Do the Math

A 20-question debate scorecard for real talk on the defense budget.

There has been so much erroneous and distracting information about the defense budget in this campaign that it is almost impossible to sort through. Mostly the public doesn't care, but Monday night the candidates might just be required to talk about it.

To date, the candidates have said little. Mitt Romney proposes adding significant money to the defense budget, and has proposed building 15 ships a year and increasing the size of the ground forces. Barack Obama says his budget is "just right," that the services agree, and that his challenger wants to add money for which the military has not asked.

Maybe we will see something more substantive tonight, though I doubt it. It would be nice to have a defense budget debate that stood on its feet, rather than the talking points standing on their head that we have heard so far. Rather than write what they should say, perhaps a scorecard will be the best for which we can hope.

So here are 20 questions and a scorecard on the defense budget. Keep track at home:

1. If Romney truly says he is committed to providing 4 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) to the Pentagon, score him one point for honesty; his surrogate, Dov Zakheim, said on Oct. 18 that was a hard Romney commitment. If he agrees that the defense budget should go down if the GDP declines, give him a bonus point for consistency, but take away half a point for fiscal foolishness.

2. If Romney tells us that his GDP commitment will add $2 trillion additional dollars to the current 10-year defense budget projection, give him a point for honesty. If he denies it will add $2 trillion, take away a point for inadequate math skills.

3. If either candidate acknowledges that measuring defense budgets as a share of GDP is, at best, only a question that answers itself ("How much is defense as a share of GDP? 4 percent! Thanks, now I know the defense share of GDP, but nothing more."), give that man a point. It does not tell you how much we actually spend, in real dollars, on defense, nor that that spending is at its highest point, in constant dollars since the end of World War II.

4. If Romney provides a detailed budget plan, including the tax benefits he plans to eliminate, and the entitlement cuts and domestic spending cuts he will make to ensure that he can add that $2 trillion to defense, give him two bonus points.

5. If Romney provides a detailed, budgeted plan for what he would spend the additional $2 trillion for defense doing, give him another bonus point.

6. If Romney says he would buy 15 ships a year for the Navy, despite the fact that we have not bought that many ships in any year since 1986, take a point away.

7. If Romney says we need those ships or else the Navy would be the smallest we have had since 1915 and fails to explain why we need a larger one (given the fact that the U.S. Navy is clearly the largest in the world today), take another point away.

8. If Romney says he wants to retain the 100,000 ground force troops now leaving the force and add more personnel on top, but fails to tell us what new Middle East country he plans to occupy with those forces, take a point away.

9. If either candidate says a defense sequester would be "doomsday" and the end of our national security, take two points away. The sequester would be tough but manageable, not Armageddon.

10. If Romney blames Obama for "cutting" defense but fails to note: 1) that the cuts of the last two years were made by the appropriators in the Congress, including a Republican House, and 2) that the Obama defense projection over the next 10 years grows with the rate of inflation, take two points away.

11. If either candidate acknowledges that even a sequester in January would still allow the defense budget to grow after FY 2013, that candidate gets a point for fiscal acumen.

12. If either candidate notes that a defense sequester would leave us at the level of the FY 2007 defense budget, a historic high at the time, give that candidate a point.

13. If either candidate proposes a truly workable way to fix the defense procurement system so we don't pay twice as much as we expected for most of our defense weaponry, defer any point award or take a point away; it is always promised, never delivered.

14. If either candidate acknowledges that even a sequester would reduce the defense budget over 10 years less than every defense drawdown we have executed in the past 60 years, give them a bonus point for honesty and knowledge of budgetary history.

15. If either candidate says they will reform the defense retirement system so serving members can vest a pension before they have served 20 years, but only draw that pension when they reach 57 (like civil servants), give that candidate two bonus points for politically suicidal honesty and leadership.

16. If either candidate says he will cut funding for operations and maintenance spending , forcing the services to reduce the size of the enormous Pentagon "back office," two bonus points for recognizing and being willing to tackle one of the key sources of our over-spending on defense.

17. If either candidate says Pentagon weapons program managers can actually manage a program with 9.4 percent fewer resources than originally budgeted, two more points for honesty. (They do it regularly and know how, without doing damage to the program.)

18. If Obama says the FY 2013 budget request was strategy-driven, based on the strategy laid out by Secretary Leon Panetta in January, take away two points. Strategy is always fiscally constrained. We would not have had a mid-course strategy review if the budgets had not already been going down, forcing such a review.

19. If either candidate acknowledges that we need to plan to do less with less, instead of more with less, two bonus points.

