The Skeptics

Romney’s 4 Percent Military Spending Still a Fantasy

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Mitt Romney’s proposal to spend at least 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon’s budget. In yesterday’s Boston Globe, Michael Kranish explores the implications:

Enacting such an increase at the same time that Romney wants to slash taxes and balance the budget could cost trillions of dollars and require huge cuts in domestic programs. As Romney’s website puts it matter-of-factly, "This will not be a cost-free process.’’

There are several curious claims that emerge from the story and that raise additional questions.

First, Romney’s advisers have no idea when the 4 percent target will be achieved, nor can they point to other spending that will be cut to make up the difference. I take at face value Romney’s claim that he will not raise taxes or add to the deficit. At a minimum, Romney should clarify when he expects to achieve his 4 percent goal, and he should then spell out what spending he plans to cut in order to increase the Pentagon’s budget.

Second, as with most other things, focusing on how much we spend isn’t nearly as interesting, or important, as why we spend it. As I explained in my earlier post, it only makes sense to be spending so much more money, in real terms, than we did during the Cold War if we believe that today’s enemies are dramatically more threatening than those we confronted then. I find the mere suggestion utterly absurd. But Mitt Romney apparently does not, judging from his pledge to spend, on average, at least 42 percent more than Ronald Reagan did during the 1980s.

Third, the story leaves me wondering if Romney cares at all about the quality and character of the nation’s military. The story notes, for example, that Romney regularly compares today’s fleet to the number of ships from nearly a century ago, and the number of planes in the air force since just after World War II. This proves to be one of his most consistent lines from the stump. Politifact.com’s Truth-o-Meter labeled his claim that the U.S. military is at risk of losing its "military superiority" because the navy "is smaller than it's been since 1917" and because the air force "is smaller and older than any time since 1947 a "pants on fire" lie. But Romney adviser Mackenzie Eaglen, now with the American Enterprise Institute, explains that such comparisons are appropriate, so long as the candidate also provides some context. (Awkward fact: Romney doesn’t). From the story:

[Eaglen] said it should be obvious that ships and crew are more capable than years ago, but said it is also true that more ships are needed to cover the earth’s waters.

"One ship, one aircraft, or one brigade can only be in one place at one time around the world,’’ she said. "So even with sophisticated technologies and people in the military, numbers still matter. A lot of deterring is achieved through physical presence of these assets. Quantity has a quality all its own.’’

If that is true, then why not simply field hundreds of very small ships, armed with minimal armaments, as opposed to a handful of very expensive aircraft carriers (estimated to cost about $14 billion each to build, plus hundreds of millions every year to operate). Or consider the several dozen Arleigh Burke-class destroyers ($2 billion each) or up to fifty-five littoral combat ships (expected to average about $600 million each) that will comprise the backbone of the surface fleet in the 2020s. Could we purchase twice as many ships at two-thirds the cost, or half the cost? Several other platforms under development suggest the answer is "yes." Finally, where do submarines factor in this equation? If the object of a large navy is for maintaining a highly visible "physical" presence, how then to measure the value of the silent service?

I am as much a fan of the U.S. Navy as anyone, and I am far less enamored of deep cuts there than in the ground forces. But I remain deeply puzzled by the suggestion that "quantity has a quality all its own," particularly as it applies to surface ships.

As before, I anxiously await Governor Romney’s answers to these and other questions.

Image: Official U.S. Navy Imagery