Romney Must Show He Will Get Down to Business on Defense

Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) -- National defense is traditionally a Republican strength in U.S. presidential elections. Although conventional wisdom holds that this year’s contest will be won or lost on the domestic economy, defense can still be a winning issue for Republicans -- if Mitt Romney, the presumptive nominee, can apply some of the expertise he gained in the private sector to the military budget.

So far, Romney has done nothing to set aflutter the heart of a defense wonk. He has lamely excoriated President Barack Obama for trying to “slash” the defense budget by nearly $500 billion over the next decade -- cuts that were actually mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 approved by Congress.

Romney has called for the Pentagon budget to have a floor of 4 percent of gross domestic product, up from the current 3.8 percent (including funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). This idea is odd for someone running to get America’s fiscal house in order, as analysts predict it would mean an additional $2.3 trillion in spending over a decade. It also raises two red flags for even ardent hawks: Why base defense spending on an abstract number rather than on an assessment of actual threats and capabilities? And do we want aggregate military spending to decline when the economy slows?

Troop Strength

Romney has also insisted that the U.S. not cut uniformed forces, but rely on savings through new efficiencies and shrinking civilian and contractor ranks. He’s right about trimming the fat, especially from procurement. Yet the U.S. simply cannot afford the Army and Marine Corps strengths it now has, which have risen by 65,000 and 27,000 active-duty personnel, respectively, since Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon itself has called for the Army to be cut to 490,000 active troops from 520,000, and the Marines to 182,000 from 202,000. If Romney thinks these cuts would imperil security, he should let voters know exactly why he thinks the generals are wrong. And though eliminating contractors is necessary, their ranks have grown because they cost less, on average, than uniformed personnel doing the same work.

Romney says that the military inventory is “largely composed of weapons designed 40 to 50 years ago,” noting that the average age of U.S. strategic bombers is 34 years. Well, that’s because the B-52 bomber remains the world’s finest strategic aircraft, and the fleet has been kept in fine working order with a permanent refitting program. Today’s joint-force mix of fighters, bombers, stealth craft, drones and cruise missiles is vastly superior to what we had in the 1990s, even if most of the actual hardware is dated.

Romney would be well advised to drop his talking points and show, with nuance and specificity, how he can bring his corporate skills to bear on the Pentagon’s bottom line.

For example, the Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget seem intent on spreading budget cuts (and the potentially devastating “sequestration” cuts that could hit on Jan. 3) evenly across services and programs. A smart businessman would make the case that certain parts of any enterprise (such as the unnecessary Ford Class aircraft carrier, the troubled littoral combat ship and the overbudget F-35 fighter) should be cut back or killed, while cost-effective efforts geared toward tomorrow’s challenges (improved helicopter lift, and drone and cyberwarfare capabilities) deserve greater funding.

Command Consolidation

If Romney wants to target payroll bloat, he might look at the military’s nine combat commands, where the number of staff members per commander has increased by more than 50 percent in a decade. A team from the Center for a New American Security headed by Lieutenant General David W. Barno recommends consolidating the geographic commands to four from the current six, by merging the U.S. European Command with the Africa Command and combining the North American and South American commands. Plenty of Bain Capital’s takeover targets were drowning under retirement plans, good practice for taking on the military’s Tricare health-insurance plan, which has had a 300 percent cost increase since 2001.

Romney, who has slammed China on trade issues, might want to question the Obama administration’s much-vaunted pivot to Asia. The administration has barely explained what the pivot will entail, other than that it will be based on an air-sea battle platform in which the services are going to have to learn to work together and coordinate their capabilities. Isn’t this exactly the sort of reorganization Romney undertook at inefficient companies? Let him tell us how he would accomplish it.

There are plenty of other relatively simple efficiencies worth endorsing that could be talking points in a presidential stump speech or debate: moving an attack submarine from a home port on the U.S. Pacific coast to one in Guam or Australia would almost triple its mission days to more than 100 a year and save perhaps $100 million; analyst Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution projects that simple improvements in ways Navy crews are rotated could improve deployment efficiency by as much as 40 percent and save $100 billion a year.

Romney’s critics have argued that the president cannot be a “CEO in chief,” and indeed the office demands more than corporate expertise. The Pentagon, however, is in many ways best seen as a business -- an inefficient, money-wasting behemoth that is truly too big to fail. It’s up to the private-equity mogul to tell voters how he would turn it around.

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Today’s highlights: the editors on Libor-rigging; Jeffrey Goldberg on Jews’ “obsession” with the Holocaust; Ramesh Ponnuru on why we shouldn’t forget about Social Security’s problems; William Pesek on South Korea’s presidential election; Fouad Ajami on Obama’s callow cruelty on Syria extending to Lebanon; Stephen Smith on the inflated cost of U.S. commuter trains.

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