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The Soaring Cost of the American Defense Establishment

The $775,000-a-Year GI

by ROBERT BRYCE

The disastrous presidency of George W. Bush will be remembered for decades to come. The litany of failures are many: the extra-Constitutional kidnapping and detention of suspected terrorists, the torture of prisoners, the trumped-up intelligence that led to a futile war in Iraq, the lackadaisical response to the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, the laissez faire attitude toward financial regulation…the list goes on.

Barack Obama can address some of those issues rather quickly. But his biggest bureaucratic challenge may be in slowing or reversing the soaring military spending that was sanctioned under the Bush/Cheney/neoconservative regime.

The U.S. military is now spending more – on a constant dollar basis – than it did in 1968, when the Defense Department had more than 500,000 soldiers stationed in South Vietnam. If you include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then the U.S. military spent about $580 billion in 2007; that’s about 33 percent more – again, measured in constant (year 2000) dollars – than the United States spent in 1968. Even without the cost of those ongoing wars, America’s military spending is higher now than at any time since 1945.

A recent study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington-based think tank, provides yet more sobering numbers. The report, written by the CSBA’s Steven M. Kosiak, concludes that “since 2001, some $904 billion has been provided to cover the cost of US military operations. This includes some $687 billion for Iraq, $184 billion for Afghanistan and $33 billion for various homeland security activities.”

And while that number is daunting, Kosiak estimates that by 2018, the total spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with related spending on veterans’ health care and other matters, could reach $1.7 trillion. The 88-page report, which includes 182 footnotes, provides an exhaustive look at the cost of Bush’s foreign adventures. It also provides a more modest estimate of the cost of those adventures than that provided by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, who have famously estimated the costs of the war on terrorism at over $3 trillion.

But the truly astounding number in Kosiak’s report comes on page 38, where he estimates that the total cost of sending a single soldier to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan is about $775,000 per year. Kosiak came up with that number by using data published in March by the Congressional Budget Office. He writes that the $775,000 per year figure “is some three times more than CBO projected in 2002, based on the cost of recent past wars, and about 70 percent more than its estimate from 2005.” Kosiak says that the soaring cost of keeping soldiers in the war zones is due to inflation, changes in force levels, and the increases in funding requested by the Department of Defense.
 
Kosiak’s estimate of the daily cost of deployment is particularly important given Obama’s plans to send an additional 20,000 U.S. soldiers to  Afghanistan, a move that could bolster the U.S. presence there to about 52,000. And some analysts are projecting that the U.S. could need more than 100,000 troops to stabilize the vast country.

But at a cost of more than $2,100 per day per soldier, a military expansion of that magnitude will be incredibly costly. And it’s not at all clear that the U.S. can afford such an increase at a time when the U.S. treasury – and the U.S. economy – are in such parlous condition. Further, it’s essential to remember how quickly the costs of Bush’s “global war on terrorism” are increasing. In 2005, the Congressional Research Service put the cost of keeping one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan at about $275,000 per year. By early 2006, the cost of keeping one soldier on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan had jumped to about $400,000 per year. Now Kosiak is estimating that actual cost of keeping a soldier deployed is nearly twice the estimate that the CRS published just two years ago.

A surge in inflation (which is almost certainly coming, thanks to the U.S. government’s huge fiscal deficit and the plans for yet-bigger deficits) will likely send Kosiak’s $775,000-per-year estimate even higher. Thus, by 2011 or so, the cost of keeping a soldier deployed in a war zone might top $1 million per year. And the Department of Defense has already declared its belief in the “long war” against terrorism. In early 2006, in its Quadrennial Defense Review, a closely watched document that reveals much of the Pentagon’s strategic thinking, the Department of Defense’s top leadership said that the war against terrorist networks “may well be fought in dozens of other countries simultaneously and for many years to come.”

By keeping Robert Gates in his job as the Secretary of Defense, Obama has clearly opted for stability in the top ranks at the Pentagon. But Obama has yet to make clear just how willing he is to provide “the change we need”  when it comes to reining in America’s massively expensive military machine.

ROBERT BRYCE is the author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."