In the Washington debates about how to reduce the U.S. budget deficit, one agency is trying to get a free ride: the Pentagon. The arms lobby has been running a fear campaign designed to stave off cuts in military spending, arguing that reductions in Pentagon outlays would “devastate” U.S. defenses and damage an already weak U.S. economy.
Contrary to these cries from the military-industrial complex, the Obama administration’s proposed adjustments in Pentagon spending are far too timid. Despite current budgets that are hovering at the highest levels since World War II, the administration’s latest proposal would reduce Pentagon spending by only 1.6 % over the next five years. The military budget would be higher than it was in the last year of the George W. Bush administration.
While Obama’s approach is no threat to the profits of major weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, his main Republican opponents would actually increase the amount of taxpayer money that goes to these huge companies. Mitt Romney has adopted the most aggressive stance, pledging to keep Pentagon spending at 4% of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product. According to an analysis by the conservative Cato Institute, that would add up to an astonishing $8.3 trillion dollars over the next decade. It would result in the greatest boom in weapons manufacturing in the U.S. since World War II.
Rick Santorum has offered less detail about his military spending plans, but he has made it clear he would increase military spending and slash government support for domestic programs like health insurance and retirement benefits for the elderly.
What would Republicans spend all this money on?
Mitt Romney is the best example of what would happen under Republican rule. He has pledged to increase Navy ship purchases by over 50%, from 9 to 15 per year. This will increase spending dramatically. A new aircraft carrier costs over $10 billion each, a ballistic missile submarine costs $7 billion or more, and a destroyer goes for at least $2 billion a copy. The main rationale for these expenditures – other than enriching defense contractors — is to address the alleged military threat from China.
The “Chinese threat” is greatly exaggerated. The United States spends more than four times as much on its military as Beijing does, and its Navy is far larger. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in a May 2010 speech, the United States Navy is larger than the next 13 navies in the world combined. In addition, the Chinese aircraft carrier that right-wing hawks in the United States are always complaining about is actually a refurbished version of an old Ukrainian boat that China bought in the late 1990s. By contrast, the United States has 11 aircraft carriers and is building a new one right now.
Romney is also a big supporter of missile defense – and not just the current, $9 to $10 billion a year enterprise being funded by the Obama administration, but a “full, multi-layered” system that sounds very much like the Ronald Reagan-style space-based defense that was abandoned in the late 1980s because it was immensely expensive and essentially unworkable.
The Romney anti-missile program would do more than just waste money. It would provoke a harsh reaction from Moscow, which fears that a U.S. system would eventually make it possible for the United States to attack Russia with nuclear weapons without being hit in return. Romney’s approach would put an end to any prospect of further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions.
Romney’s plan would also make it easier for the United States to fight more wars like the $3 trillion disaster in Iraq. While Obama would bring U.S. troop levels down by about 100,000 over five years – essentially rolling back the increases that were part of the post-9/11 buildup – Romney would add 100,000 troops.
Romney would also be more likely to invade Iran. He has mocked President Obama for not being “tough enough” on Iran and implied that a Romney administration would treat force and the threat of force against Iran as serious options.
Romney would receive support from Pentagon spending advocates in the Congress, led by House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from Southern California. McKeon has received over three quarters of a million dollars in campaign contributions from weapons contractors in recent years, and has never met a weapons system he didn’t like. Under a Republican administration, McKeon and his allies in Congress would be free to dramatically raise weapons spending.
If a Republican president were to follow through on these campaign pledges, massive Pentagon increases and a dogged resistance to tax increases would result in major reductions to every other item in the U.S. budget, from education, environmental protection, and infrastructure to aid to state and local governments. According to a report by the Washington, DC-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Romney budget plan could cut domestic programs by as much as 50% by the end of the next ten years.
A wide range of groups would fight to revise these misguided budget priorities. But these forces might or might not be enough to curb the worst Republican impulses on Pentagon spending. One thing is clear – translating Republican rhetoric on defense spending into reality would inflict massive economic pain while doing nothing to make the world a safer place.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. He collaborates as a monthly columnist with the Americas Program.