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Cost of Iraq war will surpass Vietnam by year's end

If Congress approves a request for another $87 billion, the Iraq war will have cost about $694 billion. The Vietnam war cost $686 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars; World War II cost $4 trillion.

April 11, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — The amount of U.S. money spent on the Iraq war will surpass the cost of Vietnam by the end of the year, making it the second most expensive military conflict in American history, behind World War II, according to Pentagon figures provided Friday.

If Congress approves the supplemental funding request submitted this week by the Obama administration, the cost of the war will rise by $87 billion for 2009, including a previous supplement approved during the Bush administration.

Added to the amount spent through 2008, it would mean the Iraq war will have cost taxpayers a total of about $694 billion. By comparison, the Vietnam War cost $686 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars and World War II cost $4.1 trillion, according to a Congressional Research Service study completed last year.

In Vietnam, U.S. forces at their peak had up to three times as many troops at any one time as in Iraq and suffered 58,000 deaths, more than 13 times as many as have died in Iraq. There are two broad reasons for the added expense of the Iraq war: people and equipment.

The Iraq war is the second-longest modern war ever fought with an all-volunteer U.S. force, behind the smaller-scale effort in Afghanistan. Volunteer forces are more expensive because of the higher salaries and related costs needed to retain people.

"This is a volunteer military, which is pretty unusual in an extended war," said Stephen Biddle, a military historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. "And people cost more."

U.S. officials in Iraq also have relied heavily on private contractors, used to protect diplomats and defend bases, transport provisions and staff essential services such as providing food.

A Congressional Budget Office report last year estimated there were 190,000 contract workers employed by U.S. agencies in Iraq -- more than the number of U.S. military personnel at the peak of the buildup in forces in 2007, about 160,000 to 170,000 troops. The salaries earned by the contractors were far higher than those of soldiers.

Medical care in Iraq has also been expensive, Biddle noted. Combat doctors have been able to save soldiers, sailors and Marines who in earlier conflicts would have died. Both the initial treatment and long-term care are costly.

"Certainly many, many more people who get hit by enemy fire live through the experience, and I suspect that treating someone who survives is more expensive than having them die, in dollar terms," Biddle said.

The cost of the Iraq war has also been driven up by the equipment used. The roadside bombs and sandstorms of Iraq have destroyed very expensive, often high-tech equipment at far more rapid rates than the military expected.

U.S. forces are fielding some of the best and most sophisticated forces of any military. But all of that high-tech equipment is more expensive than the hardware used in previous conflicts.

War costs have also been driven up because the Pentagon has used post-Sept. 11 funding to modernize U.S. forces. For instance, the budget request sent to Congress this week would replace lost F-16 and F-15 fighters with four of the far more expensive F-22s, at a cost of $600 million.

Questions remain over the accuracy of comparing the costs of wars across decades, and scholars warn of the potential for distortion.

"The world has gotten steadily more expensive," said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a think tank. "How do you relate the cost of an old Sherman tank to a modern M1 tank?"

But Cordesman agreed that the Iraq war has been very expensive, and in some ways has cost more than it should have.

By trying to do reconstruction projects while fighting a war, U.S. officials wasted millions of dollars, Cordesman said. Similarly, the failure to build up the Iraqi army and police quickly enough allowed the security situation to grow ever worse in the early years of the war, he said.

Although the cost of the war in 2009 will shrink compared with 2008, the cost of the Afghanistan war has begun to increase.

The U.S. spent $34 billion in Afghanistan in 2008. This year, the Obama administration, which is sending additional forces to the country, plans to spend $47 billion.

Military analysts believe Iraq war costs will continue to decline and the Afghanistan war costs will increase.

President Obama intends to withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of August 2010, but that plan would leave 35,000 to 50,000 in the country in largely supportive roles.

Under a security agreement with Iraq, the U.S. is supposed to withdraw all of its forces by the end of 2011.

But Biddle said that agreement could be renegotiated.

"The pace of cost reductions will be driven by the drawdown," he said. "If all Americans are out of Iraq by 2011, it will cost zero. But I am not sure that is written in stone."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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