National Public Radio has made headlines with a startling number for what the US spends to cool down tents in the Middle East.
In the first 35 seconds of the segment, you hear the figure three times: “$20.2 billion dollars.” It’s the amount that retired Brig Gen. Steve Anderson says the United States pays each year to keep the air conditioning chugging in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fuel being airdropped to soldiers in Afghanistan. Pic: US Army
During Rachel Martin’s NPR report that ran this past weekend looking at how much money the drawdown in Afghanistan will actually save the United States, the issue of the $20.2 billion for air conditioning looms large. The number dominated the story’s headline online, and lit up all the usual suspects: the blogosphere, Twitter and Facebook were full of people demanding answers to how such a ridiculous amount of money is being spent on something so seemingly tangential to the war effort. (Though try humping through Marja or Tal Afar in August and you’ll see how tangential cooled air is.)
When reached for comment and a bit of clarification, Anderson, who served as the senior logistician in Iraq (MNF-I) from Aug 2006 to Nov 2007, emailed that “my experience is 65% of the 2 million gallons of fuel I was moving every day in Iraq went to power generation,” and “65% of the ground fuel (not aviation) was going to power generators to provide the electrical energy needed to cool structures.”
The Pentagon has a hard time countering such estimates because it admits that it doesn't know the real answers. As assistant secretery of defense for operational energy plans and programs Sharon Burke said recently, the DoD doesn’t do a good job tracking where the fuel it ships to theater actually goes, though everyone agrees the vast majority goes to electric generators. Simply put, “you can't manage what you can't measure,” she said, since “we don’t have good data on power use at the source.”
Estimates I’ve seen—and which Burke herself has cited—calculate that 65 to 80 percent of all fuel sent to theater is sucked up by generators. (Not only air conditioning units, but all generators). But there are no hard numbers to crunch, just educated guesses, and Anderson, given his history and focus, is in an excellent position to make an educated guess.
Still, the $20.2 billion estimate is just that. A DoD spokesperson replies flatly that “No, DoD does not spend $20 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan … In Afghanistan, during Oct 2010-May 2011, DoD spent $1.5 billion to purchase 329.8 million gallons of fuel; about 10% of our worldwide total. That fuel was used for heating and air conditioning systems, but also for aircraft, unmanned aerial systems, combat vehicles, computers, and lighting in structures.”
In 2010, almost 5 billion gallons of petroleum was used in military operations around the globe, at a cost of $13.2 billion. But that’s just the cost of the fuel itself. Anderson’s point is that it isn’t just the fuel that is so expensive, it’s the logistics of shipping it to Iraq or Afghanistan, loading it onto trucks, and then driving those trucks—accompanied by large security details that include helicopters and gun trucks—hundreds or thousands of miles across hostile territory, that costs a lot of money.
It costs lives as well. One Army study estimates that between 2003 and 2007, 3,000 contractors, service members, and civilians were killed or wounded on fuel convoys.
In the end however, if the DoD spent $13.2 billion on global operational fuel in total last year, to take that number and add $7 billion to it just for air conditioning alone is hard to swallow, especially given that Anderson’s number is simply an estimate, and one from an analyst who works for a company that sells equipment to the government to cut down on fuel use.
There are estimates, and there are hard facts, and NPR did a poor job in distinguishing between the two.