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Counting the Costs of Modern War

December 18, 2009

I thought this article from Reuters was a good finale to our week long discussion on becoming more frugal in defense procurement:

…Afghanistan “is one of the most expensive, perhaps the most expensive, war in U.S. history,” says Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think-tank. His estimate of the cost per year of a soldier deployed in Afghanistan this year matches the number used by the White House – around $1 million. (The Pentagon says is it is less.)

A soldier in Iraq costs less than half that. In comparison, an Afghan soldier costs $12,500 a year, a recent congressional hearing was told.

The staggering cost of the war highlights an aspect of asymmetric warfare worth noting: the insurgent has a huge advantage on the financial front. While a Marine Corps combat brigade, for example, burns up around 500,000 gallons of fuel a day (or $24 million, at an average of $48 per gallon), the marines’ insurgent enemies use a tiny fraction of that. They ride around in pickup trucks, or walk. They do not move in Humvees that average four miles per gallon.

The cost-benefit advantage the insurgents enjoy in combat occasionally features on jihadist websites. One video clip makes the point that an improvised explosives device that costs $30 to make can knock out a $3.2 million Bradley Fighting Vehicle. 

We began this week with 2 posts encouraging our military and industry to “Build as You Fight” (pt 2), as opposed to trying to match every possible contingency.  It is interesting that at the same time Britain announced deep cuts of 36 billion pounds in its own budget, forcing it to prioritize, passing funds to the troops in Afghanistan. The Labour government is currently getting much heat for this, despite the fact that is a right and logical thing to do for a nation at war. They will likely lose the upcoming elections for certain now, despite the fact the Tories will probably continue the same policies.

The funds are no longer there, not even for America, for nations to possess “two militaries”, one geared for the old way of Industrial Warfare, with carriers, submarines, fighters, and tanks. Such vehicles will likely be around for some time but in different forms. Their low tech versions are already being deployed, such as light carriers, light fighters and UAVs, light armored vehicles, and conventional submarines. All these are far less costly, but also not insignificant thanks to modern weapons and sensors, and thanks mostly that our insurgent enemies are unable to manage the giant construction programs we in the richer North take for granted. We continue to use these last century hammers to try and stamp out the insurgent or pirate flea, and we can no longer manage.

I do think we will fight near-peer powers like China or Russia one day. They are having their own budgetary problems, especially Russia. The type of low tech weaponry they build will be the kind we will face, are facing in current wars. I think the lead America possesses in precision weaponry will grant us enough time to understand what future fighting will incur. Bankrupting ourselves with ongoing Cold War programs will not get us there, but set us back.

I don’t think we help our cause by losing the wars we are fighting today, or trying to fight these wars by constantly fretting, looking over our shoulder at the future, fighting with one or both hands tied behind our back. All services, especially the more costly Air Force and Navy must embrace these New Wars, else they will face irrelevance and continue to see cuts on a dramatic scale. So far they have been completely shaken and seem lost without leadership in a new century. Their place is secure if only they see it.

It is no longer a matter of choosing what military we must have. The funds are no longer there, it has already been decided. Because of the immense cost of warfare today, especially new weapons and especially considering the financial crises we are enduring worldwide, the only choice left is extinction.

20 Comments leave one →
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  6. Andy permalink
    December 21, 2009 11:18 am

    @Jed,

    Well said sir. Could not have put it better myself.

    Andy.

  7. Jed permalink
    December 20, 2009 1:03 pm

    Mike, your absolutley right to highlight these economic consequences, however”

    “The Labour government is currently getting much heat for this, despite the fact that is a right and logical thing to do for a nation at war. They will likely lose the upcoming elections for certain now, despite the fact the Tories will probably continue the same policies.” – way, way, way off the mark with that one.

    I have made these comments here before, unlike the U.S. government, which to an extent “put its money where its mouth is” , the UK govt. has not. It expected to fight two wars (or a war on two fronts if you believe Iraq had anything to do with GWOT). There is plenty of good, sound academic and historically based research that suggests that even if U.S. / NATO had actually decided what success criteria for Afghanistan is, they would not be achieved.

    So, crappy stupid, morally bankrupt UK politicians have shredded the power and capability of the UK armed forces for based on the some bizarre notion that if you do not fight the mad Jihadi’s in Helmand, next year we will be fighting them in West Yorkshire, (the fabled “Battle of Bradford….”) – total and complete BS.

