Among The Costs Of War: Billions A Year In A.C.?

Originally published on June 29, 2011 8:15 pm

The amount the U.S. military spends annually on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan: $20.2 billion, according to a former Pentagon official.

That's more than NASA's budget. It's more than BP has paid so far for damage from the Gulf oil spill. It's what the G-8 has pledged to help foster new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.

"When you consider the cost to deliver the fuel to some of the most isolated places in the world — escorting, command and control, medevac support — when you throw all that infrastructure in, we're talking over $20 billion," Steven Anderson tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin. He's a retired brigadier general who served as chief logistician for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. He's now in the private sector, selling technologies branded as energy-efficient to the Defense Department.

Now it's important to note that wrapped up in Anderson's $20 billion figure are all kind of other expenditures – for instance, the cost of building and maintaining roads in Afghanistan, securing those roads, managing the security operations for those roads. That all costs a lot of money and is part of the overall war effort in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon rejects Anderson's estimate. Still his claims raise questions about how much the US footprint in Afghanistan really costs – especially something like air conditioning.

Why Does It Cost So Much?

To power an air conditioner at a remote outpost in landlocked Afghanistan, a gallon of fuel has to be shipped into Karachi, Pakistan, then driven 800 miles over 18 days to Afghanistan on roads that are sometimes little more than "improved goat trails," Anderson says. "And you've got risks that are associated with moving the fuel almost every mile of the way."

Anderson calculates that more than 1,000 troops have died in fuel convoys, which remain prime targets for attack. Freestanding tents equipped with air conditioners in 125-degree heat require a lot of fuel. By making those structures more efficient, Anderson says, the military could save lives and dollars.

Still, his $20.2 billion figure raises stark questions about the ongoing war in Afghanistan. In the wake of President Obama's announcement this past week that 33,000 American troops will soon return home, how much money does the U.S. stand to save?

Dollars And Cents

The 33,000 troops who will return home by the end of next year match the numbers sent to Afghanistan in 2010, at a cost of about $30 billion. That comes out to about $1 million a soldier.

But the savings of withdrawing those troops won't equal out, experts say.

"What history has told us is that you don't see a proportional decrease in spending based on the number of troops when you draw them down," says Chris Hellman, a senior research analyst at the National Priorities Project.

"In Afghanistan that's going to be particularly true because it's a very difficult and austere environment in which to operate," he says.

That means most war expenditures lie not in the troops themselves but in the infrastructure that supports them — infrastructure that in some cases will remain in place long after troops are gone.

"We're building big bases," American University professor Gordon Adams says, describing the money invested as, in economic terms, "sunk" costs.

"We're seeing this in Iraq. We're turning over to the Iraqis — mostly either for a small penny or for free — the infrastructure that we built in Iraq. But we won't see back any money from that infrastructure."

Then there's the costly task of training Afghan security forces. The Obama administration has requested almost $13 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces in the next fiscal year.

And more importantly, Hellman says, "[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai indicated a couple years back that [Afghanistan] wasn't going to be a position to support their own military forces 15, 20 years out. I suspect we're going to be called on to pay a substantial part of that bill going forward."

Criticism From The President's Own Party

For critics of the president, the idea that the troop drawdown won't save much money is reason enough to suggest it should be bigger.

One outspoken critic is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). He notes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost hundreds of billions of dollars so far, and he argues a larger troop drawdown isn't a national security risk.

"We have the greatest special ops in the world. We have more technology than any other country on Earth," Manchin says. "Do we actually need to have 70,000 troops on the ground?"

"When you have this many people in a country that doesn't want you there — that has no economy, no infrastructure and a corrupt government — and you're trying to stabilize it and build them into a viable nation? I'm not sure we have enough time, and I definitely know we don't have enough money," Manchin says.

But others argue war should be waged independent of cost.

"The realm of war and peace exists separately apart — and justifiably so — from the economic realm," says Lawrence Kaplan, a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College. He contends that critics like Manchin are looking for "economic answers to a non-economic question."

