The Projected Cost and Nature of U.S. Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Counterterrorism Partnerships, European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), and the World

The United States is exceptionally transparent in reporting on its military activities and spending – but only in comparison to the far more limited level of transparency in most other governments. Security and “spin” still limit or color much of the official reporting, and it is often difficult to track any clear relationship between U.S. defense budgets and programs and what the U.S. actually spends on given wars. In most cases, it is even harder to determine what programs the United State is actually executing, and what the broad rhetoric used in official documents and briefings actually means.

U.S. National Security Strategy and Budget Documents: The Fog of Transparency in Dealing with the Fog of War

Almost all official U.S. reporting on strategy and future programs, for example, is so lacking in specifics that it justifies virtually anything the U.S. does, and is issued without supporting that rhetoric with either substantive cost-benefit analysis or meaningful measures of effectiveness. Like virtually every other country in the world, the budget data the United States issues is “line item” data that is tied to some broad category of what the United States buys rather than a key element of strategy, the efforts of a given major command, or a program budget that ties the assessment of spending to some key mission.

The United States has effectively abandoned any effort to justify and explain its national security efforts in terms of a public net assessment, future force plan, or “program budget” since the end of the Cold War. Where it once provided a clear Future Years Defense Program, and justification of that plan in terms of strategy, force plans, other details, and cost – the United States now issues a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that is so general and focused so far in the future as to be nearly meaningless. Its annual budget justifications only really cover the coming year and the strategy sections are not tied in any specific way to the force, readiness, and budget data that follow – either on a Department of Defense-wide basis or by military service.

Improving Reporting on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)

There are, however, exceptions. In the past, the United States dealt with the need to pay for ongoing military operations by voting for very broad and poorly defined supplementals to the regular defense budget and then by creating a very broad set of funding requests for an Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account that failed to provide enough data to explain what the money was being used for, or even to provide a credible accounting for given wars.

It is one of the ironies of the often intense U.S. political debates over both strategy and the use of force that neither the Executive Branch nor Congress ever really reported on the overall cost of the Afghan or Iraq Wars per se from FY2001/FY2002 to the present, and that the OCO account was sufficiently general so that the Departments of Defense and State used it to cover additional expenditures – sometimes with tacit Congressional support – that had little to do with actual OCO activity.

The quality of the Department of Defense budget requests and analysis of OCO operations has, however, improved with time. The broad budget briefs now submitted every year still do not attempt to project costs beyond the coming fiscal year, are not linked to any clearly defined net assessment of the threat or capabilities of U.S. partners and allies, or a strategy that links civil-military operations, anticipates the nature and cost of stability operations, or provides measures of effectiveness.

In fairness, however, there are real security reasons for limiting some of the missing data. War is an uncertain and constantly evolving business, and strategies and plans often fail to survive their encounter with reality. Ever since FY2014, the budget briefing data provide by the Comptroller of the Office of the Secretary of Defense have provided more data on the individual wars and key elements of OCO activity. (

New Report on Paying for America’s Wars in FY2017

In FY2016, these briefing data began to present supplements that covered individual wars in some depth, and in FY2017 they provide both overview and individual briefs on the Overseas Contingency Operations Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) , Overseas Contingency Operations Syria Train and Equip Fund (STEF) , Overseas Contingency Operations Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) , European Reassurance Initiative, and Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund.

All of these different reports on the President’s FY2017 budget request and Overseas Contingency Operations activities are combined in a new Burke Chair report entitled Paying for America’s Wars in FY2017: The Department of Defense and State Department Estimates of the Projected Cost and Nature of U.S. Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Counterterrorism Partnerships, European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), and the World .

This report is available on the CSIS web site at

Contents of the New Report

The key budget justifications included are all somewhat direct in scope and content, and in the insights that they can provide:

I. Introduction and Assessment

A summary of the contents, and assessment of each major OCO budget document.

II. Summary

This section provides a summary of major OCO programs and their costs. It projects a minor increase in funding from $58.6 billion to $58.8 billion, with most of the cost in Afghanistan, but a slight decline in funding from $42.9 to $41.7 billion. Iraq and Syria increase substantially from $5.0 billion to $7.5 billion, but these costs are minimal compared to Afghanistan and to the cost of the fighting in Iraq from 2003-2011. The European Reassurance Initiative acquires its first serious funding level – rising from $0.8 billion to $3.4 billion.

