For most, even those of us who spent our childhoods growing up in the shadow of 9/11 and “The War on Terror,” when we think about huge military operations, we still think about conflicts like World War Two, World War One, and maybe even The Gulf War -- you know -- wars that saw countries draft countless millions of soldiers into their ranks and saw millions of those same soldiers die fighting around the globe. We usually don’t think of the 21st century as a time when really massive troop operations have been commonplace. Even though we watched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfold on our tablets and TV screen as the events streamed live the entire time, we thought of them as “Soldiers' Wars:” small, personal, deadly conflicts between various special forces and an unseen enemy.
Then there are our perceptions of cost in running a military operation or project. Even if you weren’t alive in the '80s or early '90s and even if you don’t pay much attention to the military and what it does (or doesn’t, as the case may be) accomplish, you've probably heard the stories of the Air Force ordering $500 screwdrivers or the cost of a “Star Wars” missile defense plan running into the tens of trillions. We’re talking numbers so big you can’t even fathom them.
But guess what, folks; just because we haven’t been involved in a global war the likes of the Second World War, our military has still been running giant operations and fantastically expensive projects these last 16 years since the towers went down. Here are 15 of those operations and the costly weapons we have used to support them.
15 2014-Present: ISIL War
Here’s a military operation that I included because I get the sense that our total investment in time, money, manpower, and materials is only going to rise over the ensuing decades. I’m talking about the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) war that’s been going on in Iraq, Syria, etc. for the past few years. And, of course, their terror attacks around the world. ISIL rose out of the ashes of the Iraq insurgency around 2012 and then the Syrian civil war and has been a thorn in the West’s side since. In 2014, President Obama ordered U.S. troops to participate with coalition forces in taking out ISIL. Thus far, we've sent 4,100 soldiers to Iraq for this purpose, another 2,100 to Kuwait, and over 500 soldiers as trainers for the Iraqi army. The carrier group led by the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt (remember those Nimitz Class carriers?) is also involved and counts the carrier, a cruiser, two destroyers, and other ships in its complement. The carrier alone has 3,200 sailors, 2,400 airmen, and carries upwards of 80 airplanes and helicopters. I could go on, but you get the point.
14 2013: North Korean Crisis
The North Koreans always seem to be at it, don’t they? If they’re not threatening to pour down a “grey rain" of missiles on the world (well, in particular, on The U.S. and South Korea, maybe Japan if they’re lucky) then they're pouting silently in the corner, plotting against everyone who ignores them. I think President Clinton said it best when he said they were like a spoiled child who got antsy if he didn’t get your attention every now and then. In 2013, they certainly got everyone’s attention with the posturing about their nuclear program, setting off an underground nuclear test in February of that year and threatening the “final destruction” of South Korea a few days later. This caused the U.S. to increase the number of anti-ballistic missiles based in Alaska to 44 (up from 30). We also flew two B-2A Stealth Bombers nonstop to Korea, dumped practice payloads of explosives on the ground there (to prove to North Korea we could do it to them whenever we wanted), and moved stealth aircraft to South Korean bases. This might not seem like a huge operation, but consider that each missile is worth tens of millions of dollars and the cost of a B-2 Stealth Bomber is… well, keep reading.
13 F-35 Lightning II - $400 Million! Each!
Speaking of expensive military aircraft, here’s a neat little plane we like to call the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. This is the single-engine, single-seat fighter plane that was going to make the whole U.S. Air Force and the air arms of the Navy and Marines go completely stealth, beginning back in 2001. The U.S. military signed on to purchase 2,500 of these babies at the paltry cost of $400 million. Oh, wait... I forgot to mention that’s $400 million each. However, reports did surface in 2013 that the plane’s price tag for the Pentagon had dropped to only about $160 million, depending on whom you believe, of course. In the long run, it’s entirely possible that nobody knows just how much each one of these puppies costs to manufacture, let alone keep in the air, but it’s easy enough to see they aren't cheap.
