From today’s New York Times, “David Petraeus Urges Stronger U.S. Military Effort in Syria”:

“A Pentagon effort to train rebel forces to take on the Islamic State has produced only a handful of fighters. Officials with United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, said Monday that only about 70 individuals who had been trained under a $500 million program to take on the extremists were currently in the field.”

Leaving aside the fact that David Petaeus has apparently finished his moral timeout, and is now qualified to be a foreign policy advisor, I couldn’t resist doing the math on this one.  Assuming that all $500 million was actually spent on 70 Syrian fighters, which is probably not the case, that works out to $7,142,857 per moderate Syrian rebel.  

While it’s tempting to think that it would be cheaper, or at least only slightly more expensive, to develop sentient autonomous killer robots, it’s worth noting that putting a soldier in the field in the contemporary battlespace, according to Western standards of warfighting, is expensive.

In 2012, CNN reported that it cost between $800,000 and $1.4 million to deploy a US soldier.  I haven’t found any figures on what it costs to deploy a Canadian Forces member per year, in 2010 the Vancouver Sun reported that if you divided the 2010 cost of the Afghanistan mission by the number of soldiers deployed, that worked out to about $550,000 per military member in theatre.  That figure did not take into account the cost of the member’s salaries, or the differences in equipping and training, say, a combat infantry soldier from a helicopter pilot.

These estimates don’t take into account the long-term costs of pensions, post war retraining (e.g. GI Bills) and medical support and rehabilitation for seriously wounded soldiers, who are much more likely to survive than than were in previous wars.   These costs are not likely to be born by the US for proxy Syrian fighters, but they should be considered in the cost that a first-world country will bear in fielding a combat force.

As politicans talk about what sort of standing militaries their countries should have to protect national interests and project power abroad, and whether highly paid volunteer militaries are still viable (as opposed, say, to some form of national service), constituents need to reflect on what they are willing to pay for.  Furthermore, when a politican includes expensive military commitments among his or her campaign language (viz. Ms. Fiorina at the most recent Republican candidates’ debate), it’s worth asking what the actual cost of militar force in the 21st century actually might be.


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