The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune:
Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have been talking tough on defense issues. Each contends that he would keep America's military stronger and make a better commander-in-chief. Truth is, neither one has scratched the surface of the serious debate they ought to be waging over the defense budget.
Now the Congressional Budget Office has fired a shot across the bow of both presidential candidates by issuing a report suggesting that maintaining America's dominant military posture in the world will cost far more than either has projected. The CBO study concludes that the Defense Department needs about $50 billion more in funding next year to maintain U.S. military forces at their current levels.
That would take the current $289 billion annual Pentagon budget to $340 billion. By contrast, Bush says he would provide an estimated $4.8 billion additional annual spending for defense and foreign policy, while Gore's plan comes to nearly $7.3 billion. Are both selling short the real cost of the nation's defense needs?
The CBO analysis is limited by the fact that it doesn't try to determine what constitutes an adequate defense, nor what new threats loom and must be addressed. It merely projects the price tag for maintaining current forces, upgrading older weapons systems and continuing existing programs, including international peacekeeping, at a steady state.
Nevertheless, those are sobering numbers from the CBO. Beyond defense, they raise questions about the financial assumptions that Bush and Gore have made to justify spending and tax cut programs while promising to whittle down the enormous federal debt.
Bush has charged that the Clinton administration has left "a military in decline" with forces stretched too thin by "vague, aimless and endless deployments" in places like Bosnia and Kosovo.
Gore has countered that America's military is "the best-trained, best-equipped and most prepared fighting force in the world." Yet he promises to strengthen "the world's greatest military force."
Good campaign talk, but Bush and Gore need to set out in more specific detail what the cost of their programs would be, what tradeoffs they would make in missions or weapons systems, what strategy they foresee to meet the threats and how their leadership would better prepare the Pentagon to do so.
And while they're at it, they can explain how they'll balance promises on defense spending with those on tax cuts, Social Security and Medicare.