ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. No matter who wins the election, the next president will have serious problems to address. And we're going to look at one of them now, an area where President Obama and Mitt Romney clearly disagree, and that's defense spending. The president wants less, Romney wants more. Whoever wins will have to define a new global military strategy and figure out how to pay for it.
NPR's Larry Abramson has this story for our series, Solve This.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: When Mitt Romney looks at the future, he sees a series of threats, from unrest in the Middle East to a nuclear North Korea to what he sees as a defiant Russia.
MITT ROMNEY: And the idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion dollars over this decade is unthinkable and devastating. And when I become president of the United States, we will stop it. I will not cut our commitment to our military.
ABRAMSON: Speaking to veterans in Fairfax County, Virginia, last month, Romney blamed the Obama administration for those cuts, which will go into effect unless Congress and the president act. For example, Romney sees the Pentagon's plans to reduce the size of the Army and Marines as threats to national security.
ROMNEY: The idea of shrinking our active duty personnel by 1 or 200,000, I want to add 100,000 to active duty personnel.
ABRAMSON: Romney wants to set a floor for defense spending, 4 percent of the gross domestic product should go to the military, he says. That's about where it is now, but in coming years, the president's budget would take it below 3 percent. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, the president said that money going to the military is now needed elsewhere.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will use the money we're no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work, rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways...
ABRAMSON: Polls show there's a lot of support for cutting back on defense spending. Carl Conetta, with the nonpartisan Project on Defense Alternatives, says you don't need a Cold War-style buildup to counter threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
CARL CONETTA: The types of threats we face are of a different order. They are not based fundamentally in advanced economies, using very expensive equipment and very expensive troops. It's an entirely different type of scenario.
ABRAMSON: But the Romney campaign says the world remains a dangerous place. Romney sees a stronger military as part of a "peace through strength" approach, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's defense buildup. Dov Zakheim, a Romney surrogate and former Pentagon official, told a Washington, D.C. audience that a bigger military will help avoid war with U.S. foes such as Iran.
DOV ZAKHEIM: We are convinced that the only way to stop the Iranians is not to go and invade a country that large, but to be credible about what you are going to do.
ABRAMSON: The way to be credible, Zakheim says, is by having ships in the water and planes in the air. There are clear differences between the campaigns' military strategies, but for the Romney campaign, there's another question: how to pay for more defense and just how much would it cost. During the debates, Obama frequently includes defense in his list of Romney budget busters.
OBAMA: Governor Romney then also wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs, even though the military's not asking for them.
ABRAMSON: Expect to hear that figure a lot. Independent analysts agree spending 4 percent of GDP would cost $2 trillion more than the Obama budget calls for. That's over the next decade. But during the vice presidential debate, Congressman Paul Ryan denied the tab would be that high. He said the White House has cut a trillion in defense spending, Romney just wants to put that money back.
PAUL RYAN: Do we believe in peace through strength? You bet we do. And that means you don't impose these devastating cuts on our military. So we're saying don't cut the military by a trillion dollars. Not increase it by a trillion, don't cut it by a trillion dollars.
ABRAMSON: So there's disagreement about whether the Romney budget would cost 1 or $2 trillion more. But whatever the cost, the Romney campaign says he would usher in a healthier economy that would help pay for it. It's tough to say whose math will add up, since both campaigns are projecting out years into the future. But the two sides' plans for spending underscore deep differences about the role of the military in that future. Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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