By Larry Shaughnessy
Keeping one American service member in Afghanistan costs between $850,000 and $1.4 million a year, depending on who you ask. But one matter is clear, that cost is going up.
During a budget hearing today on Capitol Hill, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, asked Department of Defense leaders, "What is the cost per soldier, to maintain a soldier for a year in Afghanistan?" Under Secretary Robert Hale, the Pentagon comptroller, responded "Right now about $850,000 per soldier."
Conrad seemed shocked at the number.
"That kind of takes my breath away, when you tell me it's $850,000," Conrad said
A Pentagon spokesman later said a more accurate figure is $815,000 a year.
Regardless of which number is used Sen. Conrad would be really shocked by the estimate that the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments reached about the same issue.
"The cost per troop in Afghanistan has averaged $1.2 million per troop per year," the center's Todd Harrison wrote in an analysis of last year's Department of Defense budget.
Why the difference? Harrison said the center arrives at its figure by taking "the amount of money spent in Afghanistan for a year and dividing it up by the number of soldiers."
He believes Hale's estimate is lower because the Pentagon removes some costs, like construction, from the Afghanistan spending and divides that lower number by the number of troops.
But one thing is clear, the cost is rising. Hale said the Department of Defense figure was until recently $600,000 a year. And Harrison said the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments' estimate for 2012 is up to $1.4 million.
Harrison said there are two important factors contributing to the increase. There are fewer troops in Afghanistan than in 2011, and the latest Defense budget puts millions into war spending that in previous years were part of the department's base budget.
Hale sees another reason why it's climbing. The major component of the extra costs in Afghanistan are higher operating costs for weapons. When you're in a war you are operating a much higher tempo. "That's a good part that's probably 50% of the budget," he testified.
One thing is clear, the soldier impacts only a small percentage of that cost. A typical army sergeant with four years service makes a base pay of less than $30,000 a year.