Romney’s defense budget is unrealistic

Summary:  today guest author Winslow Wheeler reviews Mitt Romney’s proposal to boost defense spending until it reaches “a floor of 4% of GDP” (as he proclaims at his official website), and explains why it is an insult to history.




  1. Romney’s defense budget is unrealistic
  2. About the author
  3. Other articles by Winslow Wheeler
  4. About reforming our defense agencies

(1)  “Romney’s defense budget is unrealistic”

By Winslow Wheeler, from The Hill’s Congressional Blog, 1 November 2012.
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.

This graph shows how unprecedented it is. It tracks spending for the Department of Defense (DOD) from 1948 to 2022, expressed in inflation-adjusted dollars normalized to 2012. The data up to 2012 are actual spending. The data for the years after 2012 show

  • Romney’s plan in red,
  • President Obama’s in blue, and
  • spending imposed by sequestration in green (the Budget Control Act’s automatic reductions set for 2 January 2013)


The Romney Rocket

The Romney Plan shown assumes a gradual build up to his 4% goal, as calculated by Travis Sharp at the Center for a New American Security. Compared to other calculations of Romney’s declared intent, it is one of the more modest. The data for the Obama plan are from his 2013 budget, and the data for sequestration is from the Congressional Budget Office. In each, money has been included to accommodate a rapid drawdown from Afghanistan: all three data lines assume the Obama budget for overseas contingencies in 2013, $88.5 billion; an arbitrary assumption of $50 billion for 2014, $25 billion for 2015, and nothing after that.  In other words, the spending levels shown are about as low as one might conceive.

Romney’s plan would boost the Pentagon’s budget more or less $300 billion above the previous post-WW2 highs, namely the Korea and Vietnam wars and the Reagan Cold War peak, and it would more than double the average amount of DOD spending during the Cold War: $440 billion compared to $900 billion.

Assessed against the low points after the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the Reagan era, Romney’s nadir is about $250 billion higher. Even Obama’s lesser plan and the so-called “Doomsday” of sequester are well above the previous draw-down lows — between $150 billion to $100 billion higher, they are extraordinarily well stuffed with money, and yet President Obama, horrified that the lesser might occur, promised that sequester “will not happen.”

Romney would massively outspend Cold War budgets that addressed hundreds of hostile Warsaw Pact divisions in Europe, a Soviet navy that at one point numerically outnumbered ours, and a dogmatically communist Peoples’ Republic of China. Today, we face al Qaeda and its ilk who spend in a year less than we spend in one day; the big bogey man of the future, China, is our second largest trading partner.

Just what is Romney trying to address?

For years the mantra of the Republican defense-politicos, for example at the Heritage Foundation, has been 4% of GDP for defense. It is a wonderfully facile gimmick: it sounds like only a modest increase from our current 3.5%, and it presents an image of paltry defense spending today compared to the Cold War, when we spent up to 9%. The 4% mantra was de rigueur during the Republican presidential primaries for anyone hoping to win; candidate Romney dutifully complied.

Also, with his gigantic DOD budget increase Romney is also clearly signaling that he intends to achieve his force structure goals not through reform, which would cost far less, but by simply throwing money. If he is the businessman he claims to be, Romney knows that is stupid. However, the money would not be thrown just at the Pentagon, but also to contractors, who have been expressing their appreciation with campaign contributions sufficient to bring him almost even with Obama.

Romney’s 4% solution has nothing to do with the real world.

(2)  About the author

Winslow T. Wheeler is Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.

From 1971 to 2002, Wheeler worked on national security issues for members of the U.S. Senate and for the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). He was the first, and according to Senate records the last, Senate staffer to work simultaneously on the personal staffs of a Republican and a Democrat (Pryor and Kassebaum).

In the Senate staff, Wheeler was involved in legislation concerning the War Powers Act, Pentagon reform, foreign policy, and oversight of the defense budget/programs. At GAO he directed comprehensive studies on the 1991 Gulf War air campaign, the US strategic nuclear triad, and weapons testing. Each of these studies found prevailing conventional wisdom about weapons to be badly misinformed.

