Two Candidates’ Views on Defense

So how do Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama stack up against each other on the enormously important question of U.S. military spending and broader defense strategy?

This is a crucial question for the country. It’s also one of the better debates between the two men — since their essential disagreement is over substance rather than silliness.

But there is a third player in the debate — the U.S. budget mess. If the argument was just one of Democratic incumbent against Republican challenger, I’d assume the country couldn’t go too far wrong, regardless of who won. But with the trillion-dollar deficits, looming sequestration and other woes afflicting the policy process, I’m less sure things will work out.

Here is, basically, where the president and the governor stand. Obama proposes saving almost $500 billion in defense costs over the next decade, relative to his own administration’s earlier plans. This means some $350 billion in cuts relative to where defense would go if allowed to increase with inflation.

To accomplish this, ground forces would be reduced almost back to pre-Sept. 11 levels. A few major weapons programs would be canceled or scaled back. War costs would also continue to decline — but these are best viewed as a separate subject.

The remaining Obama defense budget would still fund an ambitious weapons modernization agenda — including up to 2,500 new fighter aircraft and about nine new Navy ships each year. The president would protect most military pay and other compensation — not to mention veterans’ benefits, which are in another part of the budget. He strongly opposes further cuts, including the additional $500 billion over a decade that would result from the so-called sequestration. He also doesn’t agree with the Simpson-Bowles commission on the feasibility of additional reductions of that magnitude — even if done through a mechanism other than sequestration.

Romney opposes that first $500 billion in 10-year cuts that Obama favors. He may also oppose the roughly $100 billion in five-year military cuts the president made earlier — when Robert Gates was defense secretary. The former Massachusetts governor wishes to increase the Navy shipbuilding budget to 15 ships a year and keep ground forces roughly where they are today — some 100,000 troops larger than the president forecasts.

Romney’s rhetoric about Russia and nuclear arms suggests that he is unlikely to pursue another round of strategic nuclear arms control — at least not right away. He is bullish on missile defense, and might also reopen the production line for the F-22 fighter jet.

Romney’s website talks about how he “aspires” to devote 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product to the armed forces. In the short term, this would not differ much from his above-noted plans, but over time it would push defense spending up substantially — to the point where it would exceed Obama’s plan by as much as $200 billion per year. However, that part of the Romney plan is explicitly described as “aspirational,” so I don’t accord it the same concreteness as his other policy goals.

Leaving aside that 4 percent target, Romney’s plan is little different from the one Obama favored two years ago — before the deficit took center place in U.S. politics. Romney would build more ships but otherwise make few major shifts.

But, in fairness to Romney, he is hardly some uberhawk trying to solve every global problem with a military tool. He’s just espousing a defense plan that Obama himself basically proposed in 2009 and 2010. So the candidates’ viewpoints are both within a reasonable mainstream part of the strategic spectrum.

But then, there is the deficit

There are, however, two more aspects to the budget situation that greatly complicate the debate over future U.S. defense policy.

First is sequestration. If it happens in 2013, even for a few weeks or months, there could be major disruptions. The budget process will be thrown into chaos. Up to 15 percent of the civilian workforce may have to be dismissed — or most of it furloughed for a stretch. Procurement of weapons will not fall off a cliff but will be severely and unproductively disrupted.

A second, longer-term problem is more fundamental — and less avoidable. It will challenge either candidate if elected. For neither nominee is providing enough money to fund all the defense plans they favor. This is not due to negligence, it’s more of a congenital problem in how defense budgeting is always done. But it’s a bigger problem when budget caps appear to be firmly set for several years to come.

Either man might need at least a couple hundred billion dollars more than now anticipated to fund all the forces and weapons in his Pentagon proposal, over the next decade, according to calculations by the Congressional Budget Office and independent scholars. This problem afflicts both proposals — so it isn’t a reason to vote for one man or the other. But it is a sobering reminder of the budget pressures the nation will face.

Put differently, either candidate will need to cut more forces and weapons than now advertised just to comply with anticipated budget caps that each respectively accepts. There are ways to do this — a further scaling back of ground forces, a less expensive nuclear force posture, modest cuts to military compensation, a slightly smaller Navy that maintains forward presence in a more efficient way through a method known as “sea swaps,” efficiencies in the Pentagon’s civilian workforce.

But none are going to be easy. And none now appear in either candidate’s plans in an adequate way.

We can get through this, as long as any further defense budget reductions are modest. I don’t favor those in the Bowles-Simpson or Rivlin-Domenici plans because, in light of all the above, those are too deep. However, getting to a viable defense plan will require us to take into account that third member in the debate: the unwelcome presence of our huge national deficits and debt.

On this debate, as far as it goes, I would give the edge to Obama. His projected deficits, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, will be less than Romney’s. As such, his defense budget plan will help us deal with the debt problem. In the process, it will accept more short-term military risk but to a degree that appears reasonable.

Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, we can most likely cut ground forces back to almost 1990s levels. The Navy can still find more efficient ways to deploy and base its ships abroad, so we needn’t build ships at a faster rate to stay engaged in the world. Military compensation remains very robust, so, if anything, we can probably make deeper reforms than now planned.