12 Ohio Class Submarines - $2 BILLION Per Sub!!!
No, they’re not the biggest nuclear submarines in the world, but they're the best -- at least, that’s what the U.S. Navy would have us believe about the General Dynamics Ohio Class Ballistic missile boat. Russians actually have two classes of subs that are bigger than our Ohio class ones, but ours carry a lot more nuclear missiles. We also haven’t lost any of them. OK, OK, that was low. The Ohios can carry 24 nuclear missiles each, which, when you think about it, are a lot of nuclear missiles. Perhaps too many, but what do I know? They weren’t cheap, though. They began to patrol our waters (and others' waters) way back in 1981 at the cost of $2 billion per sub. But they only cost about $50 million a year to maintain and operate! The best part is, nuclear-powered ships last forever, so the $4 billion price tag for replacement doesn’t need to be spent just yet…
11 V-22 Osprey - $50 Million Per Aircraft (Has A Rolls Royce Engine)
Speaking of those pesky Marines again… We’ve already seen some of the cool toys the Navy has received in the last few decades that they still use to this day. We read about the Air Force’s awesome new jet fighter. But how about those Marines? Don’t they deserve a neat, new toy, too? Of course they do, which is where the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey comes into the fray. I bet you noticed the name of this baby, too, didn’t you? That’s right. Bell helicopters and Boeing aircraft, the big dogs in their respective fields, especially when it comes to military contracts, teamed up to give the Marines a special treat. There’s no doubt the Osprey is a very cool, tilt-rotor aircraft (that means it can use a landing strip like a plane or liftoff like a helicopter) that can be used for lots of different types of missions. It also costs between $50-70 million per aircraft. So far, over 150 of them have been made since 2007. But hey, at least it's got a Rolls Royce engine!
10 Ballistic Missile Defense System - $120 Billion For Research And Development
And finally, we have quite possibly the most expensive military project ever. Or it will be, if it ever really gets off the ground (get it? “Ballistic Missiles?” “Off the ground?” No?? OK.) This is the original “Star Wars” nuclear missile defense net originally envisioned by President Reagan. Unfortunately, the project has gone through tons of iterations over the years, and many parties even think we should scrap it, given that it’s unlikely Islamic militants are going to rain hundreds of ICBMs down upon us, as we always thought those old Soviets would try to do. This might be a smart idea because for a defense network that doesn’t really exist in coherent fashion, we've sunk at least $120 billion into research and development. But does it work, you want to know? Well, who knows? We have lots of planes, lots of radars, and lots of missiles pointed into the sky but very little sense of where an attack might come from or how. So we’ve got that going for us. That and the ongoing price tag.
9 2006 Lebanon Evacuation
One of the fun parts of being the only global Superpower, as the U.S. is nowadays, is having a civilian population that's wealthy enough and invested enough in other countries to travel to them and even live abroad. The U.S. has a significant minority of its citizens living in other lands helping to run our corporate interests, our humanitarian efforts, our educational exchanges, and, of course, our embassies, consulates, and other governmental programs. In 2006, as Lebanon was sinking into the war between the Israelis and the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, President Bush called upon the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to travel to Lebanon and evacuate U.S. citizens who were trapped in the violence-torn country. This air-ground task force, which is used for quick responses to emergency situations, deployed its 2,200 members to save U.S. citizens. It was supported by the U.S.S. Iwo Jima, a Marine assault ship, which carried an additional 1,800 Marines and 1,100 sailors and their officers.
8 Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier
The aforementioned Iwo Jima might be a pretty impressive ship, but it has nothing on the Nimitz Class carriers. The Navy first started building these bad boys in 1975, but they're on this list because all ten of them (yup- only 10 were built) are still in very active service. That’s because they each have two nuclear reactors powering them and are expected to be in commission for an average of 60-75 years each. Hmm, I wonder how much it cost to build these guys? Well, reports put each ship at between $4.5 and $6.2 billion. Remember, there are 10 of them. Wait, what’s that, you say? They need to be retooled about 30-40 years into their service life? Well, that’s only about $2.5 billion each to get them out of the shop and running again. Oh, and they have a crew complement of nearly 6,000 sailors? It can’t possibly cost very much to feed 6,000 sailors for 75 years, can it? Or, you know, pay for their cannonballs and such. Wow.
7 2010-Present: Al-Qaeda Drone Strikes (Yemen) & Taliban Drone Strikes (Pakistan)
I’ve written in this space before about the crazy drone war that President Bush, the Younger, started and that President Obama expanded upon and President Trump continues. It’s actually pretty unbelievable how big the scope of this ongoing operation has become and how many resources our military and Defense Department have thrown at it just to take out Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), basically militant by militant. For those of you not in the know, AQAP basically operates out of Yemen, and in the past 15 years, the U.S. military has launched anywhere from 100 to 150 drone strikes in various parts of that country. That doesn’t even begin to take into account the drone strikes in Pakistan against Taliban militants, a tactic begun by President Bush, who ordered 59 such attacks during his years in office, and something President Obama continued to the end of his administration. For your edification, each “Reaper Drone,” which is the type often used for these strikes, costs just under $13 million to manufacture.
