National Security

Air Wars

How defense is playing in the 2012 campaign.

 

Foreign policy may play a small -- if occasionally bizarre and amusing -- role in American elections, but defense spending is a different beast, allowing candidates to blend the best (and worst) of American patriotism with that all-important campaign theme: jobs.

This season, a slew of ads -- many anti-Obama, all anti-Democrat -- are warning that looming defense cuts threaten tens or even hundreds of thousands of jobs, mostly in battleground states it seems. Of course, it was Congress -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- who voted for nearly $1 trillion in mandatory defense spending cuts, with last year's Budget Control Act accounting for about half and the sequester set to begin in January providing the other. But never mind.

For better or worse, Democrats have a few tricks up their sleeves as well, including the shameless use of random veterans to attack their opponents' character. Fortunately, Republicans have a thick skin and a willingness to tar their competitors as anti-American. It all makes for good fun since we're not talking about anything serious like, say, the defense of the nation.

So, as the 2012 election season draws to a close, here are our favorite contributions to political discussion of the military.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

 

 

1. Virginia Is Not for Lovers 

In Virginia's heated Senate race, Republican George Allen has taken aim at Governor Tim Kaine for supporting cuts to defense in a TV ad which asserts that, if elected, Allen will "stop the defense cuts by growing our economy, using our energy resources, and creating jobs." No word on how burning coal would boost defense spending, but fortunately Allen has the backing of conservative Super PAC Crossroads GPS, which produced an ad complete with ominous voice and dark imagery warning that "one million small business jobs" are "at stake" because of those cuts. The figure (repeated in many ads this season) comes from a debunked study written by a George Mason University economics professor -- that was commissioned by defense industry lobbyists. A third ad -- this one from the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- says that the cuts would cost only 200,000 jobs, but it also calls them "Kaine's defense cuts," even though Congress did not offer the Virginia governor a chance to vote on the Budget Control Act.

 

2. Live Free or Die

Mitt Romney has a new radio ad in New Hampshire repeating his oft-touted claim that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than at any time since 1917, and it does its best to turn Obama's memorable debate quip -- "We also have fewer horses and bayonets" -- against the president: "For Mitt Romney, that's a problem. For President Obama, it's a chance to deliver a punch line." The ad says 3,600 jobs are at stake in New Hampshire, but its most interesting line is a dog-whistle about Obama's supposed rejection of American exceptionalism: "Sure, his flippant remarks insult Mitt Romney, but do they also expose how President Obama views the world -- and America's place in it?" The ad repeats the canard about reversing "Obama's defense cuts," but we have to applaud the use of "flippant," which is a first in our campaign-ad memory.

 

3. Stealthy Attack 

In this presidential campaign, China has figured mostly as that most evil of bogeymen -- the currency manipulator -- and this Romney ad promises the governor will stand up to Beijing on economic policy. It also includes Romney's oft-repeated criticism that China is stealing American ideas, but with a twist: this ad says that's true of fighter jet design, too. The ad shows a pretend-blueprint sketch of what looks like China's J-31 with a line drawn to a similar sketch of an F-35. What's interesting is that the ad may actually be on to something in its suggestion that China has pilfered U.S. stealth technology. In 2009, the F-35 program was hacked, resulting in the loss of sensitive data and requiring a costly revamp of the program's security.

 

4. Indiana's Back 

With approval ratings higher than almost any other demographic in the country, a veteran's word is almost unimpeachable. And that's why this year has shown that deploying veterans in political ads has been an effective tactic. VoteVets.org has a series of ads attacking Republicans in various races around the country, from Virginia to Indiana to Arizona. In one, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Sam Schultz, of English, Ind. says Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock -- probably most famous for his ill-advised comments on rape last month -- voted to stop the bailout of Chrysler and potentially rob veterans of well-paying jobs. Zinger: "I know what it's like to serve with people who have your back, and I can tell you," Schultz says as he tinkers with a small motor outside a garage, "Richard Mourdock doesn't have ours."

 

 

5. Vets on Flake

VoteVets repeats the tactic in Arizona with an ad criticizing Republican Senate candidate Jeff Flake, in which Stephen Lopez of Chandler, Ariz. looks sternly at the camera as he shoots holes in Flake's record on veterans: "He was one of only 12 in Congress to vote against the G.I. Bill, which is putting veterans like me through school." And Flake was one of only three who voted against job training for returning troops, he says. The punch line: "Jeff Flake doesn't deserve my vote or my respect." Ouch.

 

6. Buckeye Defense 

This Romney ad charges that Obama's defense cuts -- again, a pretty serious fudge given their bipartisan origins -- could cost Ohio 20,000 jobs. The interesting question is where would those defense jobs actually be lost? The Lima plant that produces M1 Abrams tanks was already slated to stop production later this decade, since the Army says it has more than enough new tanks. United Technologies facilities in Ohio work on advanced engines for jets like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but that program is going strong (despite cost overruns and schedule delays). Meanwhile, the ad says that Romney will stop the cuts and create 450,000 new jobs for Buckeyes. Defense jobs?