    So now, a Nation which is an island, which has only two days worth of food on its shores at anyone time, which imports over 90% of its energy by sea, has armed forces which could not meaningfully intervene any where useful to safeguard those food or energy imports (and which remains, despite the recession a member of the G7 and apparently the 6th most wealthy nation on earth) must “logically prioritize” its budgets to fight a war which it can’t win, its allies cant win, and to be honest, it would not know if it had won, because it has not stated what a win will look like !!!

    Stop defending crappy British governments, your not British, and don’t let them off the hook for not investing in, or supporting their own forces in a time of war (whether or not those wars should be fought in the first place).

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 19, 2009 3:31 pm

    “That does not mean we should recalibrate our entire military to fight a war that should not be fought ”

    Actually, it does, except for the nuclear deterrent. You can’t fight a war with one hand tied. And whose to say this is some different type of war than what we will face later. All we do is fight insurgencies since WW 2.

  9. Tarl permalink
    December 19, 2009 10:33 am

    Whether or not Afghanistan is the right or wrong war, the troops are going.

    That does not mean we should recalibrate our entire military to fight a war that should not be fought and, I predict, will not be fought for very much longer.

    Even the “light” forces you advocates cost far, far more to field than it costs to field an insurgent. So, this approach is still a financially asymmetric loser, it just loses a little less quickly. The phrase “throwing good money after bad” comes to mind…

  10. December 19, 2009 8:57 am

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/19/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  11. Distiller permalink
    December 19, 2009 7:18 am

    You know what I say? Even
    — recalling all ground and air troops from foreign soil NOW
    — retiring the Minutemen
    — reducing the Army to 100.000 men max (incl CS/CSS, reserves, &c), tasked with the defence of U.S. soil (and repealing the Dick Act of 1903 and what follows from it)
    — reducing the Air Force to three dozen Interceptor Sqdrs and Patriot Regiments, tasked with the defence of U.S. airspace
    and instead
    — making strategic ISR a priority
    — and only retaining a fast reaction capability to throw 100.000 expeditionary Marines onto foreign shores and sustain them there open end
    — and a fleet mostly made up of SSN, FFG, and whatever is needed for the above mentioned Marines
    would cause no real loss in world influence for the U.S.
    If you add all up, there are close to 4.000.000 govt employees *directly* involved in the U.S. security complex, with a budget that is probably 1.5 if not 2.0 trillion per year.
    That is just not sustainable.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 19, 2009 6:56 am

    Whether or not Afghanistan is the right or wrong war, the troops are going. Barring a full-scale battlefield disaster, even if America and Britain elects new governments next year, they are still going. So we support the troops. It’s all about them now.

  13. Hudson permalink
    December 19, 2009 2:27 am

    As I see it, there are basically three ways to win or lose in Afghanistan.

    (1) We make the million dollar man more cost effective in destroying the enemy. If the million dollar man can kill 200 or more enemy costing, say, $5k, all other things being equal (which they are not), then the Coalition Forces come out even or slightly ahead. In reality, the force multiplier is air power, in which we say to the Afghans in their mud huts: “We cannot guarantee your safety if you accept the Taliban into your village.” The Taliban threatens the villagers, barges in, and the village gets wiped out from the air. Before this policy gets very far, the international outcry over civilian loses dooms the option.

    (2) The million dollar man achieves his force multiplier through training 100 Afghan National Army soldiers at $10k to each kill two or more Taliban at $5k. Again, arbitrary figures. The U.S. has trained a small number of elite Afghan brigades that are paid much more than the average soldier and fire many more rounds in practice than the average soldier. The Taliban considers these brigades to be equivalent to American units. Remember this when someone makes the Afghanistan-Is-The-Graveyard-Of-Foreign-Empires argument. The Afghans will fight to prevent the return of the rein of terror they experienced under the Taliban previously. They need our help to do this.

    (3) We need an equivalent asymmetrical force on our side: a two-bit villager with a rifle who shoots the two-bit Taliban. There are a number of tribes, villages, regions, fighting the Taliban on their own. They already have guns. Special ops are dropping into these places, resupplying them. This was reported recently by Dexter Filkins of the NY Times. So, special ops are working again as in the 2001 war; and we are cobbling together something like the Northern Alliance only more disbursed in the region. Again, a hopeful sign. What is missing here is the massive use of air power.

    If all of these efforts fail and the Taliban takes over the country and launches relentless attacks against Pakistan, which becomes engulfed in chaos, then we either withdraw and accept the consequences, or fight to the full, or nearly full, extent of our military power—win, lose, or draw.