The sharp limits to the President’s decision to keep forces in Afghanistan are illustrated by the fact that U.S. military personnel drop from 10,012 in FY2015 to 9,737 in FY2016, and then to 6,217 in FY2017. As General Campbell indicated on his departure from command, these levels do not seem to reflect anything approaching a conditions-based assessment of Afghan needs or the security situation.

The U.S. personnel in Iraq are shown as constant at 3,550 in FY2017. This seems to reflect both the overt U.S. presence rather than the full numbers of U.S. personnel and to omit ongoing increases to over 4,000. The Summary does point out, however, that these levels may have to change.

The cost and personnel tables are also interesting in showing that most of the money and the vast majority of the 81,445 personnel projected for FY2017 are in in-theater support and CONUS. If this can be called some form of tooth to tail ration – which is questionable – the tail would be eight times larger than the teeth.

There is no projection of costs, but the roughly $59 billion requested for FY2017 compares with peak OCO levels of $187 billion in FY2008 and $159 billion in FY2011. Troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq have dropped from a peak of 187,000 in FY2008 to around 10,000 in FY2016 and FY2017.

As is the case with each of the specific budget justifications of each major OCO effort that follow, there is a great deal of useful information on training, troop activity, support, and specific aspects of the U.S. effort. At the same time, there is little or no explanation of the contingency planning and flexibility of given effort to deal with the uncertain and rapidly changing conditions of war, no threat analysis, minimal review of host country problems, no measures of effectiveness, and no serious effort to look at the longer-term implications of any given effort beyond FY2017.

III. Total OCO Funding

These data describe the trends in OCO spending relative to the “regular” or baseline” defense budget, and show OCO spending by major budget category. One striking point in terms of cost is that the Army still costs as much as the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force combined. Reducing troop levels does not mean that the Army does not play a major role in terms of activity and cost.

IV. Afghanistan

The detailed justification of the Afghan military effort provides a great deal of information on the training and equipment efforts, and their costs. It is not clear, however, how a force still fighting intense combat and taking significant combat losses of men and equipment can sustainably cut the total cost of U.S. support from $4.1 billion before transition to $3.4 billion in FY2017.

The assessment of Afghan military manning also raises issues. The army increases slightly and the air force drops – in spite of the need for more airpower. The police shift substantially towards what seems to be a greater combat role, but this is not explained either here or later in the more detailed section on Afghanistan. The impact of combat and attrition on both the Army and Police are not mentioned and the cost of warfighting seems to be unrealistically minimized.

In broad terms, a very high-risk U.S. effort that is driven more by a continuing effort to cut its size rather than by the conditions is presented in a way where these risks are not clear and often ignored. The level of need for added U.S. support in terms of forward deployed train and assist personnel and air power is not addressed.

There is a great deal of useful detail on the Afghan effort, but when it comes to any form of cost-benefit and risk analysis, the entire section is all spin and no substance and more of a warning of future problems than an adequate budget justification.

V. Syria

A budget request dealing with a totally unstable situation involving a significant amount of covert activity and complex relations between both hostile states and close allies has justifiable limits. This budget justification does, however, provide more open source details on the train and assist mission than any official reporting to date, as well as hint at the strategy that needs to be pursued in dealing with partner nations.

It also comes to grips with the need for a train and assist mission that extends down to the combat unit level – a point that is critically missing in the budget plans for Afghanistan and Iraq: “The DoD plans to implement a curriculum that develops effective ground enablers, fosters an effective and reliable chain of command, and procures sufficient materiel to provide the supported forces with a significant advantage over the enemy.”

The budget sheets do explain a great deal about the actual mission in the field, and the text addresses another key issue: “A potential risk to the program is that Vetted Syrian Opposition (VSO) forces may use the U.S. provided equipment and weapons for actions other than their intended purpose. DoD plans to mitigate risks through a variety of measures including using a rigorous and continuous screening process to identify and sustain viable Syrian opposition field commanders and units for participation in the program.”

What is not addressed are the past problems in creating effective rebel forces, challenges in dealing with different ethnic groups like the Kurds, and the challenges in focusing on ISIL or ISIS when virtually all the nations in the region—as well as most Syrian rebel groups – are focused on Assad. The effort in Syria is totally decoupled from the effort in Iraq, although both nations share a common border and ISIS threat.

More broadly, there is no coverage of the linkage between Syrian forces and U.S.-led air operations, discussion of the reasons for limitations that preclude air defense weapons, or reflection on the problems raised by the different interests of nations like Turkey, and operating in an environment where Iran and the Hezbollah provide further challenges.

