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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 about 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 wars.
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 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.
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 U.S. history, but it seems clear that that era is ending.
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