What the Titan Search could Cost – and who will Pay for It

Skandi Vinland, one of the ships that participated in the search for the OceanGate Expeditions submersible which was carrying five people to explore the wreck of the sunken Titanic, arrives at the port of St. John’s, following the news of the vehicle’s implosion, in Newfoundland, Canada June 24, 2023.

The U.S. government’s role in searching for the missing submersible Titan has cost about $934,000 to date, according to a defense budget expert’s preliminary estimate and research conducted by The Washington Post.

The relatively modest sum may surprise some critics who have argued that the response to the Titan tragedy, involving an international consortium of ships, aircraft and advanced technology, jeopardized others’ lives to hunt for what was widely believed to be a doomed expedition once contact with the craft was lost less than two hours into its two-mile dive to the Titanic.

The full, final figure certainly could surpass this initial tally, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who produced the estimate at The Post’s request.

U.S. Coast Guard officials have said specialists would continue to remotely survey the scattered debris located several hundred feet off the Titanic’s bow, even though the mission was expected to “demobilize” by midday Friday. And it is unclear if either the U.S. and Canadian militaries will take part in any operation to recover what remains of the Titan, which officials described as having suffered a “catastrophic implosion” that ripped it apart.

It appears, though, that the Canadian government deployed more assets to the search area than the United States did, a function of Canada’s proximity to the site and the time required to dispatch vessels. The bulk of U.S. Navy salvage operations in the Atlantic operate out of Virginia, officials have said, putting many ships at impossible distances when operations focused on reaching the Titan before air supplies were exhausted.

Spokespeople for Coast Guard’s District 1 in Boston, the agency that oversaw this week’s operation, did not provide a complete list of assets that responded. The Navy said it did not dispatch any ships or aircraft. The Air Force mobilized several aircraft.

The complete costs, and who ultimately pays them, are unknown and depend on several factors. The search employed private companies and research vessels carrying remote operated vehicles, including the one that ultimately found the Titan. It is unclear if the U.S. government will pay those entities, but it is possible if the Defense Department put them under contract, Cancian said.

U.S. officials say they are preparing cost estimates but need time to account for bureaucratic sprawl. The Coast Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security, was supported by the Navy and Air Force, which are overseen by the Defense Department.

To pay for missions like flight operations the military taps into “appropriated funds which are already budgeted for,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said this week. “So those are hours that already have been paid for.”

There’s a corollary to another high-profile event in February, when the Pentagon dispatched fighter jets to intercept, escort and finally gun down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that breached U.S. airspace and flew across the country. Three Sidewinder missiles, the weapon used to down the balloon and other benign aerial debris observed in following days, is a similar cost to what’s believed to have been spent thus far searching for the Titan.

The estimate Cancian generated is based on total expenditure, he said, including fuel, maintenance and the personnel believed to be involved. He called it a conservative figure, based on what’s been publicly disclosed about the assets involved and the amount of time they were likely at work.

While the Titan search operation is funded by money already in the federal budget, the U.S. military will assume some unexpected costs, Cancian said, because personnel and equipment were used in an unforeseen way that can spur, for instance, additional expense or maintenance and parts.

“You’re diverting activities from what was planned to do something else,” he said.

Mikki Hastings, president of the National Association for Search and Rescue, said the total cost picture is unclear because the operation has not yet ended.

“It is still ongoing, so we will likely not hear any [official] totals for a while,” Hastings said.

OceanGate, the company that owned the Titan, will not be responsible for reimbursing the government, said Paul Zukunft, who led the Coast Guard from 2014 to 2018. “It’s no different,” he said, “than if a private citizen goes out, and his boat sinks. We go out and recover him. We don’t stick them with the bill after the fact.”

To date, much of the known costs to the U.S. government derive from flight operations. Three C-17 cargo planes delivered equipment from Buffalo, to staging ports in Newfoundland, officials said. Those flights cost an estimated $491,000 round trip. At least one other C-17 departed Germany for England on its way to deliver a remote operated vehicle, but it is unclear if it reached its destination in Canada, officials said.

The Coast Guard and New York Air National Guard, which contributed aircraft for search operations over the Atlantic, would generate about $399,000 in costs flying the HC-130 search-and-rescue aircraft, Cancian said, estimating flying hours and missions from media reports.

The Coast Guard dispatched one of its cutters, the Sycamore, this week, but it was still on its way to the search site Thursday when the Titan’s fate was revealed. The Coast Guard does not disclose a cost per steaming day, Cancian said, but he estimated it to be $100,000 based on adjusted known data about a similar Navy ship. It is unclear how many days the Sycamore was underway.

As of Friday, it was still unknown if the Navy would launch a deep-sea salvage effort. It dispatched a specialized winch capable of recovering small vessels and aircraft from the seabed. The Navy has not disclosed how much such operations cost. In 2021 the Navy retrieved a helicopter off the coast of Okinawa from depths greater than three and a half miles. The process took a day once salvage specialists arrived with the same winch system.

Canadian officials, who may end up owning more of the total expense for this week’s search, have declined to speculate on the costs of the operation.

“I don’t have information about the cost, but from my perspective, that is irrelevant,” Joyce Murray, Canada’s minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, told reporters Thursday. “What matters is that we have a chance to find this submersible and bring people to the surface.”

“There is nothing too much,” Murray said. “We just need to do what we can. These are human beings, these are human lives and we need to do what we can to save them.”