 

 

7. Connecticut Cuts 

Refreshingly, this ad by Connecticut's Linda McMahon, Republican candidate for Senate and wife of World Wrestling Entertainment founder Vince McMahon, rightly blames Congress for creating the sequestration beast. She also lists specific defense contractors in Connecticut that could be hurt if sequestration kicks in. Among these are Sikorsky, maker of the H-60 family of helicopters for the Army, Navy and Air Force, aircraft engine-maker Pratt & Whitney (a United Technologies subsidiary) that provides engines for everything from C-17 cargo planes to fighter jets like the F-35, and finally, the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics that makes nuclear-powered submarines. However, we're not sure where the ad's suggestion that McMahon's Democrat rival, Chris Murphy, supports sequestration comes from. Few politicians want the sequestration to go forward, but Murphy actually voted against the 2011 deal that set it up.

 

 

8. Tommy vs. Tammy 

In this doozy, Wisconsin Senate candidate Tommy Thompson attacks his Democratic opponent, Tammy Baldwin, for hating on troops, 9/11 first responders, and apple pie (ok, maybe not apple pie) while loving Iran. Tommy says Tammy receives support from a "radical pro-Iran group" while Tammy says Tommy invested in companies that do business with Iran. Who to believe!? Well, that radical pro-Iran group is the D.C.-based Council for a Livable World, whose research arm is the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Apparently, they are "pro-Iran" because they don't think the country poses an "immediate" nuclear threat to the United States. Tammy did vote against a 2006 bill praising 9/11 first responders because it also gave support to the controversial PATRIOT Act and immigration bills that she opposed. Apparently, the claim that Baldwin is opposed to giving troops body armor has its roots in a failed bill she co-sponsored that would allow conscientious objectors to have their tax dollars spent on non-defense programs

National Security

Defense in 2013

Who wins, depending on who wins.

No matter which man wins the presidency, the Pentagon is going to keep taking that proverbial hill. But there are some areas in which a Romney administration would take the U.S. military down a path much different than the Obama administration would. Here are a few of our picks for the people and programs that might find themselves sitting pretty come Wednesday morning:

Obama:

Military Reformers - President Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent much of last fall crafting a $525 billion defense budget for 2013 with unprecedented buy-in from the top brass. It shrinks the size and projected growth of the U.S. military over the next five years with their blessing. Defense officials say they were forced to meet the Budget Control Act's spending restrictions -- meaning they were given an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway. It's no secret both the White House and many four-star generals, including the top Marine, Commandant Gen. James Amos, were hoping to direct a post-war reset. Others, like Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and recently retired Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz, said for months that the military should do its part toward helping alleviate total federal spending. An Obama victory keeps their five-year budget proposal and the national security strategy it funds alive.

Drones - While both candidates support the aggressive use of drones in the war on terrorism, Obama already has a budget on the table that cuts traditional forces and weapons, like big ships and some missile defenses, in order to give more resources to smaller platforms. Specifically, Obama's interest will likely spur the replacement of today's slow, propeller-driven UAVs with stealthy, jet-powered drones that can survive against modern air defenses. This means the Navy may move ahead with its contest for a stealthy, carrier-launched attack drone under the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. The Air Force will probably restart its currently stalled plans to develop a new fleet of stealthy, jet-powered UAVs to complement its RQ-170 Sentinel spy drones. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all ready to compete for the contracts on both of these efforts. Oh, and don't forget the new fleet of 80 to 100 long-range stealth bombers that the Air Force is developing. Versions of this aircraft are designed to be "optionally manned" -- i.e., remote-controlled.

Defense Industry Shareholders - Bear with us. Yes, Obama wants to stop the long-term yearly growth of defense spending while Romney wants to increase the Pentagon budget massively. But in the near term, the next president has to get Congress to move on sequester or the defense budget gets whacked. Obama surrogates feel that the president has leverage to break the deadlock if he wins and argue that Romney would enter with no footing on which to stand up to his own party, cementing the deadlock and making sequester that much more likely. "The fiscal cliff is much more likely to happen under Romney because he's not shown the backbone that I think we need," Rachel Kleinfeld of the left-leaning Truman National Security Project claimed. Maybe. But an Obama win does at least mean that negotiations can pick up wherever they left off. And watercooler wisdom suggests that a Romney win would force Congress to extend the sequestration deadline at the very least. So an Obama re-elect could mean a shorter glide path for a deal.

Blue Star Mothers - While the Obama campaign says the president will hew to the NATO-approved timeline to exit Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the White House gets to decide just how fast combat ends and how many U.S. troops will remain there in perpetuity. Judging by the comments of the candidates and their surrogates, a Romney presidency seems far likelier to extend a high troop-total in Afghanistan as long as possible. Romney also has repeatedly criticized Obama for not keeping U.S. troops in Iraq as a buffer for Iran. The same concern applies to post-war Afghanistan. By contrast, Obama's liberal base thinks the 2014 pullout is not fast enough, by an unbelievable margin of 98-2 percent. ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen's recommendations for the 2013-2014 troop lay-down is expected in Washington later this month, but don't expect a decision until after January. With green-on-blue attacks showing no sign of letting up, failing Afghan governance report cards pouring in, and the election behind him, the commander-in-chief could well decide to get more troops out sooner rather than later.

