The Cost of Free | Citizens Against Government Waste

The Cost of Free

The WasteWatcher

Clay County, Missouri Police Captain Matt Hunter described his department’s new acquisition, a 54,000-pound, 10-foot tall vehicle known as a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), as a “$750,000 machine that we got for absolutely nothing…taxpayers didn’t have to pay anything for it.”

Such is the attitude for many members of local law enforcement who have eagerly chased handouts from the Pentagon’s 1033 Excess Property program.  Since the early 1990s, the 1033 program, which has experienced a rapid expansion following the conclusion of the Iraq war and the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has distributed excess military equipment to local police.  The program has offloaded equipment worth more than $4.3 billion, including $450 million in 2013.

Beyond the semantical argument over Captain Hunter’s comments – Clay County taxpayers most certainly paid for the MRAP with federal tax contributions, if not with local taxes – the bestowment of MRAPs to local law enforcement has raised questions over the best use of extra military equipment. 

Several instances in recent years of local police acquiring military-grade hardware have made national headlines.  A July 31, 2013 Associated Press article found that a disproportionate share of the 1033 equipment found its way to police departments and sheriff’s offices in rural areas that suffer little crime.  For example, in Morven, Georgia, with a population of 532, local police acquired a shipment of bayonets.  While admitting the blades never made it out of storage, Police Chief Lynwood Yates stated, “That was one of those things in the old days you got it because you thought it was cool…then, after you get it, you’re like, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this?’”  In Richland County, South Carolina the sheriff managed to get his hands on an armored personnel carrier equipped with a machine gun that he dubbed “The Peacemaker.”

The MRAP was originally procured because of an urgent need to provide troops in Afghanistan and Iraq with better protection against roadside bombs.  The Department of Defense (DOD) initially spent approximately $44 billion to procure around 28,000 MRAPs.  These vehicles incorporate v-shaped hulls to deflect blasts and heavy armor.  While the DOD contracted for several different models with a variety of price tags, a conservative estimate places the cost of each MRAP at about $500,000.

One has to question the utility of small towns acquiring such heavy-duty vehicles.  For instance, the town of Dundee, Michigan, home to 3,900 residents, received an MRAP; so too did High Springs, Florida, with a population of 5,500.  While law enforcement is clearly a dangerous job, it seems that MRAPs, with machine gun turrets, bulletproof glass, and armor plating are superfluous to any imaginable law enforcement need for small towns across the country.

Beyond the debate over the increased militarization of police forces, the MRAP is notoriously expensive to maintain.  In the September-October 2011 issue of Army Sustainment, Major Rodney Lipscomb II argued for the cessation of the MRAP acquisition program, claiming the vehicles “consistently require replacements of heavy-duty transmissions, engines, axles, and tires, which hinder a unit’s readiness rates and take up a lot of time.”  Since the 1033 program transfers equipment on an as-is basis, what appears to be a free gift for local law enforcement in the near term will likely end up being a costly acquisition down the road.

Another problem with the MRAPs, and a potential reason why the Pentagon is now trying to offload so many of them, is that the vehicles did not exist in the DOD’s long-range plans when they were procured.  It was designed for action in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not necessarily future conflicts.

One option to recoup a portion of the DOD’s investment in its stock of excess equipment would be through the Foreign Military Sales program.  The DOD is currently auctioning approximately 2,000 MRAPS on the international market, with Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan among the bidding countries.  The U.S. could also chop up the vehicles and sell for scrap, as it intends to do for other equipment.  To the extent possible, these options should be pursued in order to avoid paying as much as $14 billion to ship MRAPs back to the U.S. as well as the rest of the $25 billion worth of equipment the Army alone has in Afghanistan.

As the military repostures its forces while withdrawing from Afghanistan, there is going to be a lot of excess equipment.  While one reason is that the Pentagon likely overpurchased, it is also true that U.S. armed forces do not excel at departing a warzone.  According to Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, when it comes to logistics, “We are very good at getting in, but no [sic] so good at getting out.”  As it transitions out of Afghanistan, the DOD should aim to recover its investment in the MRAPs and other military equipment to the extent possible, as opposed to furnishing local police with material that vastly exceeds their requirements.


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