War costs skyrocket due to wear, tear

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WASHINGTON – The cost of the war in Iraq is skyrocketing, largely because tanks, trucks, helicopters and other military gear are wearing out in Iraq’s harsh climate and have to be replaced faster than ever before, a review of military budgets shows.

The Pentagon’s cost for new weapons and equipment has risen sharply since U.S. troops entered Iraq, from about $8 billion in 2003 to more than $24 billion this year, according to statistics compiled by the Congressional Research Service. As a percentage, new equipment now accounts for 20 percent of military expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan; in 2003, new equipment purchases accounted for about 10 percent of spending.

Pentagon spending also has shot up for so-called operations and maintenance in Iraq, from $43 billion a year in 2003 to $64 billion in 2006, though it’s impossible to know precisely how much of that increase is due to repairs on damaged equipment. Those figures also include such items as costs for health care and Iraqi troop training.

The impact of the war on the military’s preparedness is a growing point of concern. A report issued this week by two policy research groups in Washington, the Center for American Progress and the Lexington Institute, warned that wear and tear from the Iraq war might affect the military’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Questions of preparedness will linger even after combat ends in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We found that much of the Army’s arsenal of combat systems was old when the war began and is wearing down at such a rate that there are real questions about the nation’s future and military preparedness,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.

The Army is requesting $13.5 billion this year to repair, replace or upgrade equipment lost or damaged in the war. And officials estimate that the Army will need $12 billion to $13 billion a year for these purposes until at least two years after most troops have left Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cost of replacing equipment is one of the factors likely to make Iraq one of the costliest military engagements in U.S. history.

If Congress passes the emergency spending request that’s before the Senate, the cost of military operations since the 9-11 terrorist attacks will top $439 billion, with $320 billion of that for the Iraq war alone, according to a report this week by the Congressional Research Service.

Even with a significant reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next several years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that total war spending could top $811 billion by 2016.

For comparison, the 1991 Persian Gulf War cost about $89 billion in today’s dollars, while the Korean War cost $455 billion and the Vietnam War cost $655 billion, according to Steven Kosiak, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research group in Washington.

“This war is turning out to cost far more than anticipated and not simply because we had to stay in Iraq with far more troops and far longer than the Bush administration expected,” Kosiak said. “Compared to past wars and earlier projections of war costs made by the Congressional Budget Office and others, this war is turning out to be very expensive.”

None of these upward trends are expected to decline anytime soon.

Last year, the CBO estimated that there was a $13 billion backlog of maintenance and repair costs for war-damaged equipment. It estimated that as much as $60 billion would be needed through 2016, even with a significant reduction in forces in both countries.

Nearly all of the impact has been on the Army and Marines, who’ve borne the brunt of the ground fighting. Marine Corps officials estimate they’ll need at least $12 billion overall to replace lost or damaged equipment.

Army officials say they can’t predict what their total costs for equipment and repairs will be. “It’s somewhat of a moving target,” Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey said Friday during a breakfast with reporters.

Combat in Iraq is pushing military equipment far beyond its usual use.

For example, the Army’s M1 Abrams tanks, which normally drive 800 miles a year during peacetime training, are covering 5,000 miles a year in Iraq, more than six times their normal rate, according to a General Accountability Office report issued last October.

M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles are being used just as heavily, while Humvees and medium and heavy cargo trucks are being used at 10 times their normal rate.

Helicopters in Iraq are being used at two to five times their normal rate.

“At these elevated rates of utilization, combat systems quickly become unusable without frequent maintenance and repair,” said the report from the Center for American Progress and the Lexington Institute.

The study recommended that Congress fund the Army’s full $9 billion emergency request for equipment repair and replacement costs this year and provide a similar amount for as long as the Army is in Iraq.

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