Where the candidates stand on defense
September 7th, 2012
02:19 PM ET

Where the candidates stand on defense

By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.

With the political conventions, Veterans of Foreign Wars speeches, party and campaign platforms all now on the record, what can we conclude about the key question of the differences in defense strategy and spending between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney?

This is only one aspect of the foreign policy debate between the two candidates. But it is still hugely important – and about far more than a technical discussion over which fighter jet to buy or how many new ships to build. Indeed, the issue reveals a great deal about the worldviews of the candidates, and also links directly to their fiscal and therefore economic strategies – the top issue in this year's race and itself a matter of national security.

In a nutshell, here is where President Obama and Governor Romney stand.

In Obama’s case, he wishes to cut the current size of U.S. ground forces back to almost where they were just before the September 11, 2001 attacks. He proposes saving almost $500 billion over the next decade on defense costs, relative to his own administration’s earlier plans of a year before (which means some $350 billion in cuts relative to where defense would go if allowed simply to increase with inflation). War costs would also continue to decline, but these are best viewed as a separate subject rather than a central matter of future defense planning.

The remaining Obama defense budget would in principle still fund an ambitious weapons modernization agenda, including up to 2,500 new fighter aircraft and perhaps nine new Navy ships a year. The president would protect most military pay and other compensation, too, (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 so-called sequestration, and does not 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 the president favors. He wishes to increase the Navy shipbuilding budget to 15 ships a year and keep ground forces where they are today, more or less – some 100,000 troops more than the president forecasts. His rhetoric about Russia and about nuclear arms suggests that he would likely not pursue another round of strategic nuclear arms control, at least not right away.

The two candidates and their surrogates have used sharp language to critique each other's plans. Obama is accused of gutting the armed forces; Romney of adding trillions more to defense spending plans than the joint chiefs of staff have themselves requested. But both of these critiques are a little unfair.

Romney's plan is little different than the one the president himself favored two years ago, before the deficit moved to front and center place of U.S. politics, and resembles then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's last budget submission in broad contours. Relative to that plan, Romney would build more ships but otherwise make few major shifts. And the cost difference with the president appears to be $500 billion over ten years, not $1 trillion to $2 trillion as sometimes alleged.

Obama's plan has indeed been blessed by the joint chiefs, so it would hardly seem irresponsible.  It would keep core defense spending over $500 billion a year, substantially more than defense budgets of a dozen years ago – and substantially more than George W. Bush was himself planning before 9/11 occurred. Still, it is worth bearing in mind that the joint chiefs effectively work for Obama, so the absence of strong objections by them to his plan should not necessarily be viewed as a ringing endorsement. More likely, they share some of former joint chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen's thinking, when he argued that the national debt had itself become a national security threat, and required serious measures in order to reduce it. Unfortunately, while defense is being cut, entitlements and taxes are not being brought into the effort significantly, so the overall debt and deficit remain large, and thus the threat they pose to national security quite severe.

However, there is another aspect to the problem that needs airing and that will challenge whichever candidate is elected – neither one is providing enough money to fund all the defense plans they favor. True, Obama’s plan for the military is more modest and streamlined, but so is his budget. According to calculations by the Congressional Budget Office and independent scholars, either man might need at least a couple hundred billion dollars more than currently anticipated to fund all the forces and weapons in his Pentagon proposal over the next decade.  This problem afflicts both candidates’ proposals, so it is not necessarily a reason to vote for one man or the other. But it is a sobering reminder of the budget pressures the nation will face.

Ultimately, placing defense within a broader context, 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, and 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.  Saddam is gone, so 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 necessarily 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.