20. If Obama acknowledges that the savings he plans to take from ending the Afghanistan war are non-existent, give him a point for honesty. There are no future savings from ending the war, because the Pentagon has no programmatically driven war budget planned in the future (neither did George W. Bush, by the way). You can't save money from money you never planned to spend in the first place.

And finally, a bonus scorecard: If either candidate acknowledges that we are in a defense drawdown -- because the wars are ending, the deficit must be lowered, the debt restrained, and the economy fixed -- given them a big round of applause for finally recognizing reality, instead of political pandering.

Good luck with this; debits are likely to abound.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

The Fiscal Slide

Five reasons the Pentagon will avoid the pain of sequestration.

We are in the middle of a political and rhetorical donnybrook about the threat that falling off the fiscal cliff poses for our national security (to say nothing of what it would do to domestic discretionary spending). There will be some attention to this "crisis" in the last two presidential debates.

It is a crisis carefully engineered by the Budget Control Act, passed in August 2011: If the Super Committee failed, which it did, automatic cuts, which legislative language dubbed a "sequester," would be imposed January 2, 2012.

In September of this year, the Office of Management and Budget solemnly certified that these cuts would take 8.2 percent of FY2013 appropriated funds away from every "program, project, and activity" (PPA) in domestic discretionary spending and a whopping 9.4 percent from the "non-exempt" parts of the defense budget.

But does this mean the end of our national security (and domestic well-being), as the political debate suggests? A little careful noodling about the impact of a sequester on the Defense Department suggests it might not be the end of the world. In fact, it might be exactly the fiscal discipline DOD needs.

Let me get technical for a moment, so we can actually see what might go on. First, the law made it clear that the administration could exempt funding for troops and their benefits (including retiree benefits) from the fiscal cliff. The administration has done that, so the troops will be okay. (Their number is coming down anyway as a result of the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Then, there is the matter of procurement and what some see as the almost cataclysmic level of devastation that such harsh cuts would impose on the defense industry. Except they won't. It turns out the industry is pretty healthy, it has been for a decade, and it is working on contracts that have been funded in prior budget years, which are exempt from sequestration.

As the director of defense procurement put it: "The vast majority of our contracts are fully funded, so there's no need to terminate existing contracts unless the product is no longer needed." Lockheed treasurer Ken Possenriede agreed that sequestration was not a near-term problem: "If sequestration happens, just based on our normal business rhythm, we're comfortable from a cash-on-hand standpoint that we'll endure that."

How about military operations, including the war? Well, the war budget, which has never really been separate from the non-war budget -- that's a political fiction the executive branch and Congress set up, but the funds are, in reality, mixed -- is included in a sequester, which might sound terrible for the troops in Afghanistan.

But, the reality is that the funds for DOD operations (war and much else) are very "fungible," as we budget wonks like to put it, meaning the funds can be moved around among programs pretty flexibly -- from training to education to base operations to the costs of operating troops in the field. And OMB and the Pentagon agree that "PPAs," in operations land, means "accounts." And accounts are things like Army Operations and Maintenance, which can cover all of the above activities. So, the service managers would have 9.4 percent fewer funds than the Congress gave them, but significant flexibility to move them around, setting priorities and making choices. Let's say they have a scalpel to work with, not a bludgeon.

So what about research -- the investments in the future of defense technology? Well, here, too, there would be 9.4 percent fewer dollars than appropriated. But R&D is what they call a "level of effort" area of funding -- you buy as much R&D as the money allows, but you don't have to cut items out of a production contract. And the Pentagon would have some flexibility as well, since most R&D "program elements" cover a variety of R&D projects, so fewer resources means setting priorities and making choices.

Beyond these technical flexibilities, DOD, like other departments, would also have recourse to reprogramming funds and using its general transfer authority. The flexibility here is pretty great; over the past decades some reprogram and transfer totals have been in the tens of billions of dollars. What it takes is making the same tough choices, many of them internal. A few, the transfers, would have to be communicated to Congress, where the senior leadership of the key authorizing and appropriating committees (who don't want to devastate defense) would be likely to agree, especially as they were the most anxious to protect defense.

And OMB could alleviate the short-term urgency by agreeing to hold off on taking the cuts until later in the year, by approving overall funding ("apportionment") at a higher level early in the year, and delaying the cuts until later, when planning in DOD was complete.

It is not a pretty picture; no management expert would say this is the way to do defense (or any other) budgeting. But it is not doomsday. In fact, it might be discipline -- exactly the kind of budgetary discipline the Pentagon has not had for the past decade. Good management, priority-setting, and greater efficiency might be the result.

And since the sequester would be a one-off, setting a lower baseline for future defense growth, our national security might just be as safe as it ever was.

Isaac Brekken/Getty Images