WASHINGTON -- A forthcoming request for additional funds to continue waging war in Iraq will not begin to address the "hidden cost" of the conflict, according to Pentagon officials and other government authorities who say that tens of billions of dollars more will eventually be needed to repair or replace heavily used equipment and to compensate for the wear and tear on members of the armed services.
The Pentagon next month plans to ask Congress for up to $100 billion in supplemental funds to pay for the ongoing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing the total budgeted so far to well over $200 billion. But military officers say the administration's estimates do not include the investment that will be necessary to fix what they say they fear is becoming a broken ground force.
"We're going to be paying for this war for years to come," Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said by telephone yesterday from the Middle East, where he has been touring US military bases in Iraq. "We are not preparing for much of the cost."
If the war were to end today, according to a preliminary estimate by the Congressional Budget Office that was described by officials who have been briefed on it, the Army would still need at least $20 billion more than budgeted over the next three years just to be at the same level of preparedness as before the war.
All four branches of the military recently completed a "stress study" ordered a year ago by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to determine the impact the war is having on equipment. "What they found was an amazing toll on combat vehicles, generators, just about everything," said a defense analyst involved in the study. "At some point it doesn't make sense to overhaul the equipment, you have to replace it."
The forthcoming Iraq supplemental request is expected to include several billion dollars to replace lost and damaged equipment and pay for maintenance in Pentagon equipment depots, according to a Pentagon official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. However, that money will largely cover current expenses, not the long-term costs specialists say will burden the federal budget for years to come.
The Army and Marine Corps, and a growing number of National Guard and Reserve units, are burning through trucks and armored vehicles at rates between five and 10 times the peacetime average, according to a confidential briefing prepared by budget analysts and Army officials.
As a result, tanks, trucks, aircraft, and other equipment are aging much more quickly than anticipated. By some estimates, up to 40 percent of certain classes of ground equipment will have to be overhauled or replaced.
Yet the Bush administration's current practice of only asking Congress for money to cover the operating costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars does not account for the need to fund readiness for future missions.
"We have to account for the overall cost of this war -- not just the public cost, but the hidden cost," Meehan said.
The stress on Army equipment, and growing concerns about the impact of the Iraq war on military readiness, has led to calls from members of Congress to immediately begin increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
Led by Senator John F. Kerry, who called for adding 40,000 ground troops to the ranks during his failed presidential bid last year, 21 Democratic senators sent a letter to President Bush yesterday urging him to set aside money in the fiscal 2006 defense budget -- also headed to Congress for review in February -- to increase the Army and Marine Corps.
The United States military is too small for the missions it faces," the lawmakers wrote. "Simply put, success in modern war requires sufficient boots on the ground. With nearly 150,000 troops and Marines in Iraq, nearly 20,000 in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands more in Korea and elsewhere, we are left to conclude that the American military is too small, not simply for the challenges we face today, but also as an appropriate hedge against future dangers."
Concerns that the Iraq war will ultimately cost billions more than estimated before the end of the decade stem from the grinding toll the conflict is taking on the US military machine -- ground forces in particular.
Already the Iraq operation has uncovered funding shortages in the Army that will have to be met with funds not included in the supplemental spending packages. An estimate by the Army, which was obtained by the Globe, paints an even bleaker picture than did the Congressional Budget Office analysis. The Army briefing estimates that in fiscal years 2005, 2006, and 2007, more than $35 billion could be needed to pay for backlogged equipment maintenance, battle losses, and to replace dwindling stocks prepositioned in the Persian Gulf.
"The cost of the war will continue for a decade," said Brett Lambert, a defense budget specialist at Defense Forecasters International, a Washington consulting firm. "The roughly $500 billion we spend annually on defense is just the retainer. On top of that you have the supplementals, but they pay mostly for operations and maintenance," or what is needed in the short term to keep the war going.
Steve Kosiak, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, believes that equipment costs as a result of the Iraq war will not be as great as some others predict, noting that much of the equipment being overused would have to be replaced anyway because it has already been in service for several decades.
Nevertheless, he said, "the supplemental was designed to replace equipment directly destroyed in combat or damaged. It hasn't paid for replacing equipment because of the wear and tear."
Such hidden equipment costs now being estimated will even be larger when financial packages to keep soldiers in the ranks and attract new recruits, disability and death benefits, and other healthcare costs are factored in, specialists said. "That is a cost burden that continues for generations," said Lambert.
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