True Cost of US Wars Unknown

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers Reader Supported News August 16,

The Pentagon says it spends about $9.7 billion per month, but its cryptic
accounting system hides the true price tag of the two wars. — JPS/RSN

When congressional cost-cutters meet later this year to decide on trimming
the federal budget, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could represent juicy
targets. But how much do the wars actually cost the US taxpayer?

Nobody really knows.

Yes, Congress has allotted $1.3 trillion for war spending through fiscal
year 2011 just to the Defense Department.
There are long Pentagon spreadsheets that outline how much of that was spent
on personnel, transportation, fuel and other costs. In a recent speech,
President Barack Obama assigned the wars a $1 trillion price tag.

But all those numbers are incomplete. Besides what Congress appropriated,
the Pentagon spent an additional unknown amount from its $5.2 trillion base
budget over that same period.
According to a recent Brown University study, the wars and their ripple
effects have cost the United States $3.7 trillion, or more than $12,000 per

Lawmakers remain sharply divided over the wisdom of slashing the military
budget, even with the United States winding down two long conflicts, but
there’s also a more fundamental
problem: It’s almost impossible to pin down just what the US military spends
on war.

To be sure, the costs are staggering.

According to Defense Department figures, by the end of April the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan – including everything from personnel and equipment to
training Iraqi and Afghan security forces and deploying
intelligence-gathering drones – had cost an average of $9.7 billion a month,
with roughly two-thirds going to Afghanistan. That total is roughly the
entire annual budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.

To compare, it would take the State Department – with its annual budget of
$27.4 billion – more than four months to spend that amount. NASA could have
launched its final shuttle mission in July, which cost $1.5 billion, six
times for what the Pentagon is allotted to spend each month in those two

What about Medicare Part D, President George W. Bush’s 2003 expansion of
prescription drug benefits for seniors, which cost a Congressional Budget
Office-estimated $385 billion over 10 years? The Pentagon spends that in
Iraq and Afghanistan in about 40 months.

Because of the complex and often ambiguous Pentagon budgeting process, it’s
nearly impossible to get an accurate breakdown of every operating cost. Some
funding comes out of the base budget; other money comes from supplemental

But the estimates can be eye-popping, especially considering the logistical
challenges to getting even the most basic equipment and comforts to troops
in extremely forbidding terrain.

In Afghanistan, for example, the US military spent $1.5 billion to purchase
329.8 million gallons of fuel for vehicles, aircraft and generators from
October 2010 to May 2011. That’s a not-unheard-of $4.55 per gallon, but it
doesn’t include the cost of getting the fuel to combat zones and the human
cost of transporting it through hostile areas, which can hike the cost to
hundreds of dollars a gallon.

Just getting air-conditioning to troops in Afghanistan, including transport
and maintenance, costs $20 billion per year, retired Brig. Gen. Steve
Anderson told National Public Radio recently. That’s half the amount that
the federal government has spent on Amtrak over 40 years.

War spending falls behind tax cuts and prescription drug benefits for
seniors as contributors to the $14.3 trillion federal debt. The Pentagon’s
base budget has grown every year for the past 14 years, marking the longest
sustained growth period in US history, but it seems clear that that era is

Since the US government issued war bonds to help finance World War II,
Washington has asked taxpayers to shoulder less and less of a burden in
times of conflict. In the early 1950s Congress raised taxes by 4 percent of
the gross domestic product to pay for the Korean War; in 1968, during the
Vietnam War, a tax was imposed to raise revenue by about 1 percent of GDP.

No such mechanism was imposed for Iraq or Afghanistan, and in the early
years of the wars Congress didn’t even demand a true accounting of war
spending, giving the military whatever it needed. Now, at a time of fiscal
woes and with the American public weary of the wars, the question has become
how much the nation’s largest bureaucracy should cut.

“The debt crisis has been a game changer in terms of defense spending,” said
Laura Peterson, a national security analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a
nonpartisan budget watchdog.

“It used to be that asking how much the wars cost was unpatriotic. The
attitude going into the war is you spend whatever you cost. Now maybe asking
is more patriotic.”

Still, deep cuts to the Pentagon remain unpalatable to many lawmakers. The
debt limit deal that Congress passed earlier this month calls for $350
billion in “defense and security”
spending cuts through 2024, but that’s expected to be spread across several
government agencies, sparing the Pentagon much of the blow.

However, if the 12-member bipartisan “super-committee” of lawmakers can’t
agree on further federal budget cuts later this year, the law mandates
across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, with half of that
coming from the Pentagon. The prospect of such deep defense cuts is thought
to provide a strong incentive for deficit hawks to compromise and spread the
pain more broadly.

Politics aside, finding defense savings is complex, even with the Obama
administration trying to wind down two wars. For one thing, reducing troop
levels doesn’t necessarily yield commensurate cost reductions, given the
huge amount of infrastructure the military still maintains in each country.

In Afghanistan, the cost per service member climbed from
$507,000 in fiscal year 2009 to $667,000 the following year, according to
the Congressional Research Service. Fiscal year
2011 costs are expected to reach $694,000 per service member, even as the US
military begins drawing down 33,000 of the
99,000 troops there.

In Iraq, even with the overall costs of the war declining and the US
military scheduled to withdraw its remaining 46,000 troops by the end of
this year, the cost per service member spiked from $510,000 in 2007 to
$802,000 this year.

In fiscal year 2011, Congress authorized $113 billion for the war in
Afghanistan and $46 billion for Iraq. The Pentagon’s
2012 budget request is lower: $107 billion for Afghanistan and $11 billion
for Iraq.

In the more austere fiscal climate, the Pentagon has tried to be proactive,
proposing cuts to some major military programs such as the controversial and
hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has
called the national debt the biggest threat to US national security. Before
leaving office last month as defense secretary, Robert Gates ordered his
department to find ways to cut $400 billion from the defense budget over 12
years, under Obama’s orders.

Among the challenges of determining the costs of war is defining what to
include. Rising health care costs for veterans? The damage done to Iraqi and
Afghan families, cities and institutions? Holding tens of thousands of
detainees at US military prisons in those two countries and others around
the world? The massive interest on war-related debt, which some experts say
could reach $1 trillion by 2020?

“The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including
job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been
underappreciated,” wrote a team of Brown University experts who authored a
June report called “Costs of War.”

Critics of the defense budget process note that the US already has paid a
heavy cost for the wars, spending billions to wind up with older equipment
and troops receiving less training.

Winslow Wheeler, who worked on national security issues on Capitol Hill for
30 years, said the Navy and Air Force fleets were smaller after a decade of
war. The Army has been left with run-down, overworked vehicles and

“The danger of that is that as we blithely go on not paying attention,
things happen that we don’t notice, like the older, less trained forces,”
Wheeler said. Because the cost of replacing equipment has risen dramatically
over the past decade, “what we are paying is a higher cost for a smaller
force.” He likened it to replacing a Lamborghini with a Volkswagen.

On the Web:

Brown University’s Costs of War project

CRS: Cost of the global war on terrorism since 9/11


Portside aims to provide material of interest to people on the left that
will help them to interpret the world and to change it.

Submit via email:

Submit via the Web:

Frequently asked questions:


Search Portside archives:

Contribute to Portside:

Leave a Response