In fairness to Romney, he is hardly some Neanderthal trying to solve every global problem with a military tool; he is simply espousing a defense plan that Obama himself basically proposed back in 2009 and 2010. All this means that the candidates’ viewpoints are both within a reasonable mainstream of the strategic spectrum, and their differences of opinion over military policy offer a legitimate and reasonable debate that it will be good for the country to be a part of.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Military • Mitt Romney

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    The GOP stance: Tax cuts for the rich to start a war with Iran (totally unfunded of course). Then get the poor people to fight/die in the war while giving the rich people "no bid contracts". Thus killing two GOP birds with one stone. Then use Iran's oil to pay for the war. And when the war is over, Iran will sell us cheap oil!! Just like in Iraq!!!! Oh wait......never mind.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  2. deucepoint

    I agree that Pres. Obama's proposed cuts to defense spending are preferable to Gov. Romney's. I think Pres. Obama's views have changed because he has become more realistic. An enormous military is too much of a temptation to intervene in situations we should keep out of. Pres. George W. Bush's two unfunded wars helped to push us to the brink economically. We can't do that anymore. It is reasonable and sensible to cut spending on defense because we spend too much on defense. But that must be accompanied by other well-considered cuts to the budget and an increase in revenues through tax reforms that close loopholes that are no longer necessary or only favor a few billionaires, increase taxes on the 1%, and if necessary, require the middle class (the real middle class*) to bear a little more of the burden of funding our government. Gov. Romney's plan to increase defense spending would be offset in part by cuts to programs that aid the most vulnerable of our citizens. That is more of a threat to our nation that any Saddam or Osama bin Laden ever was. * I say the real middle class because these days everyone would like to be seen as middle class, no matter how much they own or earn. But the real middle class consists of people like me who make a good living, have good benefits, and could easily afford to pay a little more in taxes to help the nation as a whole.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    It's highly unlikely that the US would face another "Pearl Harbour" style of attack. Its military spending is mainly to safeguard its hegemony abroad. With the rise of China on the seven seas and in the five continents, the US is on the edge. Russia is another foe that Romney wants to keep at bay as well.

    September 7, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  4. Henry

    No matter which one of these clowns win, we will continue to outspend ourselves on the unnecessary and excessive military! We already have an air force five times as large as we need, a navy six or seven times as large and an army four or five times as large. Unfortunately, most people have been duped into thinking that we need that big of a military thanks to the politicians in Washington and the right-wing news media! This proves that most people can be fooled most of the time!!!

    September 7, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  5. dukeofyashima

    Sequestration is the D-Party's way of destroying the defense establishment without having their bloody hands on the knife. The goal since Vietnam has always been the emasculation of the US military, no matter the human cost that comes afterward.

    Everyone always grips about a "bloated, overpaid," military until you actually need it. But it's just like your insurance policy, when you realize that you actually needed more coverage than you paid for it's usually too late.

    Readers here can complain about the armed services all they like, but CNN has a hand in America's lack of pulling off victories as well. It was Turner who continually broadcast the "Highway of Death" scenes in the 1991 Gulf War that brought a much, much too early end of that conflict, and then were stuck with both Saadam and the occupation of Iraq years afterward. Had CNN not taken such a viciously anti-American view during that war we'd have gotten rid of Saadam in '91 when the world was behind us and everyone would be much better off.

    September 7, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      Hey dukeofyashima, did you also approve of the 1991 U.S. bombing of the Amriya air raid shelter on Feb, 13, when over 414 civilians were needlessly slaughtered by two of our pilots that day? And did you see in the news that man who mourned his the horrific loss of his entire family in that raid? To this very day, no one has ever been held accountable for that atrocity! That war should have never taken place, period! George H.W. Bush wanted it to enhance his popularity and it did!

      September 7, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
      • sam

        Yes Quigley, I too well remember that scene where that man mourned to loss of his family in that raid on that fatefull day. What really turned my stomach was the reaction of that general public to this atrocity as though nobody did anything wrong. I wonder just how many Americans would like losing their families that way. How easy it is to enjoy a war from a distance!!! Most Americans did precisely that!

        September 10, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • redmal

      The GOP agreed and voted for it too. On the other hand, it is the GOP plan to starve all social programs so that they die.

      September 8, 2012 at 9:11 am | Reply
  6. JAL

    We cannot afford the lives or the cost of any future significant military action. This end game will end in peace and viable prosperity.

    September 8, 2012 at 8:02 am | Reply
  7. herrer

    I should also add that when it comes to the military the US should talk to these countries into solving some of their own issues.

    September 10, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
  8. mig

    This is where Romney will create 12 million jobs.All in the armed forces because after he gets through shooting his mouth off we'll be at war with 12 different nations.

    September 18, 2012 at 2:22 am | Reply

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