The news: President Barack Obama unveiled Tuesday his updated plans to remove U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. By 2016, American troops will finally leave behind the country's longest war, along with $36 billion worth of military tech.
That's right — vehicles that the American troops have used in Afghanistan are worth billions of dollars, but as the U.S. involvement in the region winds down, these hulking tanks and other devices are posing a logistical nightmare. According to officials, about half the vehicles and an even higher percentage of other equipment will be destroyed; a small percentage will be brought back home or sold to other countries.
"It's almost like cleaning out a basement," said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Jason Lamoureux, a terminal manager at Bagram Air Field, to U.S. News & World Report. "There's some ugly stuff coming through."
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Why is so much equipment being destroyed? While it may seem like a waste to destroy high-value equipment, it's standard cost-benefit analysis: While the tech in Afghanistan is certainly valuable, it would be ridiculously expensive to ship everything home, especially given the fact that everything is outdated and well used. Though America's military equipment used to be worth $36 billion, in its used state, it's only worth $8 billion — and it would cost around $6 billion to transport everything back home.
Around $3 billion worth of equipment is planned to be shipped back to the U.S. — as for the rest, it's surplus for a country that is winding down from war.
"A lot of the cargo will come out and be reset to be used by the Department of Defense," said Army Col. Glenn Baca, operations chief for the Military's Surface Deployment Distribution Command. "Then there is some equipment that is in excess to the U.S. Department of Defense’s needs."
There's also the matter of high-tech equipment falling into the wrong hands. Rather than allowing criminals to steal vehicles and weapons, the military is planning on preemptively destroying potentially valuable equipment. Transporting the tech means going through contentious territories, where the probability of attack is high.
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Can any money be recouped? As for the still-usable equipment, the "cleaning out a basement" analogy is apt — because everything will go to a basement sale. The U.S. military is fielding requests from the Afghan government and other foreign forces to buy up used, discounted tech; the Croatian government has already purchased 150 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and India and Pakistan are interested as well. The best part: Foreign governments are responsible for their own shipping costs.
Still, while pocket change is enough, it's not enough to make up for the trillions of dollars that were bled out over 12 years. An especially thorny subject is the destruction of MRAPs. The controversial vehicles were touted as the end-all, be-all solution to mines and explosive devices, but they never lived up to their safety promise. With each costing around $1 million, MRAPs made up a whopping $50 billion of of America's spending in Afghanistan — now, only a third of the 25,000 vehicles that the Pentagon purchased in 2007 will be retained for use in future conflict.
That's the inevitable fate of high-tech military equipment: While newfangled inventions may seem indispensable in the moment, when war is over, they become nothing more than very expensive garbage. Right now, the best scenario for the Pentagon is to sell off as many of them as it can.