Mitt Romney's campaign plans for increasing military spending while reducing the deficit are being met with skepticism by industry experts, while one top Senate GOP deficit hawk says his party lacks leaders willing to attack federal spending head-on.
Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, took the primary campaign trail this year decrying defense spending cuts proposed by the Obama administration and promoting a plan to increase American troop rolls by 100,000, increase Navy shipbuilding and modernize Air Force crafts. His plan for overall deficit reduction calls for cutting other parts of the budget, not defense.
But Sen. Tom Coburn, author of The Debt Bomb, and one Congress' most fiscally conservative members, is calling for the opposite of increased defense spending.
"I've been to lots of military bases and talked to everything from four-star generals all the way down to privates and when I ask them this question, no one of them has told me 'no,' and it's been thousands of them," he said recently at an event at the Heritage Foundation. "If you had to tomorrow, without affecting our readiness or in strength, could you cut 10 to 15 percent out of your budget? Nobody's ever told me 'No."
Coburn said too many Republicans aren't willing to make defense spending cuts because of ideology.
"The last place we need to not do oversight and hold people accountable is the Pentagon," he said. "Yet we have this Republicanism that (says), 'Oh, just throw dollars at the military and never hold anybody accountable.'"
Romney's call for more troops would be a sharp reversal from President Obama's planned reduction of 100,000 over the next five years.
"Do you realize our Navy is smaller than any time since 1917? Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since it was founded in 1947 at a time when the world is not safer," he said during a campaign stop at Pompano Beach, Fla., ahead of the state's January primary. "For us to shrink our military at such a time is unthinkable."
The average cost per new troop is around $125,000 per year, says Todd Harrison, director of Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments. That means Romney's call for increases while erasing Obama's call for reductions would cost $25 billion a year.
Meanwhile, Harrison says the reduction called for by Obama would bring troop levels down to about 1.4 million, the same size the military was in 2007 prior to the surges in Iraq and later Afghanistan.
Romney's plans for increasing ship production and modernizing the Air Force would cost more. To off-set the new spending, his campaign proposal calls for some cost-cutting measures that include cutting civilian staff at the Pentagon, passing timely federal budgets, instituting "shorter design and delivery cycles for weapons systems" and finding additional defense department efficiencies.
Harrison adds that the Obama administration has identified more than $200 billion in possible defense department efficiencies over the next five years under the leadership of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"A lot of the efficiencies are just pie-in-the-sky things that sound good but are really hard to implement, but they are trying," he says. "It's not the first time a secretary of Defense has tried this at the Pentagon. (Donald) Rumsfeld came in saying he could cut 5 percent from the defense budget from efficiencies. But the defense budget grew under his reign at the Pentagon, so it's a hard thing to do."
Harrison was equally skeptical of Romney's plans to save money by making the new weapons procurement system more efficient.
"Everyone knows this is a problem, no one has found the solution," he says. "I've gone all the way back to the Revolutionary War and we've had with programs overrunning their cost, delivering behind schedule. This is just a chronic problem that is not easily solved."
Coburn, who incidentally has endorsed Romney's candidacy, says his party lacks bold leadership on the overall issue of federal debt.
"When I am talking leadership, I'm talking sacrificial leadership. I'm not talking about standing up at a podium and calling people and saying, 'Listen, rah, rah, rah,'" Coburn said. "I'm talking about leading by example and we just don't have that today in our party or in our president or in our country at the political level."
Coburn acknowledged the possibility that Romney--and other tough-talking Republicans--would fall short of the deficit-hawk rhetoric they are currently espousing.
"The big worry is say Romney wins, Republicans control the Senate and the House, and they do not step forward to do what is necessary to fix our country," Coburn said. "I tell you, that's the end of the Republican Party. I won't be a member of it."
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.
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Corrected (5/29/12): An earlier version of this article misidentified the cost of Romney’s call for troop increases.