Even though the first U.S. presidential debate was not about national security, the military made a brief but striking appearance, with candidate Mitt Romney lamenting what he charged were President Barack Obama's "dramatic cuts to our military." He said: "I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America's military." Obama, for his part, countered that Romney wanted "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for."
The stark contrast raises the question: Is the United States investing adequately for its future defense?
Obama's long-term plans place defense last among the major priorities of federal government spending. His proposed budgets would shrink the Pentagon's purse -- not just slow the rate of growth. In fact, under Obama's proposal (even without the mandatory cuts required by the Budget Control Act of 2011), defense would not return to fiscal-year (FY) 2010 spending levels for the entirety of his 10-year budget projection. Even before the Budget Control Act became law, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reported that defense spending would be reduced by $487 billion over 10 years, with $259 billion of these cuts applied over the next five years.
In contrast, Romney has repeatedly stated that he thinks annual defense spending should rise to about 4 percent of GDP -- or about $720 billion a year. In practical terms that would return the Pentagon budget to a little more than what it was in FY 2010, though the 2010 figure includes the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Romney's number refers only to base spending. Under Romney's plan, it looks like for the most part wars cost extra.
Debating whether it would be smart to peg core defense spending (money required for the upkeep and modernization of the force) to GDP has become a cottage industry in Washington. But it's not clear why it is such a ferocious debate. NATO has long said its member states should spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Most NATO countries aren't meeting the target, but no one has really complained that it is an inappropriate guideline. The real question, of course, is, would spending 4 percent on the U.S. military improve American security?
The answer to that question is -- like everything pertaining to the Pentagon's budget -- complicated. For starters, there seems to be strong consensus on the right and the left that spending levels won't matter much unless the services can get spiraling manpower costs under control. According to the Defense Department, overall military manpower costs will rise from roughly $148 billion in FY 2012 to more than $160 billion in FY 2016 -- and that's assuming there are big cuts in the number of troops, as envisioned under sequestration.
Likewise, the left and the right have called for reforms in defense business practices. Within the think-tank community, there's disagreement over what those reforms should be or how to achieve them, but everyone acknowledges there are smarter ways to do the Pentagon's business (as opposed to just cutting spending or, arguably worse, layering on more bureaucracy to identify efficiencies). Examples of better business practices might include reforming the military compensation system or implementing performance-based logistics, where industry and the government team to deliver repair parts and services more in the manner of the best practices used in the commercial sector.
Even with a 4 percent solution, a Romney administration would have to tackle these challenges. Otherwise, it would just wind up buying less with more. As for what the Pentagon would do with that money if it got it -- well, there are variables at play there, as well. There are three ways worth looking at what a 4 percent investment, sustained over a decade, might deliver. The resultant force can be described in terms of capabilities, missions, and modernization.