By Michael Cummings
Best Defense defense budget department
Seeking to capture the national security voting demographic, presidential candidate Mitt Romney has vowed to, "reverse President Obama's massive defense cuts." His website says it will increase Navy procurement from nine ships a year to fifteen. Most monumentally, as Travis Sharp pointed out on this blog a couple of weeks back, a Romney administration would increase defense spending to 4 percent of GDP, or around a trillion dollars a year, in ten years.
While a debate over the size of the military's budget is important, I think as a voting population we are ignoring a much bigger question: When did a really smart business person, Mitt Romney, lose his business sense?
When it came to running Bain Capital, creating Staples, or rescuing the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, businessman Romney made tough decisions -- especially when it came to cutting costs -- to strengthen bottom lines. Yet Romney refuses to apply this same fiscal acumen to the Army, Navy or Air Force.
Amazingly, for a cost-conscious fiscally minded businessman, he wants to give the military more money. Apparently, the military is the sole exception to "government is wasteful" rule that has driven his campaign thus far.
That doesn't describe the military I knew. When I was in the Army, I saw waste and, sometimes, epic inefficiencies. If candidate Romney looked at defense as a business, not a constituency to woo, his diagnosis would be simple: cut, cut, cut. I hope a would-be President Romney looks at my experience with waste in the Army -- and countless other examples from around the services -- and says, "You know what? The Pentagon doesn't need anymore money. It just needs to do a better job with what it has."
Example 1: Ammunition
From ROTC to Special Forces, commanders track how much ammunition they use. They do this for a simple reason: They need to fire it all. Even if a unit doesn't need all its ammunition, it fires it anyways. Often units conduct something called a "Spend Ex," short for "Spending Exercise." Every soldier stands in a line at the firing range. They fire as much ammunition as possible as quickly as possible. Units don't want to lose their ammo in the next fiscal year. (Ammo they didn't need the year before.)
I'll put this in "Staples" terms, in honor of Mitt Romney's most successful investment. Let's say Staples portioned out bundles of paper to each store at the beginning of the year. Each store desperately wants the same amount of paper to sell next year, so, at the end of the fiscal year, they would sell as much paper as cheaply as possible simply to make room to get paper for next year. That doesn't sound like a very smart business model.
Example 2: Deployed Contractors
When I arrived in Afghanistan, I didn't have enough equipment. Sure, my packing list filled two duffel bags, a ruck sack, and another two backpacks, but I didn't have the latest issue of body armor or cold weather clothing. So my supply sergeant and I headed to the local warehouse to get the gear. Inside, four contractors sat behind computers, working on who knows what. The whole time (which took about 45 minutes), I was the only person in line. One civilian contractor helped me while the others played computer games or fantasy football.
Maybe the Army needed four contractors because at peak hours at this warehouse on Bagram Air Field soldiers swamped the office. More likely, the Army probably bought about three workers too many. (Like the contractors employed throughout the Department of Defense.) To put this in consulting terms which Mitt Romney would understand, this is like hiring twenty consultants to do a job which only requires five. Bain Capital wouldn't stay in business very long if its customers thought it was hiring four times too many people for every job.
Example 3: Budgets
Every Army unit from top to bottom is given a bag of money at the start of the fiscal year. Then they try to spend it. Everyone in the Army believes that if they don't spend all their money, they won't get the same-sized bag the next year. (Though, for each of the last ten years, the bag has grown by about ten percent.)
At the end of the fiscal year, the Pentagon and every unit under it goes on spending sprees, buying knives, printers, and scanners to spend, spend, spend. I saw units replacing new printers with newer printers, simply to spend the money.
I will put this in Brookstone terms, another Romney success story. Let's say he gave each store a budget at the beginning of the year. What if he heard that at the end of each fiscal year, each store went on spending sprees, buying as much as they could to ensure they got the same budget the next year. Would a businessman Romney support that plan? Probably not, so why does he want to give more money to the Pentagon?
Example 4: Failed Weapons Systems
Imagine that Steel Dynamics -- a steel producer who Romney touts as the pinnacle of innovation -- needed new steel furnaces. If they were the Pentagon, they would hire a contractor and order 250 of the best prototypes they can find. This contractor would tell them the experimental furnaces cost 50 million per unit and won't be ready for ten years.