"And anyway, it's not the war that's broken Washington's piggy bank," he adds, noting that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security account for far more spending than the $107 billion the Pentagon says it will spend in Afghanistan next year.

"Remember, we're talking about 30,000 troops," he says "I don't think that hundred-billion-dollar price tag should be the determining one."

Can Greener Mean Safer?

But for Anderson, the retired brigadier general, economics does have a role to play in modern warfare.

Anderson advocates for increased energy efficiency for military structures to cut down on the need for long, dangerous fuel-transport missions. A few months ago, he says he heard from a company commander in Afghanistan.

"He literally has to stop his combat operations for two days every two weeks so he can go back and get his fuel. And when he's gone, the enemy knows he's gone, and they go right back to where they were before. He has to start his counterinsurgency operations right back at square one."

Anderson says experiments with spraying polyurethane foam insulation on tents in Iraq cut energy use by 92 percent and took 11,000 fuel trucks off the road. But he adds there's a lack of enthusiasm for a greener military among top commanders.

"People look at it and say, 'It's not my lane. We don't need to tie the operational commanders' hands.' — things like this," he says.

"A simple policy signed by the secretary of defense — a one- or two-page memo, saying we will no longer build anything other than energy-efficient structures in Iraq and Afghanistan — would have a profound impact."

CLARIFICATION: The Pentagon disputes the calculation made by Anderson about air conditioning costs. Defense Department spokesman Dave Lapan says that in fiscal year 2010, the Pentagon spent approximately $15 billion on energy for all military operations around the world. The Pentagon says when it comes to Afghanistan, it spent $1.5 billion from October 2010 to May 2011 on fuel. That fuel was used for heating and air conditioning systems, but also for aircraft, unmanned aerial systems, combat vehicles, computers and electricity inside military structures.

After this story aired and appeared on NPR.org, Lapan told NPR: "For our warfighters, the cost of fuel isn't the only price. They include the associated costs of moving and protecting fuel in combat. These costs aren't only in dollars — they can be measured in reduced mission effectiveness and in lives lost moving and protecting fuel around the battlefield. The volume of fuel US forces consume raises our risks and hampers our capabilities. Reducing the demand for energy can mean better range and endurance for our deployed forces."

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RACHEL MARTIN, host: This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Rachel Martin.

We're going to start today with a number.

STEVEN ANDERSON: Twenty-point-two billion dollars.

MARTIN: Steve Anderson is a retired brigadier general. He was the chief logistics officer for General David Petraeus in Iraq.

ANDERSON: Twenty-point-two billion dollars is what we were spending in Iraq, in Afghanistan to air-condition structures. When you consider the cost that it takes to actually deliver the fuel - escorting, command and control, medevac support - we're talking over $20 billion.

MARTIN: Twenty billion dollars. That's more than the total budget of NASA. It's the amount the G-8 has pledged to foster new democracies in Tunisia, in Egypt.

ANDERSON: And Afghanistan is truly the most isolated country, perhaps, in the world. A gallon of gas, many times, has to get shipped into Karachi, to Port of Karachi in Pakistan; driven through Pakistan over 800 miles, a journey that takes a typical truck driver 18 days - roads that many times, are improved goat trails. And you've got risks that are associated with moving the fuel almost every mile of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Steve Anderson's calculations raise questions about the costs of war, hidden and otherwise. That's our cover story today: the coming troop drawdown: How much cash will it save?

President BARACK OBAMA: Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource: our people.

(Soundbite of speech)

MARTIN: President Obama this week, in a speech outlining his plans to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year. By next summer, 30,000 will be home - with more to come by 2014. Still, the war in Afghanistan will cost the U.S. more than a hundred billion dollars next year.

GORDON ADAMS: About three quarters of what the Pentagon spends in the Afghan war is for what we call operations and maintenance.

MARTIN: Gordon Adams is a professor of foreign policy at American University. He worked in the Clinton White House overseeing national security funding.

