WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidates Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney want to boost defense spending sharply, tying increases to the size of the nation's economy, but analysts argued Tuesday that such a link makes little sense.
Thompson would increase defense spending to 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product; Romney would seek defense spending at 4 percent of the GDP.
Currently, defense spending equals 4.2 percent of the GDP, according to the Office of Management and Budget. That should fall in each of the next three years, reaching 3.1 percent by 2011, the OMB estimates, not counting some costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are funded in part by separate legislation.
Defense spending isn't currently tied to the GDP; Congress writes the budget annually and the president signs it into law. Linking the Pentagon budget to a GDP-based formula has a number of flaws, said Chris Hellman, a military policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington research group.
"Are you going to continue to tie spending to GDP if the economy tanked?" he asked. A shrinking GDP — the value of the nation's goods and services — then would force cuts in the Pentagon budget.
Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, outlined his plan in a speech Tuesday at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina; his 4.5 percent would exclude operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also called for building up the military to a million-member ground force by increasing Army troops to 775,000 and the Marine Corps to 225,000. "We can either build up and deter war or we can allow our forces to wither and risk conflict," he said in prepared remarks.
Thompson didn't estimate how much his plan would cost or how he'd pay for it.
Steven Kosiak, the vice president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan research institute, estimated that Thompson's plan would cost another $140 billion for fiscal 2008 alone.
"If you're going to increase defense spending like that, and you don't want to raise taxes and you're not going to add to the deficit, you'd have to really gut any domestic discretionary programs: education, transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, homeland security, NASA, veterans benefits," Kosiak said.
Romney's proposal says that spending at a minimum of 4 percent of the GDP, not including war funding, would "help provide the resources needed to make long-overdue investments in equipment, weapons systems, modernization, training, health programs and treatment of our wounded veterans.''
His plan includes adding at least 100,000 more troops to the armed forces, in which 1.36 million people now serve.
Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan research center, said the military already had had to offer more incentives and lower its admission standards to meet recruiting goals. Plans to increase troops as Romney proposes could prove daunting and take many years.
"They'd have to greatly reduce their standards even more for people we permit to volunteer," Wheeler said. "It's not going to be easy and it will be expensive."
Romney maintained that his defense plan would help reverse a "dangerous decline under the Clinton administration."
The slowdown in military spending began during Ronald Reagan's administration, however. As a share of the GDP, modern-era defense spending peaked at 6.2 percent in 1986, slowed to 5.6 percent in fiscal 1989, the last Reagan budget year, and drifted steadily down to bottom out at 3.0 percent in fiscal 2001.