We Could Take a Lesson From Islamist Militants When It Comes to ROI

“Determining just how expensive,” an improvised electric device is, writes Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s the Danger Room, “is difficult, owing to all of the different components in the bombs. But according to the Pentagon’s bomb squad, the average cost of … the cheapo IEDs have dropped from $1,125 in 2006 to $265 in 2009.”

Whereas

… the U.S.’ measures to stop them — robots, optics, flying sensors — are orders of magnitude more expensive. Explosive ordnance detection teams in Afghanistan use a small robot called a “Devil Pup” to locate IEDs. JIEDDO has paid $35 million for the 300 mini-robots.

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is becoming not only an occasion to take the national pulse, but to add up the figures spent on war. On June 29, a Brown University research team issued a report that grew into a website named Costs of War. Contributors include Andrew Bacevich, Dahr Jamail, and William Hartung. At Huffington Post, Elise Foley wrote:

Even just paying the interest on the United States’ war debt will be a large endeavor, according to the report, at a time when the country is set to exceed its current debt limit of $14.29 trillion. The government has already paid about $185 billion in interest on war spending, and could accrue another $1 trillion — an amount not included in the $3.7 trillion estimate — in interest by 2020.

One of Costs of War’s directors, Catherine Lutz, said “Wars, in a sense, are never over when they’re over. … They go on for decades, and [some of] the peak costs for this war will be incurred forty years from now.”

A double standard exists for the defense budget. Even when it’s being scrutinized — and even cut by Republicans — the underlying assumption seems to be that national security is automatically entitled to a disproportionate amount of the budget. During wartime, constraints against spending are further loosed and the prevailing attitude seems to be that we’ll figure out how to pay for it later.

Those days are obviously over. If only to avoid being humiliated by insurgents pulling off successful operations for what amounts to a handful of change, boring principles such as cost-benefit analysis and return on investment must assume pride of place.