U.S. Military Spending: The Cost of Wars
(Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies; issued July 10, 2017)
By Anthony Cordesman
One of the striking aspects of American military power is how little serious attention is spent on examining the key elements of its total cost by war and mission, and the linkage between the use of resources and the presence of an effective strategy.

For the last several decades, there has been little real effort to examine the costs of key missions and strategic commitments and the longer-term trends in force planning and cost. Both the Executive Branch and the Congress have failed to reform any key aspect of the defense and foreign policy budgets to look beyond input budgeting by line item and by military service, and doing so on an annual basis.

The program budgeting and integrated force planning efforts pioneered towards the end of the Eisenhower Administration—and put into practice in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations—have decayed into hollow shells. The effort to create meaningful Future Year Defense Programs seem to have been given a final death blow by the Budget Control Act (BCA)—legislation originally designed to be so stupid that the Congress could not possibly accept it. Efforts to integrate net assessment with budget submissions were effectively killed by the Joint Staff decades earlier, during the Reagan Administration.

Critical Failures by Both the Executive Branch and Congress

What is even more striking, is the failure of both recent presidents and the Congress to properly analyze and justify the cost of America's wars. If one counts the Cold War, the United States has been at war for virtually every year since 1941. The United States has been actively in combat since late 2001, and there is little prospect that it can end the need to use force to check terrorism and violent extremism within the next decade. Moreover, the Cold War may be over, but the United States still faces strategic challenges from Russia and the emergence of China as a major global power in what is already a multipolar world.

"War" may not be the normal state of U.S. national security planning indefinitely into the future, but war—and/or the constant risk of war—is a grim reality of our time. Yet, the Administration and the Congress have tended to treat warfighting as a temporary aberration—as something to be delt with by supplementals or creating short-term budget categories like the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account that seem to reflect the cost of wars, but have become something of a slush fund and a mechanism for selectively avoiding the caps on defense spending set by the BCA.

Reporting by the Executive Branch seems almost designed to obscure the real costs of conflict, and avoid linking them to an examination of strategy, its effectiveness, and the prospects for conflict termination. Reporting on the civil dimensions of war is often lacking, and the civil and military budgets of war are developed and implemented separately by the departments and then reviewed (if at all) by separate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees in each house and by separate elements in the appropriations committees.

Lip service references to a "whole of government approach" thinly disguise a real-world separation of what should be a fully integrated civil-military approach, and what is really a "hole in government" approach where the State Department and USAID often seem at least partially decoupled from the realities of warfighting and the Department of Defense focuses on tactical success rather than the political, economic, or broader strategic goals in warfare.

The Congress has done no better. Ironically, members of Congress are fond of criticizing the Administration for lacking a strategy. The Congress, however, can be criticized for failing to insist on adequate reporting of wartime budgets and examining their costs in detail. Aside from independent efforts by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), neither the Executive Branch nor the Congress have ever issued an official report on the costs of American's ongoing wars, examined the trends in these costs, or insisted on meaningful reporting on their effectiveness.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS), and the General Accountability Office (GAO), have provided several reports that do provide important insights into the cost of America's wars and the problems in the ways in which they are reported. (end of excerpt)


Click here for the full report (159 PDF pages) on the CSIS website.

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