  14. Joe permalink
    December 18, 2009 10:30 pm

    Given the annual deficit projections for the coming decade, we could completely eliminate the Department of Defense and sell off our military hardware on ebay and that would still not bring the budget into balance in any given year.

    That doesn’t change the short-term political realities in Washington, I know, but given how sensitive politicians are to being thought of as “soft on defense” anymore, there will ultimately be a firewall beyond which cuts or shrinkage won’t be tolerated. I think that is where we (presently, anyway) differ from the U.K.

    Am I saying that defense should get a pass no matter the state of the economy? No. However, there is (as always) a right & wrong way to go about making the case for hardship adjustments.

  15. nico permalink
    December 18, 2009 9:34 pm

    “The staggering cost of the war highlights an aspect of asymmetric warfare worth noting: the insurgent has a huge advantage on the financial front…”

    This is one aspect that gets no play, no coverage in the media because it is too sobering. With all our technology and money, we can’t “win” these wars, we will probably go bankrupt first. How much does it cost the Taliban/AlQueda to fight us? What is their budget, funding? How long can they sustain operations? The answer to these questions might be more relevant to the success or failure of our military than deciding if we need more or less XYZ weapon systems.

    Now I would like to have some of the answers but probably be immediately classified Top Secret for 75 years.:)

  16. Alex 2.0 permalink
    December 18, 2009 9:33 pm

    Afghan costs the taxpayer between £4-5bn(+ other costs), defence spending hasn’t increased to compensate and thus there are huge black holes the in MoD budget (£35-40bn), Luckily Britain cannot sustain any more than 10,000 deployed troops long term or we’d be looking at a much larger figure.

  17. Tarl permalink
    December 18, 2009 9:29 pm

    Um, you know, if Afghanistan is too expensive, then perhaps we should stop throwing money and lives away in Afghanistan

    Afghanistan is broken and can never be fixed. It is a waste of time, money and lives. The right approach is economy of force – a small group dedicated solely to killing bad guys, not a huge “nation-building” effort.

  18. nico permalink
    December 18, 2009 9:12 pm

    I really believe the problem is that so many people and politicians still think the Cold war is on. We need to turn the page and realize that the threat has changed. It’s not about SS20 or how to stop T72s in the Fulda gap anymore. It’s acts of piracy, resource wars (ex:control of water…), genocide (ex:Tutsi vs Huttu…), terrorist attacks, failed states (ex:Somalia…) and on and on…….Yes, we still need some high end stuff like a few F22 and DDD51s but I think the military has to stop requesting so many gold plated system and focus more on simple, networked platforms that we can buy in meanful quantities.

    “Pay close attention to Britain. They are our wakeup call.” Exactly my thought for the last 2 years, it is so obvious, they are under more strain with less resources, it is to be expected that the cracks will show up in the British forces first.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 18, 2009 8:33 pm

    “In terms of GDP, spending now, with two wars going, is half what it was in most of the cold war and one seventh what it was in WWII.”

    Mrs. Davis you are correct except you are leaving out overall federal spending, which is about 1/3 our total economy, growing to half. In Europe it is 3/4 of the economy. This is something new for the West, unprecedented spending in peacetime, mainly for social programs, not much for growth. I don’t point this out much in the blog, but it has taken anyway any savings left from the drastically reduced defense spending on the GDP. There are no reserve funds and as we hear often enough in the news, we are in deficit.

    This more than anything is cause for the Military to start living within its means, doing more with less funds. I don’t think this is unreasonable because the rest of the government isn’t going to follow suit. Social spending is here to stay. I don’t agree with it, but historically it often happens, so I think we have to live with it.

    Pay close attention to Britain. They are our wakeup call.

  20. Mrs. Davis permalink
    December 18, 2009 7:14 pm

    It is no longer a matter of choosing what military we must have. The funds are no longer there, it has already been decided. Because of the immense cost of warfare today, especially new weapons and especially considering the financial crises we are enduring worldwide, the only choice left is extinction.

    What has been decided is that the threat is no longer there. That decision may lead to extinction, but I doubt it. Because when it is decided that there is sufficient threat, we have plenty of capacity to expand spending. In terms of GDP, spending now, with two wars going, is half what it was in most of the cold war and one seventh what it was in WWII.

    You must remember that much as the economy is in a position similar to that of 1930, not 1932, the perceived threat level of most Americans is at the 1934 level, not 1938. Remember that This too shall pass. And then things will be really bad.

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