Military spending: up and away

The combined cost of Iraq and Afghanistan already surpasses the cost of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War.

Whatever the merits of US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, one thing seems clear: It's very expensive.

If this week's White House request for $196 billion more for Afghanistan and Iraq is included, total costs for these operations will reach about $808 billion by the end of next year, according to figures compiled by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

That's more than the Gulf War ($88 billion in today's dollars), or Korea ($456 billion), or Vietnam ($518 billion). It's within shouting distance of the price of the Korea and Vietnam conflicts combined.

But the US economy is much larger today than it was in, say, 1968 – meaning the financial burden on the nation posed by these costs is correspondingly lighter.

And despite the rising price tag, Congress is unlikely to make significant trims in the administration's latest war-appropriations request. Democratic Party leaders just don't have the votes.

"For fear of being accused of not supporting the troops, Congress will not deviate much from what the administration has requested," predicts Gordon Adams, an American University professor of international relations.

President Bush's Oct. 22 request to Congress for $196 billion in supplemental defense funds for fiscal year 2008 is a revision of a previous $150 billion request upon which lawmakers had not yet acted.

A large portion of the extra $46 billion would be channeled into Army procurement – specifically, the purchase of new, more bomb-proof armored vehicles, and general replacement of munitions expended and equipment worn out from years of fighting.

Operations and maintenance would also get additional funding.

"The bill provides for basic needs, like bullets and body armor, protection against [improvised explosive devices], and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles," said Mr. Bush on Monday. "It also funds training missions, vital embassy programs, improvements in Iraqi security forces, and intelligence operations that protect our troops."

Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are funded separately from the overall defense budget. Congress has yet to pass the administration's $481 billion request for general 2008 Pentagon spending.

Given that the Iraq war has now stretched on for over four years, it's time to stop paying for it via "emergency" supplemental appropriations, according to some experts. Adding it to the overall Defense Department budget would provide taxpayers a truer sense of overall US military spending, they feel.

"[C]ontinually funding defense through supplementals is breaking the budget and planning system," says Dr. Adams.

Thus adding up the total costs of Iraq and Afghanistan is not necessarily a straightforward exercise, as it involves adding parts of various appropriations bills over a series of years. But according to the CSBA, the war in Iraq alone has now cost the US more than the Gulf War and Korea, and will surpass Vietnam by the end of 2008.

"Combined, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already cost more than any of these three previous wars," writes CSBA analyst Steven Kosiak in a recent defense budget analysis.

But the burden represented by this dollar figure is not as high as it was with past wars, given the size of the US economy, notes Mr. Kosiak.

For instance, in 2008, total funding for US national defense is projected to equal about 4.2 percent of US Gross Domestic Product.

"By comparison, at the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, defense absorbed, respectively, some 14.2 percent and 9.4 percent of GDP," writes Kosiak.

According to the nation's top military officer, this means that defense spending may have to continue at current levels for years to come. About 4 percent of GDP is the "absolute floor" for the overall military budget, said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in an interview with The New York Times published Monday.

"I think as a country we're just going to have to devote more resources to national security in the world that we're living in right now," said Admiral Mullenin that interview.

It's true that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't required much financial sacrifice of most Americans, agrees Syracuse University public administration professor Alasdair Roberts in an upcoming article in the journal Foreign Policy.

Professor Roberts points out that between 2000 and 2006, the largest dollar increase in annual federal outlays was on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare – not on defense.

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