In 2002 when he worked on the Republican staff of the Senate Budget Committee, Wheeler authored an essay, under the pseudonym “Spartacus,” addressing Congress’ reaction to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (“Mr. Smith Is Dead: No One Stands in the Way as Congress Lards Post-September 11 Defense Bills with Pork“). When senators criticized in the essay attempted to have Wheeler fired, he resigned his position.

He has authored two books:  The Wastrels of Defense (2004) about Congress and national security, and Military Reform (2007).  He was the Editor of America’s Defense Meltdown (2009).  He also edited of two anthologies, The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It (2011) and America’s Defense Meltdown: Military Reform for President Obama and the New Congress (2009).

He appears in interviews on national TV and radio and has written articles and commentaries for national, local, and professional publications. These venues include “60 Minutes,” C-SPAN’s “Book Notes” and “Q & A,” National Public Radio, the PBS News Hour, the Washington Post, Politico, Mother Jones, Barron’s, Defense News, and Armed Forces Journal.

(3)  Other articles by Winslow Wheeler

  1. Romney or Obama: Which National Security Opportunist Do You Prefer?, 15 October 2012.
  2. The Myth of American Military Superiority, 13 October 2012.
  3. Budget and Hardware Myths, Part II, 1 October 2012
  4. Budget and Hardware Myths, Part I, 1 October 2012
  5. Sequester: Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be, 16 August 2012
  6. Common Defense Quarterly Article on Drones, 15 June 2012.
  7. Think-Tanked: Old Wine in Dark Bottles, 13 June 2012.
  8. A Peek at Pentagon Pork: A Taxpayers’ Guide, 29 May 2012.
  9. The Jet That Ate The Pentagon, 2 May 2012.

(4)  For More Information: Reforming our defense agencies

  1. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
  2. About the rising pressure to cut the US military budget, 24 July 2010
  3. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century, 13 August 2010
  4. We could reduce government bureaucracy, but much of it is military/intel – and untouchable, 31 August 2010
  5. Important new articles about reforming our military, a key to balancing the Federal budget, 29 April 2011
  6. Reconfiguring the US military for life after The Long War, 27 September 2011 — By Doug Macgregor


12 thoughts on “Romney’s defense budget is unrealistic”

  1. The graph does not have a source. When I went to The Hill Congressional Blog, the link to the graph was broken.

    The Romney plan has been described as “military Keynsianism” elsewhere. In a sad way it makes sense since the defense sector is our most healthy industrial sector and could more quickly put the money to use.

    1. (1) The correct link to the graph is here, at POGO.

      (2) “In a sad way it makes sense since the defense sector is our most healthy industrial sector and could more quickly put the money to use.”

      I understand what you mean, and the sense in which that is correct. Still, it’s madnesss. When Keynes said that burying money and paying people to dig it up was stimulus, he didn’t mean for us to literally waste money.

  2. david j michel jr

    yes because in the real world you just let navy seals die its cheaper,in political capital .

    1. Mitchel Jr refers, I assume, to the Right-wing of the GOP’s obsessive search for ways to blame Obama for the deaths in our Benghazi consulate. It’s an interesting episode, and when the evidence is all in deserves close study.

      What we see so far is a willful refusal of the Right to see much of the evidence. Such as on this story, the inability of the Stennis to provide firesupport to Libya while in the mid-Pacific. Or here, refusal to give any credence to the specific charges made about General Ham. Instead those on the right imagine ways, without evidence, to connect these to the Benghazi incident.

      More broadly, see the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of internet postings blaming Obama for this — which rely mostly on rumors to draw large conclusions. While some of this is probably a deliberate desparate last-minute GOP effort to fire up the base for the election, it is symptomatic of a larger problem in America today. Everybody has their own facts. The climate doomsters. The Peak Oil doomsters. The Bush haters (“just like Hitler”). The Obama haters (that foreign Islamic nilhist socialist). We can all add to the list. The resulting pointless political firefights consume our attention, starving serious challenges of the attention they require.

      If we cannot see the world more clearly, how can America survive in the 21st century?

      For all their many faults, China’s rulers look like a clear-sighted and rational crew. Perhaps the hard logic of history will give leadership of the world to them.

