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Pentagon Spending: Ryan's Express, Romney's Train Wreck

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House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan's new budget plan has received far more respect than it deserves. The myth of Ryan as the one who is willing to make the "tough choices" on the deficit continues to be perpetrated in many corners. But his plan doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Let's look at the Pentagon budget - the largest single item in the federal budget alongside Social Security. Ryan's plan would average out at $40 billion per year more than the Pentagon's current plans, totaling $6.2 trillion over the next decade. Ryan's rationale for pumping up the Pentagon while cutting virtually everything else is strictly rhetorical. He criticizes the Obama administration's modest spending adjustments as "slashing defense" and "choosing decline" with no effort to back his statements up with an analysis based in any version of the facts. In this respect he is in lockstep with colleagues like Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, who has never met a weapon system he didn't like or a defense contractor he wouldn't take contributions from.

The Obama plan is seen by key experts as a "timid" response to the need to downsize the military budget, and one that will sustain Pentagon spending at near World War II highs for another decade. So there is no justification for adding $400 billion to it over ten years, as Ryan proposes to do - except political posturing, a practice inconsistent with Ryan's "tough guy" persona.

A series of independent analyses have demonstrated how the Pentagon budget could be reduced by hundreds of billions of dollars more than the modest adjustments proposed by the Pentagon so far. Among other things, they show that scaling back Pentagon plans by about $1 trillion over ten years - the figure that would come into play if the automatic triggers required in the 2011 Budget Control Act come into play - is perfectly manageable. Reductions at this level could actually increase our security if they open the way to smarter security investments. Unlike the Ryan plan, these changes would also help reduce the deficit, which former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Adm. Mike Mullen has described as the greatest threat to our national security.

Among the groups and individuals who have provided a road map to saner security spending are the Sustainable Defense Task Force, formed with the encouragement of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA); former Clinton administration chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former senator Alan Simpson (R-WY), the co-chairs of the president's deficit commission; a panel assembled by the Bipartisan Policy Center, co-chaired by former Senate Budget Committee chair Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Alice Rivlin, the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office and former head of the White House Office of Management and Budget; the non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense and Project on Government Oversight; the libertarian Cato Institute; and the Stimson Center's project on Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense.

Keys to a more sensible Pentagon budget are rolling back the size of the armed forces to pre-2001 levels, an acknowledgment that we are no longer putting primary emphasis on being able to fight large, "boots on the ground" wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan; reducing or eliminating overpriced and unnecessary weapons programs like the F-35 combat aircraft, the V-22 Osprey, and proposed new nuclear bombers and ballistic missile-firing submarines; and reducing reliance on expensive and unaccountable private contractors.

The underlying logic of defense downsizing involves a change in missions that lets go of the notion that we must have the capability to go anywhere and fight any battle, however marginal it may be to our fundamental security. A new approach would require U.S. allies to play a larger role in defending themselves, and it would highlight relatively affordable but crucial measures like programs to secure loose nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials, a process that is a focus of a global nuclear security summit being held this week in South Korea. And it would acknowledge that many of the most urgent threats to human life stem from problems like climate change, the spread of disease, extreme poverty, and nuclear proliferation that do not have military solutions.

Ryan's plan is wrong on Pentagon spending, but Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney's approach is far worse. While the Ryan plan overspends on the Department of Defense, Romney is proposing the largest Pentagon spending binge since World War II. By proposing that we set Pentagon spending at 4% of the Gross Domestic Product regardless of whether the world is getting safer or not, the Romney plan would spend an estimated $8.3 trillion on the Pentagon over the next decade. That's about 25% more than even the Ryan plan proposes, and roughly one-third more than current Pentagon plans. How Romney proposes to pay for this without raising revenues is one of the great unasked questions of the 2012 campaign. The press and the public need to be much tougher and more persistent in demanding that Romney explain what his plan will cost, either in increases in the deficit or in deep cuts to other priorities.

And as long as Ryan's plan is soft on defense contractors, he can't claim to be the man who makes the tough choices.

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, now out in paperback from Nation Books.