Syrian regime, Harner claimed, "just does not have the logistics, the talent, the manpower to keep them flyable."  

"What they are flying are L-39 trainer aircraft which are lighter, less maintenance intensive, newer, but nowhere near as capable as the MiG and SU aircraft. All we really need to do to get a de facto no-fly zone is to destroy those aircraft," he argued.

That's one option.

But let's assume the United States insists on the more robust option of maintaining an actual no-fly zone over Syria. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. much of the air force intact on the ground opting to patrol the skies. How much would that cost?

According to Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), it depends first on the size of the zone one's patrolling.

"The larger the area you cover," said Harrison, "the more aircraft you have to have covering it at any given moment. And the amount of time you have aircraft in the air patrolling are driving the cost."

Flight hours, he said, drive the cost "more than anything."

The no-fly zones over Iraq covered 104,600 square miles. And in addition to the size of the zone, Harrison calculated the distance U.S. fighters flew from regional bases. The northern watch operated out of Turkey; the southern leg out of Saudi Arabia. But the bigger cost factor there was the time spent in the air on patrol rather than flying time from the bases to the zones, he said. 

In Iraq, the per-flight hour cost was tied to operational tempo -- the number and pace of sorties, which require fuel and manpower. The price ranged from roughly $7,000 per square mile in the less active years to $23,000 when sorties were at their highest. 

One way to limit that cost is to shrink the zone, or to keep aircraft out of the zone but defend it from afar using standoff weapons that can shoot down intruders.

"It's a matter of do you want to control the airspace or deny them use of the air space. Control versus denial is the first question," he said. "Denial is easier and less and expensive. Control requires more resources."

Additionally, the number of allies and partner forces that join in the operation would drive down costs to U.S. taxpayers.

Harrison said that CSBA's extensive cost prediction for a no-fly zone over Libya gives some insight into what a Syrian mission would cost. CSBA calculated in March 2011 that a "limited no-fly zone" just for the 230,000 square miles of populated Libyan territory north of the 29th parallel would cost $30 million to $100 million per week, or for over six months, roughly $1billion to $3.5 billion.

But CSBA's prediction turned out to be two-thirds more expensive than the actual cost of the mission to the U.S. because two-third of the sorties ended up being flown by foreign aircraft -- yet another factor to consider.

By far, cruise missiles account for a large chunk of the total cost of any no-fly zone, no matter what comes next.

"A substantial cost of [the Libya] operation was incurred in the first week of that campaign," he said. There, on March 19, 2011, the United States began with bombs dropped from B-2 bombers flown from Missouri and launched 200 Tomahwawk cruise missiles.

So, on the back of the E-Ring's monogrammed napkin, we find that all of Syria is about 71,000 square miles, or 31 percent the size of the Libyan no-fly zone. That puts the cost to sustain a no-fly zone over all of Syria at about $9 million to $31 million per week.

But it's likely that the United States and its allies would only need to patrol a much small areas, so the cost should be even less.

"There isn't an easy -- or single -- answer," said Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Col. David Lapan, who added to the list of considerations the types of aircraft used, the amount of intelligence required, and Syria's response.

"And it's not about cost," he said. "It's about military objectives and decisions on options."

Photo by ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

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