Ten years later, the furnaces still haven't been delivered. The cost is now 120 million dollars per furnace. And Steel Dynamics still pays the contractor a 600 million dollar bonus. Even better, the ovens won't be ready for six more years. If that sounds ridiculous, well, that is exactly what happened, and is still happening, with the Joint Strike Fighter. (Meanwhile, the Joint Strike Fighter's predecessor, the F-22 Raptor, still hasn't flown a single mission supporting the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. It also poisons its pilots.)
The list of failed, over-budget or late weapons systems -- the Comanche, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Future Combat System just to start -- boggles the mind. Meanwhile, the Air Force has tried for years to kill the A-10 Warthog, a plane that literally kept me alive in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps only adopted the MRAP because of a Secretary of Defense fiat.
What Romney Actually Believes
Instead of calling for higher budgets, the Romney/Ryan team should demand the Department of Defense focus on productivity growth, efficiency, and a new culture of fiscal-minded reform -- not just by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, but by every leader from buck sergeant to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. They should demand "audit-ready" budgets. Can you imagine Bain Capital telling shareholders they don't have a budget? The problem with the Pentagon isn't the size of its budgets, it is the people making massively inefficient and wasteful decisions with taxpayer money.
Mitt Romney just needs to listen to himself. Describing the naval procurement system Romney said, "A business like that would be out of business." I agree. But the solution isn't giving the Pentagon more money, it's giving it less. Mitt Romney should make the Pentagon establish strict new efficiency goals, then use his business acumen to ensure the Pentagon does more with less, like he did as a private equity investor. To do otherwise is simply pandering to win votes.
In other words, Romney has become a politician and forgotten how to be businessmen.
Michael Cummings is veteran and a writer, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade as a platoon leader, and Iraq in 2010 with 5th Special Forces Group as an intelligence officer. He run a milblog at On Violence and currently attends the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
By Travis Sharp
Best Defense senior number cruncher
During last week's debate, President Obama said several times that Governor Romney would increase defense spending by $2 trillion. Romney didn't protest. Obama's claim is accurate, but the underlying issue goes far beyond arithmetic. It is really about strategic risk and national priorities. The candidates' differing visions for defense spending represent the most significant contrast on national security policy in the 2012 election.
DOD's 2013 base budget excluding war funds is $525 billion, which equals 3.3 percent of GDP. Under Obama's plan, it will continue to grow modestly in future years. Romney has said that he wants to reverse the Obama-era cuts, return to the 2010 plan crafted by Robert Gates, and set the goal of spending 4 percent of GDP on defense. Those three objectives are different, so he'll have some wiggle room should he become president.
Let's compare Romney's third objective to Obama's plan. We'll run two scenarios for Romney. Under "Ramp Up," he increases defense spending by 0.1 percent of GDP per year until it reaches 4 percent and keeps it there. Under "Immediate," he increases defense spending to 4 percent of GDP immediately and keeps it there.
The table compares the Obama and Romney plans. The data are derived from OMB and CBO and denominated in billions. (I first did this calculation at the request of CNN Money in May. The resulting article has received some attention. The New York Times ran a signed editorial on the issue in August).
From 2013 to 2022, the difference between Obama and Romney "Ramp Up" is $2.063 trillion. The difference between Obama and Romney "Immediate" is $2.316 trillion.
Why is there such a big difference between Obama and Romney? Because GDP tends to get bigger over the long run, so indexing defense spending to GDP will cause the defense budget to grow -- sometimes rapidly -- in perpetuity. Don't just take my word for it. Cato's Chris Preble ran this excursion and got similar results. AEI's Tom Donnelly said an earlier iteration of this analysis presented "obvious, but undeniably true, facts." This chart illustrates the differences between Obama's and Romney's plans and puts them in historical context.