ADAMS: Supplying the troops, supporting the troops, the boots, the shoes, the uniforms, the oil and petroleum products - it excludes the equipment, but three quarters of it is just keeping the war operating.

MARTIN: So what does that mean when you add or subtract boots on the ground? How much does that affect the overall price tag?

ADAMS: At some point, it will affect the price tag. Now, the president's withdrawal is relatively modest in the first year. It's about 10 percent of the force. You won't save the whole 10 percent of what we're spending in the Afghan war - I think the budget's about 110 billion - in part because you're going to have to spend money to bring people home. You literally have to plus up money for flights, for fuel, for ships. So it adds money to your bill in the front end until you get the savings later - once they're back and you're not operating them anymore.

MARTIN: Can I ask you specifically about infrastructure? We hear that that's the big expenditure when you're talking about war. Can you give us some sense of what costs the most?

ADAMS: Building, mostly, and supplying the stuff that is in the buildings. After all, we're building big bases, big control towers and mess halls, and barracks for soldiers. Operating that infrastructure is enormously expensive.

MARTIN: And those, in economic terms, are essentially sunk costs. It doesn't matter how many troops you have in and out. That's a price you have to...

ADAMS: Some of that, you're going to see sunk. We're seeing this in Iraq. Gradually, slowly but surely, we're turning over to the Iraqis, mostly either for a small penny or free - the infrastructure that we built in Iraq. But we won't see back any money from that infrastructure.

MARTIN: There are those out there arguing now that we need to draw down the war so that we can use this money domestically to revive the U.S. economy. Is that possible? Can you just take money from one pot and put it in another pot?

ADAMS: Well, there's two issues here. One is, would that money revive the economy? Frankly, if we had all $110 billion from a year of Iraq, we wouldn't revive the economy with it. It's just too small. But the real answer is political. It's really about making a statement about whether you support the war in Afghanistan or not, or think it's time to refocus our energy - whether or not the dollars transfer one to one.

MARTIN: The U.S. has committed to be in Afghanistan 'til 2014. How does the government go about positioning itself to budget those withdrawals?

ADAMS: The honest answer, if the government gave it to you, would be they're not. That is to say, we budget for this war, and for the withdrawal from the war, year by year. What the executive branch has in its out-year budgeting, the future budgets, is a $50 billion plug. We're going to put the number in there so we'll know it's going to cost something. We don't yet know fully what the withdrawal costs will be. We don't yet know exactly how many people we'll have there. We don't know exactly what they'll be doing. Maybe some of them will be spending the 10 to $12 billion we spend now training the Afghan security forces and police military. All we've got in budget terms is a $50 billion plug. It may be high; it may be low. We don't know.

MARTIN: Gordon Adams is a foreign policy professor at American University. Thanks so much for coming in.

ADAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Whatever the long-term costs in Afghanistan, Senator Joe Manchin says it's too much. He's a West Virginia Democrat. And like the president, he notes that the U.S. has spent more than a trillion dollars on war this decade.

Senator JOE MANCHIN: We're on the line to spend another 485 billion. That's close to a trillion dollars, which we can ill afford. If we are truly fighting a war on terror, have we not won that war on terror in Afghanistan? We have more people that - I understand al-Qaida - that has escaped in the prisons of Yemen, that would be more of a threat to us than the whole count of al-Qaida still in the country.

MARTIN: What do you say to the administration's argument that the real risk is that Afghanistan could once again, down the road, become a safe haven for al-Qaida?

MANCHIN: Then I would say that in this administration - or anybody that takes that position is saying that we will be there in perpetuity. I think we have the greatest special ops in the world. We have more technology than any other country on earth. We'll come and find you. We'll do our job, and we'll use all of the modern technology that we need to. But do we need to actually have 70,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, fighting a war on terror?

MARTIN: Now, you talk about the need to draw down or scale down the war in Afghanistan, so more money can be invested back at home. But overall, the war in Afghanistan is a small fraction of the whole U.S. budget, especially when it's stacked up against entitlement programs, like Medicare and Social Security? So...

