True Cost of US Wars Unknown
By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers
Reader Supported News
August 16, 2011
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 American.
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 appropriations.
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
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
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
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 equipment.
"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
On the Web:
Brown University's Costs of War project
CRS: Cost of the global war on terrorism since 9/11
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