WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told Congress that a planned buildup of U.S. forces in Afghanistan could add $5.5 billion to U.S. war costs in the current federal fiscal year, officials said on Wednesday.
The cost estimate is contained in an addendum to a letter dated December 31 that Gates sent to U.S. House of Representatives Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha to outline his expectations for war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan in the remainder of fiscal year 2009, which ends on September 30.
Gates, who will remain U.S. defense chief under President-elect Barack Obama, said in the letter he believes the wars will cost another $69.7 billion in fiscal 2009, on top of $65.9 billion already approved by Congress.
But that did not include $17.6 billion in estimated costs for items that have not yet been considered, including $5.5 billion for the expected force build-up in Afghanistan.
The additional items would bring the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to $153.2 billion for the current year, still significantly below U.S. war expenditures in 2007 and 2008.
Gates stressed in the letter that the estimates were his personal assessment and did not reflect the position of the Bush administration or Obama's incoming government. He said he would work closely with the new team to provide Congress with updated figures as soon as possible.
"(Gates) has made a commitment to provide additional capabilities to Afghanistan this year. But he hasn't made any decision as to what precisely the build-up in Afghanistan will look like," said one U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. military has 32,000 troops in Afghanistan and hopes to deploy least another 13,000 forces by early summer to combat an intensifying Taliban insurgency.
An Army combat brigade of about 3,500 troops is deploying this month and will be followed in the spring by a combat aviation brigade of about 2,800 soldiers. The Pentagon is also working to send two Army brigades, or an equivalent force of Marines, totaling about 7,000 troops, by late spring.
The U.S. build-up could grow to include as many as 30,000 troops over the next 12 to 18 months, officials said.
Other items listed as deferred for later consideration by Gates include $6 billion for replenishing Army, Navy and Marine stocks depleted by sustained combat; $4.7 billion for new Army trucks, Stryker vehicles and Humvee patrol vehicles; and $1.4 billion for Navy aircraft including one E/A-18 Growler, eight F-18 Super Hornets and four C-40 Clipper transport aircraft.
U.S. war appropriations have risen sharply in recent years, from $107.6 billion in fiscal year 2005 to $121.5 billion in 2006, $171 billion in 2007 and $187.7 billion in 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service.