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JULIETTE KAYYEM

The $600,000 budget thorn

AFP/Getty Images

A MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle operated by US Marines patrols in Afghanistan.

In November 2008, President-elect Obama’s transition teams were deployed to federal agencies to be briefed on priorities and budgets. I served on the review team for the Department of Homeland Security, where I would later work. It is an odd but time-honored process: the old guard briefing the new guard. It represents the best of peaceful democratic transitions.

Briefer after briefer would come into the room and tell us that some particular program or purchase was essential to America’s security, so essential that to end or modify it would put lives at risk. It is difficult to judge such assessments until you get inside. But the bigger problem was how the security debate was framed: ratcheting up saves lives, ratcheting down kills Americans. But presenting only those two alternatives cheats the process. The long-ago transition provides a glimpse into the frustrating nature of the security budget debates today.

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The fights over military spending are focused on the potential across-the-board $500 billion cuts, known as sequestration, that will automatically take place if Congress does not come up with another plan to reduce government debt. However it gets resolved politically, the question now isn’t whether the budget should be cut, but which programs or policies should be axed. Fighter jets? The nuclear arsenal? What should we ratchet down?

It is in this fog of war that the discussion about one type of vehicle, costing $600,000 each, shows all that is wrong about the way we think about, and talk about, security budgets. Mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, are a kind of fighting vehicles suited up with heavy amounts of armor. They have saved lives in Iraq and Afghanistan for combat troops because they are designed to be resistant to IEDs.

How many lives? Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that MRAPs had saved “thousands and thousands of lives.” A later internal report put the number at 40,000 troops, suggesting that Iraq and Afghanistan casualties would have reached the levels of Vietnam without the car. Really? If that were true, then we had better order a lot of them.

But a recent analysis by Chris Rohlfs and Ryan Sullivan for Foreign Affairs Magazine provides a very different take on the MRAP debate. In the study titled “The MRAP Boondoggle” at foreignaffairs.com, they show how the MRAP analysis is stuck in the conundrum of whether to ratchet spending up or down. The authors believe that the Pentagon came to the 40,000 number when it simply “added up the number of enemy-initiated attacks in which MRAPs were involved, added up the number of troops who were in those MRAPs, and counted each one as a life saved.”

The Pentagon’s number does not compare MRAPs to any alternatives. It assumes a world in which there are only MRAPs or horse-drawn carriages.

Through their analysis of Pentagon data, Rohlfs and Sullivan found that while MRAPs are necessary for heavy combat, for “most units, tactical wheeled vehicles with medium amounts of protection are just as effective” at reducing casualties. And MRAPs are a waste of money (softskin Humvees cost $50,000) when they are utilized, as they are, by administrative and support units and confined to bases.

Rohlfs and Sullivan challenge the rather sophomoric belief that the bigger the Pentagon’s budget, the better the security. Ratcheting up and ratcheting down are the wrong paradigm. The better way to reduce spending is to embrace a ratchet-across theory. The question then becomes less about whether a particular program saves lives, but whether there are cheaper alternatives with the same result.

The MRAP program is subject to considerable debate. Determining the proper number of these vehicles needed for a 21st-century military is one of thousands of policy choices that have to be made to right-size our security budget. The details matter; the alternatives are relevant.

But, ultimately, that is how a budget is finally balanced through choices based on facts, not some hatchet. Because, in the end, each choice will add up. The entire MRAP program, from design to deployment, amounts to $45 billion; to put it in perspective, the Department of Homeland Security’s entire budget is $56 billion.

Now that’s real money, any way you ratchet it.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter
@juliettekayyem.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the source of “The MRAP Boondoggle” study.

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