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War costs may top $3.7 trillion

August 21, 2011
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Source: Freep

WASHINGTON -- 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 U.S. taxpayers?

Nobody really knows.

Congress has allotted $1.3 trillion for war spending through fiscal year 2011 just to the Defense Department. Long Pentagon spreadsheets 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 U.S. $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 U.S. winding down two long conflicts. But there's also a more fundamental problem: It's almost impossible to pin down just what the U.S. military spends on war.

Budget is huge and complex

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 about two-thirds going to Afghanistan. That total is almost as much as the entire annual budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.

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 terrain.

In Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. 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 increase the cost to hundreds of dollars a gallon.

Tough times, hard questions

Since the U.S. 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% 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% 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 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.

Politics aside, finding defense savings is complex, even with the Obama administration trying to wind down two wars.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. military scheduled to withdraw its remaining 46,000 troops by the end of this year, the cost per service member surged 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.

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.

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