By Winslow T. Wheeler (Director, Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight)
Mitt Romney’s proposal to boost defense spending until it reaches “a floor of four percent of GDP [gross domestic product],” as he proclaims at his official website, is an insult to history.
This graph shows how unprecedented it is. It tracks spending for the Department of Defense (DOD) from 1948 to 2022, expressed in inflation-adjusted dollars normalized to 2012. The data up to 2012 are actual spending. The data for the years after 2012 show Romney’s plan (in red), President Obama’s (in blue), and the spending to be imposed by sequestration (in green) — the result of the Budget Control Act’s automatic reductions now scheduled for January 2, 2013.
The Romney Plan shown assumes a gradual build up to his four percent goal, as calculated by Travis Sharp at the Center for a New American Security. Compared to other calculations of Romney’s declared intent, it is one of the more modest. The data for the Obama plan are from his 2013 budget, and the data for sequestration is from the Congressional Budget Office. In each, money has been included to accommodate a rapid drawdown from Afghanistan: all three data lines assume the Obama budget for overseas contingencies in 2013, $88.5 billion; an arbitrary assumption of $50 billion for 2014, $25 billion for 2015, and nothing after that. In other words, the spending levels shown are about as low as one might conceive.
Romney’s plan would boost the Pentagon’s budget more or less $300 billion above the previous post-World War Two highs, namely the Korea and Vietnam wars and the Reagan Cold War peak, and it would more than double the average amount of DOD spending during the Cold War: $440 billion compared to $900 billion.
Assessed against the low points after the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the Reagan era, Romney’s nadir is about $250 billion higher. Even Obama’s lesser plan and the so-called “Doomsday” of sequester are well above the previous draw-down lows — between $150 billion to $100 billion higher, they are extraordinarily well stuffed with money, and yet President Obama, horrified that the lesser might occur, promised that sequester “will not happen.”
Romney would massively outspend Cold War budgets that addressed hundreds of hostile Warsaw Pact divisions in Europe, a Soviet navy that at one point numerically outnumbered ours, and a dogmatically communist Peoples’ Republic of China. Today, we face al Qaeda and its ilk who spend in a year less than we spend in one day; the big bogey man of the future, China, is our second largest trading partner.
Just what is Romney trying to address?
For years the mantra of the Republican defense-politicos, for example at the Heritage Foundation, has been four percent of GDP for defense. It is a wonderfully facile gimmick: it sounds like only a modest increase from our current 3.5 percent, and it presents an image of paltry defense spending today compared to the Cold War, when we spent up to nine percent. The four percent mantra was de rigueur during the Republican presidential primaries for anyone hoping to win; candidate Romney dutifully complied.
Also, with his gigantic DOD budget increase Romney is also clearly signaling that he intends to achieve his force structure goals not through reform, which would cost far less, but by simply throwing money. If he is the businessman he claims to be, Romney knows that is stupid. However, the money would not be thrown just at the Pentagon, but also to contractors, who have been expressing their appreciation with campaign contributions sufficient to bring him almost even with Obama.
Romney’s four percent solution has nothing to do with the real world.
Winslow T. Wheeler is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight. He worked for 30 years for Republican and Democratic senators and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues.