The cost of protecting our troops

One of the more controversial moments of Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as secretary of Defense occurred when he responded to a question by an Army sergeant about why U.S. units in Iraq were forced to improvise armored protection for their vehicles.

Rumsfeld’s answer included the unfortunate line, “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have.” Given the circumstances, the line was unnecessarily flippant. Except for the tone, however, he was simply stating a truism about war.

Although Rumsfeld was excoriated by the press, his comment could have provided the basis for a much-needed discussion about the readiness of the U.S. military to fight the type of enemy it faces in Iraq. Instead it became the source of more of the ultra-partisan demagoguery that has characterized much of the opposition to the war. Sorting out this situation requires an understanding of at least three “costs” associated with providing protection in wartime.

The first, and most obvious, cost is the monetary one of providing U.S. forces with such protective gear as body armor and vehicles that afford protection from mines and roadside bombs. This is the cost that most critics have focused on when complaining that the administration was negligent for sending American forces to war without giving them the best possible protection.

This is a fairly easy criticism to answer. A standard Humvee costs about $75,000. An armored version costs twice as much. Given that the added weight of the armored version halves its service life, the cost of replacing a single unarmored Humvee with an armored one is actually $300,000. Because even the armored version provides only minimum protection against a large roadside bomb, a new type of mine- resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle has been developed that can cost between $450,000 and $1 million.

Ask yourself this. If, before we invaded Iraq, the military had requested that Congress appropriate the funds needed to replace every Humvee with either an armored version or an MRAP, what are the odds that Congress would have complied?

One clue to the answer can be found by looking at what economists call opportunity cost. In this case, the opportunity cost would be whatever the military would have to give up for every additional protected vehicle it bought. Even during World War II, when the United States dedicated more than a third of its gross domestic product (GDP) to defense, the military still could not afford to have the best of everything it needed.

During the war, Americans carried the world’s best combat rifle, but their tanks were no match for those of the Germans. We made up for the difference in part by emphasizing quantity over quality, but Americans nevertheless died because of the decisions to spend money on weapons other than tanks. By the end of the war, Germans were flying a variety of jet fighters and bombers. No American jets saw combat in the war. The United States focused its efforts instead on building the atomic bomb and the world’s most effective strategic bomber, the B-29, to deliver it.

Opportunity cost doesn’t just affect the military. Even though the United States devotes less than 5 percent of its current GDP to defense, many Americans appear to resent those expenditures because they want them to be applied to domestic programs such as health care, welfare, and education. In a book written during the Vietnam War, for example, Noam Chomsky noted that a single B-52 raid cost the same as building 27 elementary schools. He obviously didn’t care about the American lives saved during the siege of Khe Sanh where B-52 raids decimated the North Vietnamese divisions trying to overrun the U.S. base. Even if the military were funded at a rate equivalent to that of World War II, it would still face some hard decisions about how much more to spend on protection.

Such decisions would involve what might be called mission cost. How does more protection affect the ability of an individual or a unit to accomplish the mission? An armored Humvee provides more protection for its crew, but the added weight of the armor limits its ability to travel off road, a basic requirement for military vehicles. Ironically, the armored version is also more likely to roll over than the unarmored one. A significant number of Americans have been killed in Humvee accidents directly related to the added protection.

Another mission cost involves the nature of the counterinsurgency. A vital requirement for counterinsurgency forces is the ability to connect with the population and gain its confidence. That is difficult to do when the population only sees their supposed protectors in armored vehicles or wearing full sets of body armor when on foot. A force that sees its primary mission as one of protecting itself is not likely to defeat an insurgency.

If you really care about the safety of our troops, ask yourself the following before you become too outraged over the apparent lack of protection afforded them. How can all of the costs of protection best be balanced to provide the troops adequate protection without unnecessarily impeding their ability to accomplish the mission?

(Col. Theodore L. Gatchel (U.S.M.C. Ret.), is a military historian and a professor of operations at the Naval War College. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.)