Readers should note a few things. First, cost estimates are not an exact science. Second, defense spending today is relatively low in historical terms when measured as a percentage of GDP. Third, inflation continually saps DOD's buying power, so defense spending increases are not as mighty as they appear. Fourth, the "4 percent for defense" plan has percolated among policymakers like Robert Gates and within think tanks for years. Fifth, the transmission mechanism that moved the plan from defense policy ether to Romney platform was presumably Senator Jim Talent, a top Romney defense advisor (and SecDef frontrunner, rumor has it) who has been hot on the plan for years. (Those interested in a deeper discussion of the recent evolution and potential weaknesses of the "defense spending and GDP" approach might read my 2008 essay in Parameters).
The candidates fundamentally disagree about how much it will cost for the U.S. military to maintain its global preeminence, and about how much preeminence is enough. Romney's plan would reduce strategic risk by buying more ground forces, fighter aircraft, naval ships, satellites, and all the rest. As I argue in a new essay, the Obama administration has struggled to communicate effectively about the risks of budget cuts. It has exaggerated some risks in order to deter sequestration, but it has also downplayed some risks to reassure allies and the American public in an election year. The ambiguity has allowed Romney to draw a contrast. His plan wouldn't eliminate risk completely because that's impossible. But it does force policymakers to ponder whether they want to spend more to reduce risk.
In the broadest sense, Romney's plan is affordable if the necessary political decisions are made. Policymakers chose the current mix of taxes, entitlements, and discretionary spending. They can make different choices in the future. Romney hasn't explained how exactly he would pay for $2 trillion in additional defense spending. His plan doesn't look realistic under the current status quo, and Obama is justified in calling him out on it. But the debate shouldn't only be about the arithmetic of the status quo. It should be about choosing America's role in the world and deciding which candidate has the leadership ability to bring that choice to fruition.
"If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population," reports Margot Roosevelt of Reuters.
I have to say this surprised me. Reuters says veterans report being tired of our wars, are angry about the foolishness of invading Iraq, and worried by the situation with Iran. One says he likes how Obama handled Libya.
On the other hand, 37 percent of vets asked said they disapprove of the way Obama has handled the presidency, vs. just 27 who approve, and everyone else up in the air. So the poll numbers leave me a bit confused.
Mitt Romney is a Republican version of John Kerry, I think -- a rich politician from Massachusetts who doesn't really know who he is but (as James Carville has put it), was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.
Richard Ellis/Getty Images
By Joseph Sarkisian
Best Defense department of politico-military affairs
Lately a lot of journalists have been pointing out the neo-conservative return from the grave manifested in Mitt Romney's foreign policy team. The list is a who's who of advisors under the most recent Bush administration -- 15 of the 22 of them -- including six former members of the "Project for a New American Century." If you recall, this was the same group of policy "experts" that advocated the war in Iraq with confidential reasons to bust OPEC by privatizing Iraq's oil infrastructure, removing the Saudis' ability to set prices, and flooring the price of crude.
Clearly this never came to pass and Iraq has remained a member of OPEC. However, although the neo-conservatives lost in their war with the State Department and oil industry to privatize Iraq, a campaign against Iran would give them another shot.
While conflict with Iran may partly be attributed to its nuclear program, it isn't the whole story. Just like with the Baathist regime, the powers that were and may be again are unhappy that an authoritarian regime with a hatred for Israel to boot is having so much say in the price America pays for a barrel of oil. In 2003, the surface motivation was about Iraqi WMD, and today the surface motivation is about Iranian WMD. This unsubstantiated fear proved to be the catalyst the OPEC-busters needed to move on Iraq. That same catalyst could be used to move on Iran.
Iran is much more easily vilified simply because it actually has a nuclear program, unlike Iraq did. Therefore public support for a campaign to make sure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon is winning against non-intervention. But the neo-conservative constituency isn't appeased with the setting back of Iran's nuclear program. In fact, some of them advocate for full-scale regime change.
The neo-cons moan over the uselessness of sanctions, and on this point they may be correct, but not for the right reasons. The issue as they state it is Iran having adequate time to put together a nuclear device. This may or may not be the case, but it certainly is the case that regardless of the Ayatollah's plans for his fissile material, the rhetoric keeps oil prices high, as potential kinetic conflict over the issue becomes more of a possibility.