  3. Romney’s military Keynesianism fails because studies have shown that military spending creates fewer jobs than domestic spending. The latest study shows that a dollar spent on the U.S. military today produces half as many jobs as the same dollar spent on American education. This leaves aside entirely the issue that Romney has elsewhere argued vehemently against Keynesian stimulus spending. As so often occurs, conservatives have no problem switching their beliefs (no government regulation! we must have ferocious competition in the economic sector!) by 180 degrees when faced with law enforcement (war on drugs) or military policy (no-bid military contracts awarded to Republican cronies).

    In a larger sense, however, Obama’s “defense” budget is also unrealistic since it is financed wholly by borrowing from foreign creditors. The amount of America’s current annual deficit is nearly identical with the amount America currently spends on our military-police-surveillance-prison-torture complex, estimated by some analysts at 1.2 trillion dollars per annum. But no one is really sure of the actual size of America’s military spending, since the Pentagon has never passed any of its required audits.

  4. Those much-touted small businesses are, effectively, completely cut out of the military/industrial/defence/cyber complex. Not coincidentally; that might result in innovation and lowered costs.

    For all intents and purposes, defense spending is a sinecure for big corporations. If we want an analogy to look for, it’s the auto industry. Imagine what Detroit would be like if it:

    • always got a guaranteed bail-out
    • never had to cut prices
    • had no foreign competitors

    That’s what the MIDCC looks like. The end-game there is best explained in Gall’s “Systemantics” using the examples of the Great Pyramids. The Pyramid of Snofru suffered structural problems and so it collapsed. The Pyramid of Cheops was designed around the problems that affected the prior pyramid, using much more expensive construction methods that guaranteed its longevity. So Egypt collapsed, instead.

    1. “So Egypt collapsed, instead.”

      I hate to be pedantic, as so many here have complained, but we know little about the Old Kingdom of Egpyt. It lasted for 3 centuries after the pyramid-builders of the IVth Dynasty, and might have collapsed due to a severe drought that disrupted flooding of the Nile River.

  5. Quibbles aside, FM’s nitpicking does not appear to deter Marcus Ranum’s main point. Namely, that the incredible amount of cash and technological innovation and industry and infrastructure America devoted to its military-police-surveillance-prison-torture complex utterly fails to pay back the investment.

    Let’s a take a broader overview. FM has asked: “Does America’s military pay for itself?” In the previous era of extractive economies driven by conquest and territorial annexation, the answer would be self-evident: yes, of course. When a largely agrarian economy annexes more land and enslaves more serfs, the economy grows by leaps and bounds. So earlier extractive economies (which gained their wealth mainly by extracing resources from the land — copper ore, corn, wheat, tin, iron ore, oil) made enormously expensive militaries pay for themselves by conquering new territories.

    After WW II, the world moved from extractive economies to economies based on the capacity to organize brainpower. As MIT economist Lester Thurow has pointed out, economies based on brainpower aren’t geogaphically limited. They can be located anywhere on earth. The internet lets widely separated employees collaborate in real time. Increasingly, the high-value goods produced by such economies are made from cheap commonly-available materials like sand (turned into silicon chips worth more than their weight in gold) or software (stamped onto a cheap aluminum-kevlar disc, microsoft Windows sells for immensely more than the cost of the materials in the disc’s construction) or Netflix streaming movies/ebooks/mp3 downloads (which consist of nothing more than electrons pushed through a wire, costing practically nothing).

    What appears to have happened is that sometime in the 1970s, America’s elites looked at this trend of global change from extractive to knowledge economies, and decided to offshore all America’s old-school manufacturing and service industries and switch over to a new-style knowledge economy. Call it mercantilism 2.0. In the original version of mercantilism, an empire (like the British Empire) overawed colonies with its military power and forced them to sell natural resources under fair market value which were then turned into manufactured goods sold back to the colonies at more than fair market value. In Mercantilism 2.0, the empire overawes countries which it has intellectually colonized with its values of capitalism and liberal democracy by means of its military power and induces them to sell brainpower (programmers in India, Disney animators in Taiwan, etc.) at under fair market value which then gets turned into knowledge-based goods (Microsoft Windows, Disney movies, etc.) which get sold right back to the rest of the world at more than fair market price (the cost of Microsoft Windows 7 is 1/5 of the annual income of a peasant in rural China, utterly unaffordable in the Chinese market: a Disney movie costs more than a typical week’s wages in China).

