One of the biggest issues in the 2012 US presidential campaign has been defense spending, as incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney battle over how much to spend on the American military. But the sheer amount the US spends on defense is a concept foreign to the rest of the world.
“The United States makes up 43 percent of global military expenditure. No one else comes close,” said Mattea Kramer, senior research analyst at National Priorities Project, an American non-governmental research organization.
“America outspends the next 10 countries combined on defense. No other navy has more than two aircraft carriers. The US has 11,” she added.
“Even under Obama’s plan, which calls for the first military cuts in more than a decade, the US will still dominate the world stage on defense for a long time.”
Despite America’s military supremacy for the foreseeable future, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have denounced each other’s views on defense spending as archaic or a threat to national security.
Romney Wants $8.4 Trillion in Defense Spending; Obama Proposes $5.7 Trillion.
Their proposed 10-year military budgets have a $2.7 trillion gulf between them. Romney wants $8.4 trillion in defense spending, while Obama is proposing $5.7 trillion.
For next year, the president has called for a 2.5 percent decrease in the Pentagon’s annual base budget, a proposal that has been decried by Republicans who claim it would leave America vulnerable to foreign enemies.
Obama plans on cutting almost 100,000 troops as part of his strategy for a more “agile, flexible” military. His proposal also calls for slowing the purchase of stealth fighters, while funding a giant floating base that would serve specials operations forces and drone units.
“We will continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; counter-terrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access,” the president said at the unveiling of his new military strategy in January.
Romney, on the other hand, has said that he would invest more in missile defense. But his most specific proposals have been to increase the reach and power of the navy, building 15 ships a year, including three submarines, compared with Obama’s nine or ten.
Kramer said that even with the differences between the two candidates, either amount would mean the US cannot be militarily challenged and that both candidates are out of touch with Americans’ other national priorities.
“Looking at just the next fiscal year, Romney’s plan wants a Pentagon core budget of about $661 billion that wouldn’t even include war costs,” Kramer said. “By contrast, President Obama has requested $525 billion. While it shows overspending on both sides, there’s still a contrast of over 25 percent between the two men. That’s money that can go to other priorities like education and infrastructure.”
A Lenin-Like Defense Strategy?
But proponents of a larger military, like retired US Army General Bob Scales, have said that it’s the best deterrent to emerging threats.
“Lenin once said, ‘Quantity has a quality all by itself.’ And mass is important; numbers count… There’s a safety net that if you go below in terms of total numbers, then our capabilities throughout the world are going to be put at risk,” Scales said in a Fox News interview.
“We have to be very, very careful as we move into the future that when we reduce the defense budget, we don’t break the back of our services and force our young men and women to go to war unprepared.”
That is a sentiment that is echoed by Romney, who has stated on his Web site that he “will begin by reversing Obama-era defense cuts …with the goal of setting core defense spending …at a floor of 4 percent GDP (Gross Domestic Product).”
In other words, no matter if America is under threat or not, the defense budget would remain unchanged. However, according to one of his defense advisers, that’s a goal that the Republican candidate isn’t even sure he can immediately meet.
“The goal of 4 percent of GDP remains and is unchanged,” Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller, told Bloomberg news. “But that goal is not going to be achieved overnight or perhaps even by the end of the first term.”
New Law Mandates Military Cuts
One key reason may be because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the federal statute that ended the debt-ceiling crisis and averted US financial default. That measure, which was signed into law by Obama, mandated that $917 billion be cut, or “sequestered,” from federal spending over a 10-year period, including some $487 billion in defense cuts.
The sequestration would begin in January 2013, and would immediately cut $55 billion from Pentagon spending, unless Democrats and Republicans come up with a better plan before the end of 2012. In the last presidential debate, Romney stressed that he’s against sequestration, while the president said “he won’t let it happen.”
So far, Democrats seem willing to go through with the cuts, unless Republicans agree to end their opposition to higher taxes for the nation’s wealthiest citizens.
If the cuts go through, some lawmakers and Pentagon officials have said they could jeopardize military projects.
Still the Biggest Kid on the Block
Even if the $55 billion is sequestered from defense spending, the US would still dwarf the next two military giants, China and Russia.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, America spent $711 billion on defense in 2011. China and Russia, which have both seen major increases in military spending since 2002, were at $143 billion and $71.9 billion, respectively.
Despite any proposed cuts, “the US will remain by far the world’s major military superpower and the only NATO member capable of sustaining large air-sea operations or of projecting substantial ground forces on a global scale for a sustained period,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a March 2012 report.
America’s Jobs-Defense Conundrum
But in America, defense spending isn’t just about military weapons and operations, it’s also about jobs.
Since World War II, the United States has recognized that vast defense spending is one of the largest job-creators that the government can control, according to Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
“Part of the Pentagon’s industrial policy has been this brilliantly executed plan of having activities in every single congressional district in the country,” Pollin said.
“So every single congressional district in the US benefits from the $700 billion military budget. And I would say roughly six million jobs in the economy are tied directly to the Pentagon spending.”
However, Pollin added, while the military budget may be an easy sell to the American public, it is not the kind of spending that provides the greatest return.
“For every dollar that is spent on the military, if that money is instead spent on education and health care, you get 2.5 times more jobs,” he said. “You get about 27 jobs per $1 million of spending on education versus 11 in the military.”
At a time when the United States is suffering from a high unemployment rate, any president, Democrat or Republican, may be unwilling to significantly reduce military spending out of fear that it could cut jobs, including their own.