The rising tab for US war effort

Spending may increase by 25 percent next year, which could push total costs for Iraq and Afghanistan to over $200 billion.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The grinding insurgency in Iraq continues to exert upward pressure on at least one important aspect of the US war effort: monetary cost.

Deployment of extra troops, plus the need for new armor and other changes to counter insurgent tactics, may increase war spending by at least 25 percent for fiscal 2005, say experts. The total cost of the US military effort in Afghanistan and Iraq through next year will almost certainly surpass $200 billion.

Congress is likely to approve whatever war budget the White House asks for. But the current rate of spending is far higher than officials predicted before hostilities began - and at some point it may begin to crowd out other US spending priorities.

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"Eventually these costs, explicitly or implicitly ... may cut into the rest of the defense budget," says Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Earlier this year most congressional and administration estimates of fiscal 2005 war costs hovered in the $60 to $70 billion range.

Now that figure has climbed higher. The White House plans to ask for upwards of $80 billion in supplemental appropriations funding for 2005 operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Congressional Budget Office director J. Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

That's on top of the $25 billion for end of fiscal 2004 and beginning of 2005 that Congress has already approved as part of the general military appropriations bill.

The need to push troop levels to 150,000, highest of the war, in advance of scheduled elections is one reason costs are going up, CBO chief Holtz-Eakin told the trade journal Congressional Quarterly. The difficulties of keeping equipment running in the desert may be another.

"There may be an above- normal maintenance and depot costs associated with the harsh climate in Iraq," the CBO head told CQ.

Insurgent tactics have caused the US to readjust its military effort in expensive ways, as well. US forces in Iraq were not equipped to confront a continuing occupation danger from roadside bombs and suicide explosions, for instance. Providing the necessary armor to US vehicles has been a slow and costly process - as pointed out by the recent public complaint of a national guardsman to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Current plans call for 35,000 US vehicles to be protected with additional armor, Army officials said at a Pentagon press conference Wednesday. Of these, some 60 percent have already received their additional steel.

Total cost of this effort? About $4 billion, according to the Army.

"We have had to adapt not only how many systems we produce but the kinds of vehicles that we're actually up-armoring, because the threats have changed and the nature of the systems that the enemy is targeting has changed," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes, director of force development for the deputy chief of staff of the US Army, at the Pentagon briefing. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Speakes.]

Administration officials have declined to say publicly how much money they will ask for in a 2005 supplemental war funding bill expected this winter. But given the costs experienced so far, it is possible to draw up an estimate of long-term Iraq costs, say some experts.

"It seems useful to at least begin the debate as to what the Iraq war will cost [in total]," writes Anthony Cordesman, a war expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a new analysis.

The cost of the war through the end of 2004 will be some $128 billion, according to Mr. Cordesman's figures. That does not include major maintenance, the replacement of destroyed equipment, and costs associated with the need to recruit more troops and retrain those deployed to Iraq. Through 2005, the cost of military operations in the Iraq theater will be between $212 billion and $232 billion, according to Cordesman. By the end of 2007, it could be as high as $316 billion.

Some experts question whether the costs of Iraq should still be kept separate from the overall budget, given the nature of the US effort there. Supplemental appropriations bills - the method used to this point - are supposed to be for unforeseen or emergency expenditures, these critics say. But Iraq is now far from an unforeseen event.

"It's quite foreseeable that we're going to be in Iraq for the rest of the decade," says John Pike, a defense expert at GlobalSecurity.org. "But we're funding it as if we're expecting to bring the boys home any day."

The White House could at least include more war funds in the regular budget, and come in with a smaller supplemental at the end of the year, critics say.

Of course, by historical standards the war is not a great burden, others point out. Even if war funding is included, the Defense budget would be some 4 percent of gross domestic product - compared to the 6 percent or so it reached during the Reagan years.

In the end, the prospects for success, or lack thereof, will have more influence over the course of US actions than cost.

"Costs will not be the driving factor," predicts Mr. Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

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