    What America’s elites didn’t seem to realize is that the technology that lets the rest of the world supply America with cheap knowledge work in a globalized economy also permits the rest of the world to strip-mine America’s knowledge-based goods at zero cost. Bittorrent and megaupload and suchlike now spray America’s precious knowledge-based goods like Windows 7 and Disney movies all over the world for any impoverished kid in a Rio slum with an internet connection to download for free. Even worse, the knowledge-based networking technologies of the 21st century let people all over the world collaborate to produce alternatives to the expensive proprietary closed-source knowledge goods produced by America: alternatives like the linux operating system, Open Office, the GIMP photo-editing program (an alternative to adobe PhotoShop), and so on. Now new rapid replicator machines and numerically controlled machine tools are appearing and rapidly evolving, and these devices are being used with open-source shape libraries to freely trade and cheaply produce complex manufactured goods — machines, guns, etc.

    America is now frantically trying to use its military-police-surveillance-prison-torture complex to shut this process down but it’s hopeless. America can’t arrest and extradite every script kiddie who starts up another megaupload and the case against Kim Dotcom is already falling apart in court. America can’t send its military to bomb every village in the third world that downloads Microsoft Windows for free. America set up a scheme to shift from a global extractive economy to a global knowledge-based economy, but America’s elites don’t seem to have realized that a global knowledge-based economy operates by rules entirely different from capitalism. The development of the linux operating system isn’t done for profit. Giant corporations have no advantage in generating open-source shape libraries for numerical machine tools because the corporations can’t patent or control open source libraries. INndustrial research labs get beaten by open source peer production because when you put millions of networked collaborators to work on a problem, as Linus Torvalds has pointed out, “With enough eyes, all bugs become shallow.”

    So America built up a huge military-police-surveillance-prison-torture complex which doesn’t pay for itself, and which also demands more and more resources from American society. Ever-increasingly amounts of money, infrastructure, resources, personnel. I think that’s Marcus Ranum’s point, and it’s a good one. At some point in the foreseeable future, the amount of resources gobbled up from the U.S. military-police-surveillance-prison-torture complex will become so huge, and the vital creative high-value-added highly educated American knowledge workers will become so alienated by the gray dreary American police state (which is now on the verge of making it a crime to use the FAST FORWARD button on a TV set-top DVR, and making it a crime to resell a book or a movie or a music CD) that the entire economic edifice in America will collapse.

    Minor quibbles about ancient Egyptian history fail to blunt Marcus Ranum’s reasoning, in my judgment.

    1. “Quibbles aside, FM’s nitpicking does not appear to deter Marcus Ranum’s main point. ”

      Agreed. Anyone even casually reading this website knows that since starting in 2007 it has run scores of articles supporting Marcus’ view.

    2. I didn’t see it as a quibble, and Gall’s book is technical satire (though highly recommended) I probably should have framed my comment better, but I’d just been reading the Gall book in the loo and it seemed so darned appropriate…

      I used to be upset about the massive financial investment the US makes in the MICC but lately I have come to think that the problem is far worse. The way the MICC works, it now has a captive customer base and a guaranteed minimum revenue stream. That’s a sure-fire way to kill any chance of innovation in any area other than gaming the procurement system. I think my point about Detroit was probably more on target than my segue regarding Egypt.

      Of course, the great economic boom in the US high tech field was ignited by very large companies like DuPont and IBM and AT&T, but the second wave was crazy start-ups like Polaroid, Intel, Motorola, Perkin-Elmer, EG&G and too many others to name. Nowadays there’s no way a crazy little start-up can contribute to innovation in defense technology (other than in software, but only because the MICC hasn’t sewed that up, completely, yet) We’re already seeing the ossification of defense-oriented contracting in IT. We’re seeing it in weapons system development, as well. There’s a crucial dynamic in small enterprises making solutions for problems: they tend to make them small and cost-effective, too, because they don’t have the overhead room to burn ginormous amounts of money.

