The costs of America’s long war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 March 2007

The current United States surge in Iraq, the additional troops for the US command in Afghanistan and the large naval force now being assembled close to Iran together indicate the major preoccupations of George W Bush's war on terror. They also reflect a deeper reality that underlies the prosecution of this (in its revised formulation) "long war": the sheer size of the US military.

The simplest way to measure this is through the current scale of, and planned, increases in the US defence budget. The published details of the Pentagon's spending for fiscal year 2008 (which starts in October 2007) show some remarkable quantitative and qualitative changes. These reinforce the Bush administration's insistence that its long war will remain at the centre of US security strategy, and that it requires both substantially increased defence expenditure and several major innovations in tactics and equipment.

In the mid-1990s, the then CIA director James Woolsey commented that the United States had slain the dragon of the Soviet Union but now lived in a jungle full of poisonous snakes. Since 9/11 and the start of the near-permanent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, taming that jungle has become the primary focus of the US military posture. Both the ability of the US military to win its war and the capacity of the American economy to sustain this effort are open to question, but there is no reason to doubt the US leadership's commitment to continue on its course (see "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Loss without limit

The prospective budget increases are indeed exceptional. The core budget for 2008 is expected to be $481.4 billion, compared with $441.5 billion for 2006; but the "supplemental" requests to cope with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan push the figures even higher - from a total budget of $557.3 billion in 2007 to $645.6 billion in 2008. A contrast with Britain's total planned defence budget in 2008 of around $60 billion is instructive: the US, with five times the population of Britain, is spending more than ten times on defence (and its British ally is one of the more hawkish countries where defence is concerned). At a conservative estimate, the US is now spending as much on its military as every other country in the world put together.

In raw terms, the US defence budget is now at similar levels to those during the height of the cold war in the mid-1980s. Again, detail adds significance to the broad picture. In 2008, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to cost the US $141 billion (over $385 million per day). Servicing this cost will necessitate short-term spending of a type that could actually jeopardise cherished high-tech projects over the next decade or so (see John T Bennett, "A Procurement 'Time Bomb'", Defense News, 12 February 2007).

Most of the stress in the US military system is being felt by the army and the marine corps, and in two different ways. The first is the sheer deterioration of equipment (everything from tank-tracks through to truck-engines), along with the remarkable rate at which ammunition is being used. This may be good news for manufacturers of this kind of routine material, and for the smaller companies that make their money from repair and renovation, but it means a potential squeeze for those companies seeking huge amounts of investment in new systems such as the F-35 multi-role aircraft and the airborne laser.

The second effect comes from the casualties of war. The US has had over 3,000 of its troops killed since October 2001, and those injured in combat now exceed 23,000 (at least 10,000 of them seriously so). The effects of non-combat injuries, and of mental and physical ill-health, have required at least 20,000 troops to be evacuated from combat-zones to the US. Many thousands more come to experience post-traumatic stress disorders.

All this imposes massive additional expenditure on long-term medical care and pensions in the US homeland. The scandal over the state of facilities in and around the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington is thought to be just a well-publicised example of a much more widespread problem (see "Walter Reed general loses his command", Associated Press, 1 March 2007).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

No turning back

These stresses notwithstanding, the Pentagon and the Bush administration are determined to push the funding requests through Congress. They are helped in the knowledge that any Democratic opposition can easily be represented as deeply unpatriotic in a time of war. As the debate on the budget got under way in February 2007, the new defence secretary Robert Gates insisted that the increased budget was necessary: not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but Iran and North Korea, are now part of the wider jungle, and there are uncertainties over China and Russia too (see William Matthews, "Sticker Shock in Congress", Defense News, 12 February 2007 [subscription only]).

The chair of the US joint chiefs-of-staff, General Peter Pace, elaborated on this theme at a congressional hearing: "You can take a lap around the globe. Start with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Colombia, Venezuela, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, North Korea and back around to Pakistan. And I'm sure I missed a few."

It can seem that as the US becomes more and more trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan, the outcome is less the recognition of error and the need for a change of direction than a condition amounting almost to paranoia. Pace's comments seem indicative of a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity, indeed of a world going out of control: a very far cry from the neo-conservative dream of a "new American century".

The response to the predicament Washington's political and military leaders are experiencing is not to question the policies that have led them to the impasse, but to redouble efforts to regain control. At some stage wiser counsel might prevail, but the planned defence budget for 2008 suggests that any such change is currently nowhere in sight.

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