In a time of deep deficits and tight budgets, President Obama says the Defense Department cannot be entirely spared the scalpel. But Mitt Romney, his likely opponent in November’s election, says the U.S. must spend more on the Pentagon now because it will pay off with a stronger economy in the long run.
Analysts said the differences stem from a deep philosophical divide. One camp, bolstered by military officers who say the debt is a major national security issue, argues that slowing spending now will create a stronger America in the future.
But Mr. Romney’s side argues that the U.S. can’t foster the kind of stability that is needed around the world without maintaining a powerful and well-funded military in the near term, said Jim Talent, a former Republican senator from Missouri who once served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is a special adviser to the campaign.
It’s the classic “peace through strength” philosophy, said Mr. Talent. He said global stability fosters economic growth, which benefits U.S. businesses, who then pay more in taxes because they are more prosperous.
“There’s a price to strength, but there’s a greater price to weakness,” he said. “When you don’t adequately fund the military, you end up increasing the amount of risk of security around the world, which tends to suppress economic growth.”
While the campaign resists discussing specific dollar amounts, Mr. Talent and others speaking for the Romney camp assert that core defense spending must be set at a floor of 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Based on the White House Office of Management and Budget’s GDP projections, a Romney administration would fork out roughly $800 billion toward national defense in 2016 — a notably higher amount than the trimmed-down $578 billion proposed by the Obama administration.
Different as they may be, both figures represent a doubling of what Congress allowed during the years before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some have asserted that neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney has a real plan for reining in runaway defense spending.
“Obama will spend a lot; Romney will spend more. That’s the difference,” said Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst at the liberal Center for Defense Information, who worked on national security issues for 31 years for members of the Senate from the end of the Vietnam era through the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
Defense spending as a percentage of GDP, which is how many on Capitol Hill measure it, shrank by half after the end of the Cold War, to a low of 3 percent in 2001. It has been rising since and reached 4.7 percent in 2011.
Not everyone agrees that the GDP yardstick is worthwhile.
“Pentagon spending is high right now when you measure it in dollars, but they’re measuring it against the GDP, which is rubber,” he said, noting that the two don’t always grow and shrink at the same rate.
“If one thing has grown faster than the other, you can pretend the other thing has grown lesser, but it’s actually grown bigger,” said Mr. Wheeler, who contends that the Romney camp is preying on such confusion in an attempt to portray Mr. Obama as a man bent on gutting the Pentagon.
Take the Navy, which plans to build nine ships a year for the next three decades at a cost of at least $20 billion a year, or $599 billion through 2042.