A defence expert tells Channel 4 News airstrikes against Colonel Gaddafi are already costing millions a day – and the consequences of ground forces getting sucked in ‘don’t bear thinking about’.
Defence analysts are warning that cost of British involvement in the fight against Libya‘s Colonel Gaddafi is running into millions of pounds a day.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has declined to release official estimates of how much the air offensive is costing the taxpayer.
But experts say the use of expensive cruise missiles and long-range jet fighter missions means the MoD is running up a steep bill.
Some of the operational details of the part British forces are playing in the UN-backed coalition offensive against the Gaddafi regime remain sketchy.
We know that the HMS Triumph, a Trafalgar-class attack submarine, fired an unknown number of Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Libya on Saturday.
A total of 124 of the 1,000lb missiles were launched by Britain and the US at 22 targets around the coastal cities of Tripoli and Misratah.
Read more: Six Libyan villagers shot by team rescuing US pilot
Of that total, the HMS Triumph – still submerged beneath the waters of the Mediterranean now – probably contributed six Tomahawks, according to Professor Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies.
The reported cost of a single missile ranges from £300,000 to £650,000.
Professor Chalmers’ estimate is £500,000, based on comparable figures available in the US, and around the same amount for a Storm Shadow, the cruise missile carried by Britain’s Tornado GR4 fighter-bomber.
An unspecified number of Storm Shadows were launched by a formation of Tornados on Saturday as the RAF launched its longest bombing mission since the Falklands War.
Although it was hailed as a technical triumph by the Government, the cost of sending a Tornado from RAF Marham to Libya – a 3,000-mile round trip lasting around eight hours – quickly became a hot topic of discussion in the defence community.
The RAF revealed that The Tornados were refuelled three times en route to Libya and once on the return flight to RAF Marham, with 60 tonnes of fuel being used in total.
Defence analyst Francis Tusa and former Navy Sea Harrier commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward have both estimated that such long-range sorties cost around £200,000 per aircraft per mission.
Tornados have now been moved to the Gioia del Colle airbase in Southern Italy, alongside a number of RAF Typhoon Eurofighters, which flew their first-ever combat missions while policing the no-fly zone over Libya on Monday. The move to a forward operating base closer to Libya should cut the growing fuel bill.
Figures released by the Government in response to questions in Parliament show that it costs £35,000 to keep a Tornado GR4 in the air for an hour and £70,000 for a Typhoon, taking into account the cost of fuel, staffing and maintenance.
Fuel costs will spiral if planes fly have to fly more sorties to police the no-fly zone, but the announcement yesterday that Libya’s air defences have now been effectively neutralised suggest that the cost of munitions may fall.
Tornados flew from Marham again on Sunday and Monday but did not fire missiles.
MoD spokesman Major General John Lorimer said the logistical cost of mounting the air operation is also now spiralling, with the RAF “very busy ensuring that the necessary personnel, equipment and stores are delivered swiftly to the various operating bases in the Mediterranean to maintain the operational tempo”.
Other British assets that the MoD has confirmed are in play are C17 and C130 Hercules transport planes, which cost £42,000 and £12,000 per flying hour respectively.
VC10 and Tristar aircraft have been used to refuel the Tornados, and E3D Sentry AWACS radar aircraft have been scanning the skies for enemy planes. The spyplanes cost £33,000 an hour to keep in the air.
The cost of the Navy’s involvement is far more difficult to gauge, according to Alex Pape, a naval analyst at IHS Jane’s.
The frigates HMS Cumberland and Westminster have been deployed off the Libyan coast, but Mr Pape said including the operational costs of the ships in the total bill for the Libyan campaign would be unfair, as they would have been on patrol somewhere else in the world anyway.
Similarly, the cost of keeping the HMS Triumph on standby – a “clandestine” figure that even defence experts are reluctant to estimate – may not exceed the usual cost of keeping her on patrol in waters elsewhere, Mr Pape added.
Reports of SAS personnel on the ground in Libya helping to select targets for airstrikes have also not been confirmed by the MoD, in line with their long-standing policy of not commenting on the deployment of special forces.
Professor Chalmers’ “rough” estimate of the cost of the air campaign is £2 million a day, based on extrapolating from figures available following the conflict in Kosovo.
That figure could fall in the coming days if military commanders are content to limit intervention to policing Libyan airspace – or it could climb astronomically if British troops are sent in to fight on the ground.
He told Channel 4 News: “One entirely credible scenario is that the tempo of these operations will slow. It will be chopped back so we will just limit our role to maintaining a no-fly zone and hitting the Libyan forces wherever they present a clear target.
“Nobody wants to get involved in a ground conflict. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.”
If ground troops do get sucked in, a “short, sharp war” to topple Colonel Gaddafi could cost Britain hundreds of millions of pounds, according to Professor Chalmers.
That would rise to around £1bn a year in the worst-case scenario where soldiers are expected to help with the long-term stabilisation of post-Gaddafi Libya.
Professor Chalmers said: “Afghanistan costs £4bn a year for the UK alone. This wouldn’t cost as much because it’s a smaller country with more infrastructure.
“At its peak Iraq, where there was lots of infrastructure, cost the UK £2.5bn a year and we were in the supposedly peaceful part in the south.”
He said the question of whether the US has the political will to take a leading role in the unfolding conflict is key to how much Libya will cost the UK.
“I don’t think it would take a long time to roll over the regime, as long as the Americans are playing a dominant role. If the Americans took the lead in a ground offensive, we could contribute as much as we want. It really wouldn’t matter very much.
“If it’s just a European force that would stretch us.”