VI. Iraq

The budget request for Iraq only deals with a small part of the effort to create effective Iraqi forces and to create a combined air-land operation that can defeat ISIS and liberate Western Iraq. It does not deal with the problems created by an Iran presence, Shi’ite-Sunni tensions, relying on a Kurdish minority, or the broader strategic context of a fight where defeating ISIS requires integration of air-land operations in both Iraq and Syria.

The data on progress to date in improving both Iraqi government and Kurdish forces ranges from minimal to non-existent. There is no meaningful threat assessment, and there are no measures of effectiveness in creating combat-capable Iraqi forces. The role of Iran and Shi’ite militias is ignored, and so are the impacts of failing to provide a train and assist mission that extends to the major combat unit level, and challenges in improving Iraqi coordination with the air operations of the U.S.-led coalition.

The report does, however, put the practical tasks of liberating Mosul in useful perspective, and its discussion of the Sunni “Hold Force” is perhaps the most detailed open source discussion to date. The section on equipment aid also provides a more tangible picture of the tactics used in dealing with ISIS forces.

The chart at the end on ammunition requirements – at a time when combat is still limited relative to what must take place to liberate Ninewa – also reflects the seriousness of the fighting.

VII. European Defense Initiative

This budget justification provides a highly detailed explanation of the new level of U.S. effort and is highly useful. It does provide a limited strategic rationale for U.S. actions, and makes no effort to put them in a broader alliance context. It does note, however, that the request will support an average strength of approximately 5,100 active and reserve component personnel in U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), including 4,955 Army personnel and 127 Air Force personnel. These personnel will participate in assurance and deterrence activities, including the expansion of planned exercises for enhanced NATO interoperability, rotations to increase the temporary presence or strengthen allied/partner capacity during planned exercise, and support to USEUCOM's Joint Exercise Program (JEP)/Joint Multi-National Readiness Center (JMRC) training events.

It also explains the swing in funding from $985 million in FY2015 to $789.3 million in FY2016 and then $3,419 million in FY2017.

The detailed text often reveals key priorities for improving allied capabilities as well as details on new prepositioning activities, and new exercise activities like cyberwarfare.

The key weakness in the ERI presentation does not lie in its contents but in the extremely uneven level of effort by European allies, and the lack of credible integrated planning and efforts by NATO’s European states and other friendly European states.

VIII. Counterterrorism Partnership Funds

Like Syria, this report deals with sensitive areas of cooperation in areas experiencing high levels of instability where the response must be flexible and ready to change. The report still, however, provides useful new data on the levels and type of effort for individual countries by AFRICOM, in the Levant, in the Arabian Peninsula, and in Central Asia.

IX: U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force Maps and Deployment Data

The maps and charts in this section put OCO operations in a broader context by showing where the United States deploys its forces and key data on the trends in these deployments. It also reveals, in passing, the total lack of coordination among the U.S. military services in presenting key aspects of their budget justifications. Every service has a radically different approach.

X. State Department FY2017 OCO Program

The U.S. State Department provides useful data on individual aspects of OCO expenditures, and key elements of parts of the OCO programs in given countries. If the country and region-specific sections are read in combination with the Department of Defense reports on the same OCO operations, it is possible to get a vague idea of how the military and civil efforts track – although no clear links are ever provided.

As is the case with the Department of Defense request, there is little or no explanation of the contingency planning and flexibility of given effort to deal with the uncertain and rapidly changing conditions of war, no threat analysis, minimal review of host country problems, no measures of effectiveness, and no serious effort to look at the longer-term implications of any given effort beyond FY2017.

However, its entire Congressional Budget Justification might be politely described as an analytic nightmare. It is broken down into sections by major budget activity where it is often impossible to determine where and how the money is actually spent. There are no sections that summarize spending by country and region, there is no effort to tie the reported OCO or other expenditures to an integrated civil-military plan, many OCO expenditures are not broken down by war or key area of activity, and OCO efforts clearly overlap with other country efforts that have an impact on contingency operations.

In some ways, the main value of the entire Congressional Budget Justification is to illustrate the major problems in coordinating and assessing activities within the State Department and the need to provide some integrated plan, program, and budget for each key OCO conflict and activity that would push the different departments involved – as well as the Congress – into developing something approaching the credible “whole of government” approach to civil-military operations that is now little more than a myth.