6 2011: Operation Odyssey Dawn (Libya)
A few years ago, Libya, that “African but Middle Eastern in spirit” bastion of lunacy under Muammar Gaddafi for so many years, started to come apart at the seams politically during the Libyan Civil War between factions loyal to and organized against Gaddafi’s continued rule. As the war threatened to spiral out of control (and as Gaddafi supporters threatened vengeance against pretty much everyone), the United Nations Security Council drew up a resolution to enforce a “No-Fly Zone” for government forces trying to attack the revolutionaries. This was implemented on March 19, 2011, when French, U.K, and U.S. forces launched air sorties from fighter jets, then lobbed over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles into the zone from submarines and surface ships. By the end of the month, the U.N. coalition had achieved its aim (pun very much intended). U.S. troop involvement alone amounted to: the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (2,400 Marines), The U.S.S Mount Whitney (400 personnel), two amphibious assault ships with over 1,600 sailors and soldiers, multiple other Navy surface vessels, three nuclear submarines, and over 75 bombers, fighters, and attack helicopters from the Air Force and Marines.
5 B-2 Spirit - Each Cost Over $730 Million!
The Northup Grumman B-2 Spirit is the original stealth bomber, the one you see doing flyovers at Super Bowls. These were first produced in 1987, but they were still making them by 2000, and all of those manufactured are still in use by the Air Force. There are 21 of these awesome bombers in the U.S. military’s arsenal -- they're the only stealth-capable planes in the world that are also able to carry nuclear weapons. Or they can just fly low and undetected under everybody’s radar and bomb wherever they want with 800 lb. conventional bombs, which is exactly what they did during that practice exercise to scare the North Koreans. The best part about the aircraft though has to be the cost. Each bomber costs only $737 million. That’s “flyaway” cost, of course, which I assume is just like asking a car dealer for his “out-the-door” price.
4 Independence Class “Littoral” Frigates - $700 Million For The First One Ever Built
Then there are these guys: “littoral” ships that were specifically designed to fight the threat of terrorism, insurgency, and local civil wars in the 21st century. The Austal USA Independence Class Littoral Frigates (“Littoral” means the shore) are designed to get close to land and get small, elite numbers of troops, planes, tanks, and equipment into the fight fast. They're also designed with a whopping price tag of $704 million for the first one ever built and over $350 million for each succeeding one. We currently have four ships active with seven more being built and two yet to be started. They only carry a crew of 40, but they can turn your world upside down with their combat power. They began production on these ships in 2010 and are going full speed ahead (as the saying goes) to complete all of them. Oh yeah... they also have a big-ass Navy helicopter and two small unmanned choppers attached to each ship.
3 2001-14 Operation Enduring Freedom (Largest Op Since 2000)
On October 7, 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and Operation Enduring Freedom began. Its goal was to utterly defeat the Taliban, bring Afghanistan back into the family of nations as a legitimate government and country and, oh yeah... hunt down and kill Osama bin-Laden. While it’s debatable whether the first two items can really be checked off, at least we finally got bin-Laden. Years later. In Pakistan. But I digress. Enduring Freedom is one of the biggest operations of the 21st century by a wide margin. Probably all anyone needs to know about how big this war has been for the 21st century is that, since 2014, the U.S. has only maintained about 10,000 ground troops (not including Navy and Air Force support) in that country. Only. We once had upwards of 60,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan way back in 2009. I wouldn’t be surprised if we did again before 2019.
2 2010-11: Operation New Dawn
This one is another in the never-ending saga of U.S. troop involvement in Iraq. Here’s the thing with fighting insurgencies, militants, and terrorists: when push comes to shove, it’s almost impossible to pin down an insurgency. After the U.S. had declared “victory” in 2010 in the Iraq War, we began a troop drawdown in Iraq. That led the way to militants increasing their use of IEDs and other asymmetrical weaponry to harm non-combatant U.S. contractors, government, and other support personnel. This, of course, led to the U.S. increasing the presence of our Advise & Assist Brigades. These brigades managed to total about 50,000 American troops -- at a time when we said we were removing all combat soldiers from Iraq and ending all combat operations. There you go, Operation New Dawn! Way to get everyone out of the country! In 2010 alone, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 25th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army were both deployed to Iraq while we supposedly left Iraq. That’s a lot of soldiers pretending to be policemen.
1 2003-11: Operation Iraqi Freedom
Before Operation New Dawn was ever a thing, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or as we civilians know it as, “The Iraqi War," saw a massive buildup of U.S., military presence in Iraq. This makes sense as we had started a huge coalition-based war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in hopes of finding both his weapons of mass destruction and ties to militant Islam. Which we did not, Saddam always having been more concerned about himself than some terroristic Jihad. In any case, the U.S. entered the war in 2003 with more than 190,000 ground troops -- a huge buildup of military force for a 21st century conflict. Between 2004-2009, when the “drawdown” of U.S. troops began, we were still maintaining well over 100,000 troops in-country. This doesn’t include our Air Force, Navy, or support numbers of course. I’m not sure if we secured any kind of freedom for any Iraqi, but it sure wasn’t from a lack of trying.
Sources: mda, jalopnik, wikipedia, time