The American Way of War Is a Budget-Breaker
When Donald Trump wanted to “do something” about the use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria, he had the U.S. Navy lob 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield (cost: $89 million). The strike was symbolic at best, as the Assad regime ran bombing missions from the same airfield the very next day, but it did underscore one thing: the immense costs of military action of just about any sort in our era.
While $89 million is a rounding error in the Pentagon’s $600 billion budget, it represents real money for other agencies. It’s more than twice the $38 million annual budget of the U.S. Institute of Peace and more than half the $149 million budget of the National Endowment of the Arts, both slated for elimination under Trump’s budget blueprint. If the strikes had somehow made us — or anyone — safer, perhaps they would have been worth it, but they did not.
In this century of nonstop military conflict, the American public has never fully confronted the immense costs of the wars being waged in its name. The human costs — including an estimated 370,000 deaths, more than half of them civilians, and the millions who have been uprooted from their homes and sent into flight, often across national borders — are surely the most devastating consequences of these conflicts. But the economic costs of our recent wars should not be ignored, both because they are so massive in their own right and because of the many peaceable opportunities foregone to pay for them.
Even on the rare occasions when the costs of American war preparations and war making are actually covered in the media, they never receive the sort of attention that would be commensurate with their importance. Last September, for example, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute released a paper demonstrating that, since 2001, the U.S. had racked up $4.79 trillion in current and future costs from its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as in the war at home being waged by the Department of Homeland Security. That report was certainly covered in a number of major outlets, including the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, and U.S. News and World Report. Given its importance, however, it should have been on the front page of every newspaper in America, gone viral on social media, and been the subject of scores of editorials. Not a chance.
Yet the figures should stagger the imagination. Direct war spending accounted for “only” $1.7 trillion of that sum, or less than half of the total costs. The Pentagon disbursed those funds not through its regular budget but via a separate war account called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Then there were the more than $900 billion in indirect war costs paid for from the regular budget and the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs. And don’t forget to add in the more than half-trillion dollars for the budget of the Department of Homeland Security since 2001, as well as an expected $1 trillion in future costs for taking care of the veterans of this century’s wars throughout their lifetimes. If anyone were truly paying attention, what could more effectively bring home just how perpetual Washington’s post-9/11 war policies are likely to be?
That cost, in fact, deserves special attention. The Veterans Administration has chronic problems in delivering adequate care and paying out benefits in a timely fashion. Its biggest challenge: the sheer volume of veterans generated by Washington’s recent wars. An additional two million former military personnel have entered the VA system since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Fully half of them have already been awarded lifetime disability benefits. More than one in seven — 327,000 — suffer from traumatic brain injury. Not surprisingly, spending for the Veterans Administration has tripled since 2001. It has now reached more than $180 billion annually and yet the VA still can’t catch up with its backlog of cases or hire doctors and nurses fast enough to meet the need.
Now imagine another 15 years of such failing, yet endless wars and the flood of veterans they will produce and then imagine what a Cost of War Project report might look like in 2032. Given all this, you would think that the long-term price tag for caring for veterans would be taken into account when a president decides whether or not to continue to pursue America’s never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but that, of course, is never the case.
Taking the Gloves Off When It Comes to the Costs of War
The biggest beneficiaries of Pentagon largesse will, as always, be the major defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, which received more than $36 billion in defense-related contracts in fiscal 2015 (the most recent year for which full statistics are available). To put that figure in perspective, Lockheed Martin’s federal contracts are now larger than the budgets of 22 of the 50 states. The top 100 defense contractors received $175 billion from the Pentagon in fiscal year 2015, nearly one-third of the Department of Defense’s entire budget. These numbers will only grow if Trump gets the money he wants to build more ships, planes, tanks, and nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration has yet to reveal precisely what it plans to spend all that new Pentagon money it’s requesting on, but the president’s past statements offer some clues. He has called for building up the Navy from its current level of 272 ships to 350 or more. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the construction costs alone of such an effort would be $800 billion over the next three decades at an annual cost of $26.6 billion, which is 40% higher than the Navy’s present shipbuilding budget.
