Warfare Balance Sheet

In recent days President Obama has begun to clarify his intentions on how to prosecute the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His plans should be evaluated primarily for how well they would defend national strategic interests while protecting troops in the field. But in these tough budgetary times, we should also ask how the net effect of Mr. Obama’s planned changes will influence the budget deficit.

The short answer is that, as best I can tell from this vantage point in early 2009, Mr. Obama’s planned changes for Iraq and Afghanistan should save us $50 billion to $70 billion in fiscal 2011 and perhaps $80 billion to $100 billion a year in 2012 and beyond. Predicting such things requires, of course, many assumptions, and cannot be a very accurate enterprise. But as a rough basis for making future budget predictions, these figures seem to be the right ballpark.

The simplest way to understand the estimates is to recognize that, in recent years, we have been spending almost $1 million a year per deployed soldier or Marine, above and beyond the normal costs of maintaining the defense establishment. In 2007 and 2008 (since 2005, in fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office), we have averaged about 200,000 troops in the field between the two wars, including forces in places like Kuwait that sustain troops in the actual combat theaters.

By fiscal 2011, that combined number is expected to be about 125,000. By that point, Mr. Obama promises we will be down to no more than 50,000 U.S. uniformed personnel in Iraq, with perhaps another 10,000 in the region supporting them, and the expectation is that we will be fielding 60,000 to 70,000 personnel in and near Afghanistan.

By 2012, with luck the total will decline further (mostly due to further reductions in Iraq), to a total of perhaps 80,000 to 90,000.

Of course, things are not quite so simple. For starters, average costs per troop in Iraq have been somewhat less than $1 million per person, and in Afghanistan they have been perhaps slightly more than that, as recent Congressional Research Service reports by Amy Belasco make clear. As such, adding forces to Afghanistan while subtracting them from Iraq will produce somewhat less savings than a calculation based strictly on aggregate troop deployments would suggest.

Second, the Pentagon has a way of doing these cost calculations in surprising ways. One recent trend is the rapid growth in procurement dollars attributed to the wars over the last two years. In 2008, for example, procurement made up about $72 billion of the total of $188 billion war supplementals, whereas procurement had only totaled $17 billion in 2003 and 2004 combined (years when aggregate defense costs were about $150 billion for the 24-month period).

The reason is not that we are losing so much more equipment, or expending so much more ammunition, in recent battles compared with earlier years. Two other trends account for this rough quadrupling in the proportion of procurement funding in the supplemental requests. The less important trend, in dollar terms, is that we are buying more equipment like mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles now. Such equipment is quite expensive but clearly worth the cost because it keeps our troops alive.

But the far more significant trend, budgetarily, is that the military services have figured out how to put more of their normal procurement funding requests within the supplemental appropriations bills, understanding that the politics of defense presently make it very hard for Congress to cut the latter.

Mr. Obama’s decision to subject wartime funding costs to the same level of scrutiny that normal appropriations bills must face could mitigate this tendency. But I doubt it. In fact, the politics of defense will continue to make it very hard to deny funding for equipment even tangentially related to supporting troops in the field.

All this means that the above crude calculation could be wrong by roughly 25 percent in one direction or another. But it remains a reasonable guide to guesstimating future Pentagon war costs. Expenditures will likely remain roughly proportionate to numbers of troops deployed in the field, and incremental wartime costs per deployed troop will remain about $1 million a year. (Of course, only a very small portion of these costs are paid to the troops themselves. Most funds go to support combat operations and related activities, and to build up and sustain an overseas military infrastructure designed to keep troops safe, well supported, and as comfortable as possible.)

We live in strange times when we look to Iraq for good news, and to Pentagon war savings to reduce our federal deficit even as we ramp up military operations in Afghanistan. But we should in fact be able to save at least $50 billion a year in wartime expenditures by 2011, and perhaps as much as $100 billion thereafter — if things go as hoped and planned.