Defense spending: How much is enough? Who decides? How?

The preamble to the American Constitution requires that government “provide for the common defence.” I would hope that no American would wish this country to be inadequately prepared to fend off threats to the survival of the Republic.

But what is adequate? Where is the substantive, deliberative debate on how to define adequacy of American military power?

Our two principal presidential candidates, challenger Mitt Romney and incumbent Barack Obama, have differing views on the current adequacy of the nation’s defense capability. Speeches and extemporaneous rhetoric aside, neither of their official, eponymous campaign websites clearly define such adequacy or how they’d reach it.

Romney’s website argues that the American military is weak and lacking in modernization — and it’s all Obama’s fault.

President Obama came into office with a military in serious need of modernization. … President Obama has repeatedly sought to slash funds for our fighting men and women, and over the next ten years nearly $1 trillion will be cut from the core defense budget. … The Obama administration’s cuts have left us with a military inventory largely composed of weapons designed forty to fifty years ago. The average age of our tanker aircraft is 47 years, of strategic bombers 34 years. While the weapons in our arsenal remain formidable, they are well along on the path to obsolescence. Along with the aging process, there has been a precipitous decline in sheer numbers.

The president’s campaign website is optimistic and, in far fewer words, less than specific but quite self-congratulatory.

When President Obama took office, the U.S. was engaged in two wars and faced terrorist threats at home and abroad.

President Obama has refocused our security priorities to concentrate on the most serious threats facing our country, promote our values, and improve our standing in the world.

President Obama is committed to strengthening America’s leadership by maintaining a strong military and staying true to our values and ideals.

The websites of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee are equally vague about how to define the adequacy of the American military and its capability to defend us.

Congress is fully engaged in the trading of rhetoric about cut defense — no, don’t cut defense as it attempts to pass omnibus budgets and accomplish deficit reduction. Congress also faces automatic sequestration cuts on the military many members are trying to undo.

The rhetoric is sweeping and intense. Says Sen. Kelly Ayotte:

No one would say that the Department of Defense is a jobs program. But the reality is that sequestration not only undermines our national security, it will hurt our economy and could fundamentally tear our defense industrial base.

Says Leon Panetta, secretary of Defense, about the looming sequestration:

We would go from being unquestionably powerful everywhere to being less visible globally and presenting less of an overmatch to our adversaries, and that would translate into a different deterrent calculus and potentially, therefore, increase the likelihood of conflict.

Less of an overmatch? How much less is still enough?

As a citizen and voter, I find this sky-is-falling rhetoric disturbing, mostly because it is intended to frighten instead of enlighten. I depend on elected and appointed officials to ensure the safety of the nation. But no one is telling me how they are are determining what is adequate financial support for defense spending and how that figure is arrived at.

Romney, on his website, says he will commit to “a floor of 4 percent of GDP.” Well, fine. But why did he link military spending to gross domestic product (defined by the feds as “the output of goods and services produced by labor and property”)? His site does not say. How predictable — i.e., how stable — is GDP as a component of determining adequacy of defense spending? Whose GDP number will be used? (Economists don’t always agree, you know.) And how did Romney et al. arrive at the 4 percent figure? Why not 3.5? Or 4.25? Or a dartboard?

Most of us who are not veterans, especially recent vets of Iraq, Afghanistan, and conflicts elsewhere, have little clue about the adequacy of today’s military. The armed forces recruitment ads (especially those U.S. Space Command adsIt’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day) suggest a thoroughly modern military.

Last November, S&R examined a report by a nonpartisan think tank, the Stimson Center, on defense procurement spending during the previous decade (most while George W. Bush was president.) The Stimson report disputes Romney’s portrait of a weakened American military. From that examination:

[The] analysis concludes that the American military remains the most advanced — and modernized — in the world. [It] recognizes that what to buy and how much to buy for America’s armed forces remain a source of contentious debate.

That, frankly, is what politicians are not dealing with forthrightly — at least in terms of their communications with you and me, the electorate.

They are not dealing with the important question about defense spending: How much is enough?

And it’s not only defense spending. In his fiscal 2013 federal budget, President Obama proposed $70 billion in education spending, a 2.5 percent increase over 2012.

Education spending, like defense spending, is a hot-button issue for Democrats and Republicans alike. Name a dollar figure for education. Some politician will say, “That’s too low,” and another will say, “That’s too high.” Well, voters should demand of those politicians a clear answer: What number of dollars is enough to spend on education?

Every time a politician (or her campaign ad) says, “We need to spend more [or less] on X,” voters should ask three questions:

How much is enough?

Who decides?

How?

Voters are getting short shrift on explanations of spending requests for almost any issue. Rhetoric laced with vitriol is no substitute for clear, plain talk about adequacy of spending, how it is determined, and by whom.

• • •

P.S.: Here’s a gem from the national security section of the website of the Republican National Committee:

The military’s partners are the men and women who work in the defense industry and civilian sector, supplying the Armed Forces with weapons and equipment vital to the success of their mission. To ensure that our troops receive the best material at the best value, we must reform the defense budgeting and acquisition process to control costs and ensure vigorous and fair competition. We will not allow congressional pork to take the place of sound, sustained investment in the nation’s security. [emphasis added]

There. Feel better?

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