To put this in perspective, even before Trump’s proposed increases, the Navy was planning major expenditures on items like 12 new ballistic-missile-firing submarines at a development and building cost of more than $10 billion each. As for new surface ships, Trump wants to add two more aircraft carriers to the 10 already in active service. He made this clear in a speech on board the USS Gerald Ford, a new $13 billion carrier that, as with so much Pentagon weaponry, has been plagued with cost overruns and performance problems.
President Trump also wants to double down on the Pentagon’s preexisting program to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years on a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles. While that plan is politely referred to as a “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, it already essentially represents Washington’s bid to launch a new global arms race. So among a host of ill-considered plans for yet more expenditures, this one is a particular ringer, given that the United States already possesses massive nuclear overkill and that current nuclear delivery systems can last decades more with upgrades. To give all of this a sense of scale, two Air Force strategists determined that the United States needs just 311 nuclear warheads to dissuade any other country from ever attacking it with nuclear weapons. At 4,000 nuclear warheads, the current U.S. stockpile is already more than 13 times that figure — enough, that is, to destroy several planet Earths.
And don’t forget that Trump also wants to add tens of thousands more soldiers and Marines to the military’s ranks. By the most conservative estimate, the cost of equipping, training, paying, and deploying a single soldier annually is now close to $1 million (even leaving aside those future VA outlays), so every 10,000 additional troops means at least $10 billion more per year.
And don’t forget that the staggering potential costs already mentioned represent just the baseline for military spending — the costs President Trump will set in motion even if he doesn’t get us into a major war. Not that we’re not at war already. After all, he inherited no less than seven conflicts from Barack Obama: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Each of them involves a different mix of tools, including combat troops, trainers, Special Operations forces, conventional bombing, drone strikes, and the arming of surrogate forces — but conflicts they already are.
Based on his first 100-plus days in office, the real question isn’t whether Donald Trump will escalate these conflicts — he will — but how much more he will do. He’s already allowed his military commanders to “take the gloves off” by loosening the criteria for air attacks in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia, with an almost instant increase in civilian casualties as a result. He has also ceded to his commanders decision-making when it comes to how many troops to deploy in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, making it a reasonable probability that more U.S. personnel will be sent into action in the months and years to come.
It still seems unlikely that what must now be considered Trump’s wars will ever blow up into the kind of large-scale conflicts that the Bush administration sparked in Iraq. At the height of that disaster, more than 160,000 U.S. troops and a comparable number of U.S.-funded private contractors were deployed to Iraq (compared to 7,000 troops and more than 7,800 contractors there now). Nor does the talk of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 3,000 to 5,000 suggest that the 8,400 troops now there will ever be returned to the level of roughly 100,000 of the Obama “surge” era of 2010 and 2011.
But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Given Trump’s pattern of erratic behavior so far — one week threatening a preemptive strike on North Korea and the next suggesting talks to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program — anything is possible. For example, there could still be a sharp uptick in U.S. military personnel sent into Iraq and Syria when his pledge to “bomb the sh-t” out of ISIS doesn’t vanquish the group.
And if we learned anything from the Iraq experience (aside from the fact that attempting to use military force to remake another country is a formula for a humanitarian and security disaster), it’s that politicians and military leaders routinely underestimate the costs of war. Before the invasion of Iraq, Bush officials were, for instance, citing figures as low as $50 billion for the entire upcoming operation, beginning to end. According to figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service, however, direct budgetary costs for the Iraq intervention have been at least 16 times larger than that — well over $800 billion — and still counting.
One decision that could drive Trump’s already expansive military spending plans through the roof would be an incident that escalated into a full-scale conflict with Iran. If the Trump team — a remarkable crew of Iranophobes — were to attack that country, there’s no telling where things might end, or how high the costs might mount. As analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group has noted, a war with Iran could “make the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts look like a walk in the park.”
So before Congress and the public acquiesce in another military intervention or a sharp escalation of one of the U.S. wars already under way, perhaps it’s time to finally consider the true costs of war, American-style — in lives lost, dollars spent, and opportunities squandered. It’s a reasonable bet that never in history has a society spent more on war and gotten less bang for its copious bucks.
Originally published as a longer version at TomDispatch.com.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He is the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.