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Throwing Money at the Pentagon

When it comes to military spending, the leading Republican presidential candidates seem to only know how to add and multiply, never subtract or divide.

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 3:16 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

If you've been fretting about faltering math education and falling test scores here in the United States, you should be worried based on this campaign season of Republican math. When it comes to the American military, the leading Republican presidential candidates evidently only learned to add and multiply, never subtract or divide.

Advocates of Pentagon reform have criticized President Obama for his timid approach to reducing military spending. Despite current Pentagon budgets that have hovered at the highest levels since World War II and 13 years of steady growth, the administration's latest plans would only reduce spending at the Department of Defense by 1.6 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the next five years.

Still, compared to his main Republican opponents, Obama is a T. rex of budget slashers. After all, despite their stated commitment to reducing the deficit (while cutting taxes on the rich yet more), the Republican contenders are intent on raising Pentagon spending dramatically. Mitt Romney has staked out the "high ground" in the latest round of Republican math with a proposal to set Pentagon spending at 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That would, in fact add up to an astonishing $8.3 trillion dollars over the next decade, one-third more than current, already bloated Pentagon plans.

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Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal engaged in polite understatement when he described the Romney plan as "the most optimistic forecast US defense manufacturers have heard in months."

In fact, Romney's proposal implies that the Pentagon is essentially an entitlement program that should receive a set share of our total economic resources regardless of what's happening here at home or elsewhere on the planet. In Romney World, the Pentagon's only role would be to engorge itself. If the GDP were to drop, it's unlikely that, as president, he would reduce Pentagon spending accordingly.

Rick Santorum has spent far less time describing his military spending plans, but a remark at a Republican presidential debate in Arizona suggests that he is at least on the same page with Romney. In 1958, the year he was born, Santorum pointed out, Pentagon spending was 60 percent of the federal budget, and now it's "only" 17 percent. In other words, why cut military spending when it's so comparatively low?

Of course, this is a classic bait-and-switch case of cherry-picking numbers, since the federal budget of 1958 didn't include Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The population was 100 million less than it is now, resulting in lower spending across the board, most notably for Social Security. In fact, Americans now pay out nearly twice as much for military purposes as in 1958, a sum well in excess of the combined military budgets of the next 10 largest spending nations.

Of course, in a field of innumerates, Santorum's claim undoubtedly falls into the category of rhetorical flourish. It's unlikely that even he was suggesting we more than triple Pentagon spending—the only way to return it to the share of the budget it consumed in the halcyon days of his youth. (Keep in mind that profligate Pentagon spending in that era ultimately prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to coin the term "military-industrial complex.") Still, Santorum clearly believes that there's plenty of room to hike military spending, if we just slash genuine entitlement programs deeply enough. He would undoubtedly support a Pentagon budget at Romney-esque levels, as would Newt Gingrich based on his absurd claim that the Obama administration's modest adjustments to the Pentagon's record budgets would result in a "hollowing out" of the US military.

 

Mitt Romney at Sea

But let's stick with the Republican frontrunner (or stumbler). What exactly would Romney spend all this money on?

For starters, he's a humongous fan of building big ships, generally the most expensive items in the Pentagon budget. He has pledged to up Navy ship purchases from 9 to 15 per year, a rise of 50 percent. These things add up. A new aircraft carrier costs more than $10 billion; a ballistic missile submarine weighs in at $7 billion or more; and a destroyer comes with a—by comparison—piddling price tag of $2 billion-plus. The rationale for such a naval spending spree is, of course, that all-purpose threat cited these days by builders of every sort of big-ticket military hardware: China.

As Romney put it late last year, if the US doesn't pump up its shipbuilding budget, China will soon be "brushing aside an inferior American Navy in the Pacific." This must be news to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who noted in a May 2010 speech to the Navy League that the fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined—11 of which, by the way, belong to US allies. As for the Chinese challenge, much has been made of China's new aircraft carrier, which actually turns out to be a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and originally intended to be a floating casino. It would leave the US with only an 11 to 1 advantage in this category.

It's true that China is increasing the size of its navy in hopes of operating more freely in the waters off its coast and perhaps the contested South China Sea (with its energy reserves), but it is hardly engaged in a drive for global domination. It's not as if Beijing is capable of deploying aircraft carriers off the coasts of California and Alaska. In the meantime, Romney's shipbuilding fetish doesn't add up. It's as ludicrous as it is expensive.

Romney is also a major supporter of missile defense—and not just the current $9-$10 billion a year enterprise being funded by the Obama administration, primarily designed to blunt an attack by long-range North Korean missiles that don't exist. Romney wants a "full, multi-layered" system. That sounds suspiciously like the Ronald Reagan-style fantasy of an "impermeable shield" over the United States against massive nuclear attack that was abandoned in the late 1980s because of its staggering expense and essential impracticality.

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