Commentary: Does the US need to increase defense spending?

The Sacramento BeeOctober 31, 2012 

THE ISSUE: Monday's presidential debate revealed that President Obama and Gov. Romney fundamentally disagree on levels of U.S. defense spending. Romney has pledged to peg the base budget (not counting war funding) "at a floor of 4 percent of GDP." Should the United States increase defense spending?

Pia: No. Pegging defense spending to a share of the economy is a terrible idea – not based on any assessment of threats. It would mean that as we wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as our economy grows out of a deep downturn, defense spending would be arbitrarily high and increase in perpetuity.

By setting defense spending at 4 percent of GDP, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would increase defense spending in the 2013-2022 decade by $2.3 trillion more than Obama – $2.1 trillion more than in his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan's budget.

Ben: Yes. Historically, U.S. defense spending has been much higher than 4 percent.

During roughly half a century of the Cold War, for example, military spending averaged 6 percent.

Obviously, how much the United States spends on national defense is less important than how we spend it. The Pentagon is a bureaucracy like any other, and nobody believes that every dollar spent in the name of national defense is money well spent. But the program cuts we're now contemplating under a second Obama term – $55 billion in automatic cuts this January, with more to come unless Congress acts – would be folly.

Pia: Under Obama, defense spending would go from $525 billion in 2013 to $634 billion in 2022; under Romney, to $989 billion in 2022.

Why does Romney want this huge military buildup? He doesn't say.

But hints come from former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, a Romney adviser. Keep defense spending high to starve domestic spending on infrastructure, environmental protection, education and other priorities. Romney also wants to cut taxes and balance the budget. Voodoo economics.

Ben: The reasons for a new military "buildup" are easy to surmise. Apart from the wear and tear the armed forces incurred over a decade of conflict, the Obama administration effectively neutered the U.S. missile defense program. Our satellites are wide open to attack. And though this never came up in the debate, the U.S. nuclear stockpile is aging and badly in need of modernization.

Pia: You wouldn't know it from the Romney camp or Ben, but the United States has a military that's second to none. We have 11 aircraft carriers; nobody else has more than one. We have more nuclear-powered submarines and modern armored fighting vehicles, twice as many modern battle tanks, three times more "fourth-generation" tactical aircraft (plus "fifth generation"), three times more naval cruisers and destroyers, 19 times more tanker aircraft and 48 times more unmanned aerial vehicles than any other country.

This is not a "weak" America on a "path to a hollow military," as Romney claims.

Ben: It isn't just quantity that counts; raw numbers don't tell the whole story.

Even with the new F-22s and F-35s, the Air Force still relies heavily on old aircraft. The F-15 Eagle is pushing 40, and the F-16 is six years past its planned retirement date. The Air Force is still flying B-52 bombers, for goodness' sake, and plans to keep them in service until 2045 – nearly 90 years after they first took to the skies.

Pia: Ben misses Obama's modernization program – 2,006 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, five of the latest Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines, two new Ford-class super-carriers, etc. The Navy is expanding missile-defense-capable warships from 26 to 36 by 2018.

Our current and potential foes – including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others – account for 17 percent of global military spending, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The United States accounts for 39 percent – our allies add another 29.5 percent, reducing our burden.

Ben: Where is it written that U.S. military superiority is simply a fact of life?

Here's where Romney's argument for rebuilding the Navy becomes relevant.

Romney wants a 350-ship Navy by 2042. Obama's plan calls for 307 ships – nine short of the minimum the Navy says it needs. We're decommissioning carriers and cruisers faster than we can build new ships. Meanwhile, China has quadrupled its navy's budget since 2000, and Russia plans to spend more than $775 billion on new subs, ships, planes, missiles and tanks over the next 10 years.

Pia: The United States spends five times more on defense than China, the No. 2 spender, and 10 times more than Russia, the No. 3 spender. As Obama makes clear, spending should be "driven by a strategy, not the other way around."

As we wind down two wars, we need to rebalance our military forces and turn to deficit reduction and nation-building at home, not a new military buildup.

Ben: National defense is a constitutional duty of the federal government.

The Pentagon over the past two decades has shifted from a posture of keeping peace through strength to building nations out of backwaters. It's a strategy for failure, and our adversaries have noticed.

Join Pia and Ben as they continue the debate online at www.sacbee.com/opinion.

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