TriCare - The military's health program is a winner if you believe that fixing it is the only way to save it. Obama's plan to address soaring military health costs -- $19 billion in 2001; $50 billion in 2013 -- by raising premiums on some recipients for the first time since the mid-1990s is backed by two consecutive defense secretaries, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, and the Joint Chiefs. It's already before Congress. "They've got to act on it, and that's a hard political thing to act on first term," said Kleinfeld. DOD proposed to increase fees across the healthcare system, except for active duty troops, over the next four years. The Pentagon claimed it would save $1.8 billion in personnel costs. Congress has rejected the move in bills going through both houses, but Obama has fired a warning shot by including the TriCare impasse on his list of veto-bait items that must be addressed this year. 

Romney winners:

Rosie Riveters and Shipyards - Romney has said he would boost shipbuilding from nine ships a year to about 15. Overall, John Lehman, a former Navy Secretary who is one of Romney's principal defense advisers, says a Romney Pentagon would emphasize littoral combat ships, replace the FFG 7 frigates, and increase the number of destroyers built each year. "We would also include getting up to the accepted requirement for Marine amphibious lift, so there'd be an increase in amphibious ships," Lehman told Defense News. Romney's ambitious plan is seen as unrealistic by some on the other side because it would increase spending $2 trillion over the next decade. But even if Congress agreed to a fraction of that, shipbuilders like General Dynamics, Huntington Ingalls, and Lockheed Martin could see a lot more business.

The F-22, I mean the F-35. Romney had said he would "add F-22s to our Air Force fleet," making everyone from industry to the Hill to the Fourth Estate running to find out just what he meant by the comment on the controversial F-22 Raptor, for which Defense Secretary Robert Gates capped production. Turns out, says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, that he meant the F-35. "F-22 is not a winner," Thompson says. "I've talked to people in the campaign and the candidate misspoke and what he really meant to say was the F-35." It's unclear if Romney means increasing the buy of 2,400 or simply protecting it from ambitious budgeteers who think the U.S. could do with fewer of them. Either way, that could mean a big win for Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35. Lehman said in October that it's hard to say what changes Romney would make to procurement of the troubled F-35 program. "A lot of it is going to depend on whether they get the costs under control, particularly the flyaway costs," Lehman said. Another winner: Boeing, which makes the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which Lehman sees as essential.

Uniform makers, Taco Bells, and Clubs - Romney plans to dramatically increase spending on the military and increase the size of the force by some 100,000 troops. Those troops will need services to sustain them on bases around the world. There are only two things standing in Romney's way: Congress and federal revenues. Three, if you count the Pentagon, which is increasingly appalled by the fraction of its budget (60 percent) that goes to service members. If Pentagon spending goes up, there must be drastic cuts elsewhere in the budget. But if Romney gets his way, a small city's worth of troops is certainly good for all the businesses outside the main gate.

Star Wars Fans - The Romney campaign has pointedly criticized the Obama administration's missile defense policy. And while Romney got flak for his comment about Russia being America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," it's clear he believes in good fences for Russia -- and for Iran, including the possibility of a return to the Bush-era, anti-ICBM plan that Moscow opposed and that Obama scrapped in 2009. That plan would have put 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. In its stead, the Obama administration opted for a "phased approach" (also opposed by Russia) that relies heavily on Aegis ships with SM-3 interceptors, which, top Pentagon officials argue, will provide more flexibility. But in the third presidential debate, Romney said, "I think also that pulling our missile defense program out of Poland in the way we did was also unfortunate in terms of, if you will, disrupting the relationship." A greater emphasis on missile defense could be good for contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin -- but possibly less good for relations with Moscow.

The PX in Bahrain - Romney has pledged a significantly increased U.S. troop presence in Central Command to check Iran. That means an additional aircraft carrier parked offshore but also likely several thousand more support troops, especially Marines, rotating through the U.S. base in Bahrain. Since the 1940s, the Navy has used the island kingdom located just across the Gulf from Iran as a key hub for watching over the region. In 2011, Centcom's Marines stood up a forward-deployed headquarters at the base from which to conduct more counterterrorism operations. Indeed, in the past several years, the base has expanded and improved its facilities for a long-haul presence, including a lovely 30,000-foot exchange that houses a food court, gym, ice cream shop, bicycle store, movie rentals, and officers clubs. It's a serene campus safely walled off from the still-ongoing human rights protests occurring across the city. Already, Special Forces contractors and Pentagon VIPs are making Bahrain a regular stop on regional tours, leading to the rise of high-end hotels and Irish pubs near the base. Romney's plans ensure more of the same to come.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)