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.