Keeping American soldiers cool in the 125-degree heat of Afghanistan and Iraq costs $20.2 billion a year, according to a report from National Public Radio (NPR).
NPR says that is more than the budget for NASA. And as Mother Jones points out, it is more than double the budget for the National School Lunch Program.
The cost comes not only from operating the air-conditioning units — which in many cases are attached to individual tents — but also from transporting fuel for the gas-powered machines to remote locations like Kandahar.
As retired Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson said on the NPR program "All Things Considered," "When you consider the cost to deliver the fuel to some of the most isolated places in the world — escorting, command and control, medevac support — when you throw all that infrastructure in, we're talking over $20 billion." Anderson recently served as chief logistician in Iraq for Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Every gallon of fuel needed to run military air conditioners in Afghanistan must first be flown into Karachi, Pakistan. It is then transported by convoy as far as 800 miles to bases and outposts, a journey that can take 18 days.
According to Anderson, more than 1,000 U.S. troops have died defending fuel convoys. He says that making free-standing tents more efficient could save money and lives.
There are ideas about how to achieve greater efficiency. Anderson points to an experimental process that covers tents with polyurethane foam insulation that can reduce air-conditioning energy use by 92 percent. But despite ongoing initiatives to make the U.S. military more efficient, Anderson says the polyurethane idea has yet to gain support. "A simple policy signed by the secretary of defense — a one- or two-page memo, saying we will no longer build anything other than energy-efficient structures in Iraq and Afghanistan — would have a profound impact," he said.
The need for fuel also slows down military operations. One commander in Afghanistan told Anderson that "He literally has to stop his combat operations for two days every two weeks so he can go back and get his fuel. And when he's gone, the enemy knows he's gone, and they go right back to where they were before. He has to start his counter-insurgency operations right back at square one."
According to a report from the Daily Mail, the total annual budget for the war in Afghanistan is $107 billion. (Note that's just Afghanistan. If you want to see a deeper breakdown of war funding since Sept. 11, 2011, here's a pdf from the Congressional Research Office.) If you want to read the full story from NPR — which puts the economics of war in perspective — click through here.
(Editor's note: The Pentagon is now disputing the air-conditioning numbers raised by Anderson in the original NPR story.)