There was not much substance on the defense budget in Monday night's debate. That's hardly surprising, and the fact that the candidates kept slipping into domestic politics makes it clear that this is not a foreign policy campaign. President Obama mentioned the dreaded fiscal cliff only to say it would not happen. I'm not sure how he knows, since it is the law and will take a congressional deal to avoid. But the general silence on the subject indicates there is no political traction in the topic.
So, I posed a test on Monday for both candidates, and they took an incomplete on most of it. To wit:
1. Romney avoided his notion of spending 4 percent of GDP on defense. No points and a demerit for failing to recognize that defense budgets are going down anyway.
2. He ducked, as well, on whether his plan would add $2 trillion to defense, but he did not deny it, either. So no points either way.
3. They both stayed away from the subject of defense and the size of the GDP. No points.
4. Romney gets no bonus points, which he would have earned, for detailing a budget plan that paid for his $2 trillion add to the defense budget. Is there a plan?
5. A half a point to Romney for adding ships to the fleet and keeping the 100,000 troops, but that was already public. No full point, which he would have earned for a more detailed defense spending plan.
6. Romney loses a point for saying he would buy 15 ships a year, even though we have not done so since 1915.
7. One point loss to Romney for arguing that the Navy would be as small as it was in 1917 (he is actually wrong by about 30 ships). A bonus point to Obama for having the snappiest come-back of the debate.
8. A point loss to Romney for failing to say what Middle East country he would invade with the additional ground force. In fact, he would invade no country -- a new commitment and maybe a bonus point for him.
9. No point loss for calling sequester "doomsday," but maybe a point loss for Romney for arguing that Obama was responsible for a trillion dollars in defense cuts when (a) the first $487 billion do not cut the budget but simply reduce the previously planned growth to a pace that keeps up with inflation, and (b) both these and the $500 billion from a sequester are the result of the Budget Control Act, which the Republican House supported.
10. See point 9.
11. Nobody gets a point for fiscal acumen; neither noted that even after a sequester the defense budget would start to grow, again.
12. Neither candidate noted that the FY 2013 defense budget would still be
FY 2007 level, pretty historically high for defense.
13. Neither candidate gets points for proposing how to fix the procurement system. They didn't even talk about it.
14. Neither candidate gets points for history; neither noted that even with a sequester, the defense budget would decline less that it has in every previous defense draw-down (an average of 30 percent in constant dollars).
15. No points go to either candidate for political courage on military pensions. Neither called for reform of a system that deprives the military of a pension if they have served less than 20 years and then gives them a full pension regardless of age.
17. Can the Pentagon manage weapons programs with 9.4 percent fewer resources? Yes, but neither candidate said so. No points.
18. Budgets limit strategic appetite. Nobody said so Monday night. No points.
19. Neither candidate suggested that we do "less with less" in defense. No bonus points for a realistic military strategy, as a result.
20. Obama gets no points for admitting that there are no budgetary savings from ending the war in Afghanistan. He did not admit it, but, then, he did not claim the phantom savings, either. As I said in the last column: you can't save money from money you never planned to spend in the first place.
We only had a faint echo of the reality we face in defense: we are in a defense drawdown because the wars are ending, the deficit must be lowered, the debt restrained, and the economy fixed. So no final round of applause for finally recognizing reality instead of political pandering.
Last night in the debate, Joe Biden said Mitt Romney's defense plan would add $2 trillion to the defense budgets projected over the next decade. Paul Ryan denied it, but it is the consequence of Romney's promise to devote 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defense. The promise was made in their first White Paper on defense. The goal was "setting core defense spending -- meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development -- at a floor of 4 percent of GDP."
There is almost nothing dumber in defense planning than justifying your defense budget by making reference to the share of GDP it consumes. But that doesn't stop people from trying. Romney advisor Dov Zakheim and his son Roger reiterated the commitment this week .
The Zakheims weasel a little, saying there is no way this will happen right away (although, including the war costs, which is the right thing to do, the budget for national defense, including nuclear weapons, has been well above 4 percent of GDP for the last eight years). It will be a ramp, of course, and there is no way, they say, it will add $2 trillion to the currently projected defense budgets over the next ten years.
Except that it would. By tying defense to GDP, even if you use a slope to get to 4 percent in the projections, it would easily add $2 trillion to current projections, as pointed out by Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security.
There are three problems with Romney's proposal. First, it has nothing to do with national security.The only reason to talk about the share of GDP that defense consumes is to answer the question: Can the economy afford it? As GDP grows, defense budgets become more economically affordable, as long as they grow more slowly than overall production. The share actually fell to less than 3 percent of GDP at the end of the 1990s. It tells you no other useful information in talking about defense or national security.
Second, the only thing the GDP share measures is the growth of GDP, not the growth of defense budgets. The number doesn't tell you anything about what we actually spend on defense, what missions we spend it to be able to perform, and whether it is enough or not. For all of its rhetoric about the Middle East, the Romney speech at the Virginia Military Institute offered no strategic view that would drive a requirement to spend more than $7 trillion on defense over the next ten years. Fear and uncertainty -- even American "exceptionalism" -- are not a policy, and they certainly do not tell us how much to spend on defense.
Third, and most important in the current budgetary dilemma, Romney's defense advisors cannot get there from here. Not without draconian cuts to entitlements (which require legislative changes he cannot get through Congress) and the termination of virtually everything that remains of domestic spending. And he certainly cannot get there and reduce the deficit or debt as a share of GDP. A magic asterisk of growth, stimulated by unspecified tax cuts, is unsound, and certainly a budgetary dodge of the first order.
The litmus test of all those who would tie defense to a share of GDP is to ask them if they would agree to cut the defense budget if GDP declined. Of course not; defense budgets need to be driven by two things: the limits on resources and the demands of national security strategy (and not just one of them -- strategy never drives budgets independent of available resources unless you are at war, and that is virtually over). But maybe, in an election year, it is too much to ask to expect that kind of realism in the defense budget debate.
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Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.