MANCHIN: Rachel, we have, as you know, a mountain of challenges. So everything is on the table. But we have got to take care, and make sure, that the social programs that take care of the people truly - they're depending upon and they need - is there for them. And I believe that's what we should be accomplishing. But when you have this many people in a country that doesn't want you there anyway; and a country that has no economy, no infrastructure, and a corrupt government, and you're trying to stabilize it and build them into a viable nation - I'm not sure we have enough time, and I definitely know we don't have enough money.

MARTIN: Joe Manchin is a Democratic senator from West Virginia. Senator, thanks very much for taking the time.

MANCHIN: Thank you, Rachel. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: And there's another line of thinking on this issue - the idea that if a war is just, the price tag doesn't matter. Lawrence Kaplan, of the U.S. Army War College, puts it this way:

LAWRENCE KAPLAN: If I thought the war was a mistake, I would give up on this war even if it were cheap. If I supported this war, I would support it if it cost untold trillions of dollars. The realm of war and peace exists separately apart, and justifiably so, from the economic realm. And I should add that anyway, it's not the war that's broken Washington's piggy bank.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that. There are plenty of people on Capitol Hill, even in local and state governments, who are arguing: Listen, too much money has been spent on the war in Afghanistan. We need to take that money, and spend it in rebuilding America's economy. What about that argument doesn't work for you?

KAPLAN: This is, of course, echoes of Eisenhower's farewell address, and of the rhetoric of the Vietnam era, to the effect that every dollar spent on a weapon abroad is a dollar less spent here at home. But in fact, while the government is going to spend a hundred billion dollars in Afghanistan, it'll spend 20 times that on domestic entitlement programs - Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid.

MARTIN: But we still have to say that number out loud again: a hundred billion dollars. Over the course of many years - we've been at this a decade - that adds up to a lot of money. And if we foresee U.S. participation in some kind of military campaign in Afghanistan at least until 2014, that's a lot of money that could be spent at home.

KAPLAN: Well, you know, the - it's interesting. The money spent actually works in favor of my argument, in the sense that the money we've put in to Afghanistan has largely been in the form of sunk costs - in other words, equipment and construction, the constellation of bases that loop around Afghanistan - but not the troops who inhabit them. And remember, we're talking about 30,000 troops. I don't think that hundred-billion-dollar price tag should be the determining one.

MARTIN: Lawrence Kaplan spoke to us from member station WBFO in Buffalo. Remember Steve Anderson, the former brigadier general we heard from earlier talking about military air- conditioning?

ANDERSON: Twenty-point-two billion dollars is what we were spending in Iraq and Afghanistan to air-condition structures.

MARTIN: That is not the only cost. Anderson says more than a thousand U.S. troops have died in fuel convoys across Iraq and Afghanistan, prime targets for insurgents. Anderson heard one story just a few months ago, from a company commander at a forward operating base in Afghanistan.

ANDERSON: He literally has to stop his combat operations for two days every two weeks, so he can go back and get his fuel. And when he's gone, the enemy knows he's gone, and they go right back to where they were before. And he has to start his counterinsurgency operations - he goes right back to square one.

MARTIN: Now, Anderson says there are potential solutions to this problem. He's in the private sector now, pitching green solutions to the Pentagon - things like foam insulation, which the military has tried, spraying this stuff o to tents to make those air- conditioning bills go down. Anderson says that effort alone took 11,000 fuel trucks off the road. But he says there is not enough support at the top of the Pentagon.

ANDERSON: People look at it and say, well, it's not my lane; we don't need to tie the operational commander's hands; things like this. What we need is policy as simple as I've just - saying, which is saying: We will no longer build anything other than energy-efficient structures in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, just a simple policy like that, signed by the secretary of Defense, a one- or two-page memo would have a profound impact.

MARTIN: Retired Brigadier General Steve Anderson. He spoke to us from Knoxville, Tennessee. Thanks so much for taking time to talk with us.

ANDERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.