Assessing war costs tricky, but adding up

Monday, November 12, 2001

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. helicopter lost in Afghanistan a week ago cost up to twice as much as the government spends yearly on scenic byways. Each cruise missile is worth several American homes.

The total expense of the Afghan war may be nearly as hard to find as people hiding in Afghan caves. By one estimate, the military assault is costing $500 million to $1 billion a month -- and above the $1 billion in promised U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan, and debt relief for the country.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private research group that closely examines the cost of war, offered that monthly figure. Precision is impossible without knowing more about how many bombs are being dropped and what is happening with U.S. forces on the ground, among other variables.

Still, parts of the war are adding up: The estimated $5,000 an hour to fly a Navy FA-18 fighter-bomber, the $25,600 cost of one of the frequently used Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, the top-of-the-line Tomahawk cruise missiles.

As for a running total, "It's very much ballpark," said Steven M. Kosiak, the center's director of budget studies. Some other analysts have projected higher costs.

Stretched over a year, the price of the war could be $12 billion, half of what the federal government spends on medical research.

By comparison, the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 cost the United States about $3 billion.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War cost America an estimated $61 billion, but all but about $7 billion was reimbursed by allies. By some accounting methods, the United States may have even made a profit.

Munitions at the disposal of U.S. forces in the Afghan war vary wildly in price.

From the bargain basement: The 500-pound M-117, dropped from a heavy bomber, for a mere $300 apiece.

At the high end: Tomahawk cruise missiles costing $600,000 to $1 million each, many times more than the $147,100 median price of an American home.

U.S. officials said 50 Tomahawks alone were launched in the opening assault, some from British forces, making an expensive debut. Dependence on cruise missiles has lessened since then.

Hard to assess

Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hansen said it takes time to calculate costs above those normally associated with having forces abroad in peacetime.

"The Department of Defense will be collecting those figures but at this point, a month into the conflict, we don't have them," she said.

On the home front, a study has taken a stab at the costs of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and all their fallout -- an expense likely to dwarf the costs of the Afghan war.

Peter Navarro, an economist at the University of California in Irvine, calculated $100 billion in costs so far, nearly half from lost productivity, sales, advertising dollars and airline revenue in the immediate aftermath. That is apart from stock market losses.

Long-term costs are so speculative and dependent on government policy that Navarro did not add them up.

But his calculations do include "terrorist tax" items costing billions to make flying safer. They include $20 to $40 an hour for the time each person wastes by going to the airport 90 minutes earlier.

"The stakes here are simply breathtaking," Navarro wrote in the report for the Milken Institute.

To assess the cost of the fighting overseas, budget analysts have the experience of past wars to draw from.

Kosiak came to his projection in two ways: one using costs of strike missions over Kosovo and Iraq and applying them to the current conflict, the other by adding up everything known about the Afghan campaign.

Altogether, he calculated that the first 25 days cost $400 million to $800 million.

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