War Costs Part 3: The Exploding Defense Budget

Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the economic costs of the war in Afghanistan. Part one, $570 Billion and Counting, can be found here. Part two, The War That Won’t End, can be found here.

U.S. soldiers and Marines, along with Afghan National Army soldiers, detonate explosives near an enemy fighting position. August 2008.

An Exploding Defense Budget: One Result of Afghan War

According to official accounts, the war in Afghanistan has cost the United States over $570 billion to date. However, the actual cost of the war has been much greater. A blank check for the war budget allowed the broader defense budget to spiral out of control.

Today, policymakers struggle to rein in Pentagon spending, which has taken an almost sacred status over a decade with little accountability.

The way we budgeted for the war in Afghanistan directly contributed to the spike in defense spending over the past decade. Funding for the war was separated from other defense spending into its own account. The “overseas contingency operations” account, as it was called, was supposed to include all the costs of the war; other defense spending, called the base defense budget, was in the traditional accounts.

The goal of the separate war account was to ensure that combat operations received adequate support, without forcing tradeoffs with base defense costs.

What actually happened was that both the base and the war budget exploded. Policymakers were hesitant to scrutinize spending labeled “for the war.” As a result, the war budget account was the perfect safety valve—a hiding place for defense costs that couldn’t fit into the base defense budget.

Policymakers weren’t eager to trim the base defense budget either. From 2001 to 2011, the amount appropriated for the base defense budget totals $5.2 trillion, an increase of $670 billion over the pre-2001 defense budget plan.

More than ten years of war helped to foster an aura of sacredness around the defense budget. Policymakers, unwilling to exercise oversight, turned a blind eye to budget gimmicks and signed off on the Pentagon’s requests each year.

Today, we’re starting to feel the the results going ten years without taking a hard look at defense spending. With the national debt at $16 trillion and counting, policymakers are trying to rein in out-of-control spending. Reintroducing fiscal responsibility to the Pentagon budget is proving difficult, but eliminating unnecessary defense programs is the key to a more effective and efficient defense strategy.

Ending the war in Afghanistan is a good place to start. Fiscally responsible policymakers know that much of the $570 billion allocated for the war in Afghanistan was spent unnecessarily. Eliminating waste in the war budget is one step towards a smarter, more sustainable defense strategy.

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One Response to War Costs Part 3: The Exploding Defense Budget

  1. Gordon Adams says:

    It’s even worse than you say. In reality, there was no war account separate from the base account. The funds all go into the same accounts, which gave DOD huge fungibility, especially for the operations and maintenance spending, which is about a third of the base funds and two thirds of the war funds. Discipline disappeared, as a result.

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