      I’m reminded of Burt Rutan’s Project ARES aircraft and what happened, there. You had an extremely innovative design, fronted by a great small company, that worked incredibly well and was crushed out of existence by an extremely expensive system that was eventually made to work OK after years of tweaking and kludging and at obscene expense. I forget what Scaled Composites invested in that project but it was a lot of money for a small company – but the real loss to the USA was cutting some brilliant innovators out of the development/procurement loop.

      The Chinese army, right before the opium wars, was a humongous paper tiger. It had necrotized at every level – incompetent and topheavy command, poorly maintained weapons that were out of date but very well-decorated, and tactics that had been out of date for hundreds of years. Many of the comments on this site deal with elements of how the US’ “Versailles on the Potomac” has been similarly necrotizing. I suspect that were it not for the fact that we are now constantly at war, we’d have an army that was incapable of doing anything more than maintaining its collection of insanely expensive tech-gimcracks and hangar queens.

      I predict that the “innovations” that will spell the doom of the US military are the ability for commanders to “lead” from the safety of a comfortable chair 2,000 miles away via tele-presence links. There will no longer be any evolutionary selection for courage in command, so the next generation of US military “leaders” will be literally REMFs who deal death but never hear a shot fired in anger. They will fight wars they cannot comprehend (because remote warfare does not work against guerillas) The drone will further exacerbate the problem. The quintessential flavor of the future of US military experience will be the amazing scene in “Black Hawk Down” where you have idiots in a conference room stateside trying to direct troops in Africa via satellite link, “NO! go left! Left!” Micromanagement meets cowardice in real time.

      1. For more about Marcus comment from a leading expert see the new today in 2 hours by Chet Richards.

        “predict that the “innovations” that will spell the doom of the US military are the ability for commanders to “lead” from the safety of a comfortable chair 2,000 miles away via tele-presence links. There will no longer be any evolutionary selection for courage in command, so the next generation of US military “leaders” will be literally REMFs who deal death but never hear a shot fired in anger. They will fight wars they cannot comprehend (because remote warfare does not work against guerillas)”

        We might already be there, or very close. The true love of our generals goes to uniforms. Their fabrics, colors, design, and adornments. This is one of the distinguishing characteristic of peace time militaries, despite our thousands of soldiers deaths in the long war.

        The other love (greater in some generals’ hearts): loyalty. Loyalty to the defense contractors who will provide lucrative post-military jobs.

        These are generalizations. They don’t apply to every general, and cannot be extrapolated to individuals. For more about this see Our Army, under attack on many fronts, fights to maintain its integrity and cohesion, and the other posts in that series.

  6. To add just a little to Marcus’ remarks, a lot of the U.S. army’s current innovations are what Harvard economist Umair Haque calls “unnovations” — new features that serve primarily to degrade the product, like updates to the iPhone that brick the cellphone and render it useless if the user has jailbroken the machine.

    Consider “unnovations” like UAV drones. These things excel mainly at murdering innocent women and children. This creates resentment and rage in the target population and instead of eliminating terrorists, creates many more of them. Or consider “unnovations” like the new proposed generation of railgun and particle beam weapon equipped surface navy ships. Once again, this merely creates giant hugely expensive targets for cheap missiles. Probably the worst “unnovation” is the mania for putting fire on target (classic 2nd gen warfare) from far away, either from wacky Rube Goldberg devices like Rods from God or from UAV drones or from the Air Force’s proposed hypersonic Mach 6 attack craft, or, most foolishly of all, via cyberwarfare viruses. These devices all operate by means of software, and if owning a PC has taught us anything, it’s that all software based systems brick and crash and flash the Blue Screen Death multiple times per day.

    We can envision a day in the near future when the Army launches an attack and its UAVs bluescreen and crash and its attack robots go berserk and start firing on their handlers and its cyberwar viruses intended to cripple the enemy infrastructure get captured and reverse-engineered and delivered back to America by black-hat hackers in the form of hidden ransomware.

    The idea of using unmanned machines to fight war is one of the stupidest “unnovations” in history. As Martin van Creveld remarked, soldiers don’t surrender to airplanes. And the same is even more true of drones.

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