A back and forth approach to ceding some ground on the nuclear issue keeps the price of oil up, which is good strategy for Iran. However, if prices get too high, the regime may effectively commit suicide if a conservative White House loses its temper. Therefore, the current price of oil is close to ideal since it keeps Iran in the sweet spot of dividing the world over whether or not to intervene. Although sanctions are appearing to hurt the Iranian economy, higher oil prices will benefit them if they can strike a deal with China and India to buy what the EU leaves sitting on the tanker. They'll have six months to figure it out.
None of this bodes well for neo-cons who understand that this back and forth will keep oil expensive for the foreseeable future. Therefore, a plea for regime change in Iran would make sense in their eyes, just like it did in 2003. And why not? Public opinion seems to favor at least intervention at this point, Israel is more than happy to help out, and Iran is easier to sell than Iraq ever was. It wouldn't be hard to put Mitt Romney on a plan to privatize Iran's oil infrastructure given the opportunity; he is a businessman after all.
But as we've seen, neo-conservatives aren't much interested in the consequences of action; only the consequences of inaction by others that they believe are too "soft" on Iran, which is pretty much everyone but themselves. They fail to realize that Iran is not Iraq and that it can defend itself. Regime change doesn't happen from the air. Considerable ground forces would be necessary for such a campaign, and Iran has a trained insurgency at the ready that would make Iraq look like Grenada. This would undoubtedly drive the price of oil skyward for an extended period of time, just like it did in 2003.
One entity may be powerful enough to oppose such grand plans (and sadly it isn't the American voters): Big Oil. They shut down the plan to privatize Iraq in 2003 and may be able to do the same thing in Iran if there were an attempt to do so. No OPEC means more competition in the market place, which means lower prices. Translate that to lower profit for oil companies and one can see the connection. Keeping oil in the ground makes more sense to an oilman than taking it out when there is excess supply.
It may be rhetoric in an election year as some have posited, but Israel's involvement and the alignment of many on Romney's foreign policy team with AIPAC and Israeli interests points to a long lasting commitment to taking on Iran in one way or another, whether it is good for American interests or not. Only time will tell, but it is very hard to believe that given the chance, the neo-conservatives wouldn't try and bust OPEC to achieve their goal of reclaiming the almighty American empire one more time.
Joseph Sarkisian is a graduate student in international relations at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where he is also a teaching assistant for political science. The focus of his research is U.S.-Iranian relations.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
By Richard Fontaine
Best Defense department of politico-policy affairs
post and nearly every article on the subject notes, "everyone
knows" that 2012 will not be a foreign policy election. As the polls
demonstrate, four-fifths of Americans want the president to focus on
domestic issues, not international ones, and less than five percent of voters
list foreign policy as the most important issue in the election. No
surprises here; the U.S. is in difficult economic straits, and as the United States winds
down in Afghanistan after ending the war in Iraq, pocketbook issues will
dominate the campaign.
This does not mean, however, that voters will not consider foreign policy as they enter the voting booth. Both eventual candidates, the incumbent president included, will have to demonstrate to the electorate that they pass the commander-in-chief credibility threshold. They must demonstrate that they have the knowledge, the temperament, the skills and the wisdom to lead a superpower in times of both peril and plenty. If they can cross this threshold, they will still have to make a winning case on domestic issues. If they cannot, no amount of focus on the American pocketbook will salvage their chances. Foreign policy will matter in 2012.
This is one reason why some of the Republican candidates were felled by foreign policy gaffes, even in a year when those gaffes might be seen as unimportant. It's also why the candidates will work so hard to tout their own foreign policy credentials -- and undermine their opponents' -- during this long campaign. Expect to see months of talk about the economy, jobs, and the proper size of government. These are important debates, and the candidate who can put together the most compelling platform will be the likely victor.
But expect also to see healthy doses of foreign policy here and there between now and November. The commander-in-chief hopeful who ignores it completely does so at his peril.
Richard Fontaine is a senior advisor at the Center for a New American Security and teaches the politics of national security in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He previously served at the State Department, on the National Security Council staff, and as foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain, including during the 2008 presidential election.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.