WASHINGTON - Despite heated campaign rhetoric, President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney mostly share common ground on national security issues but they are sharply at odds over the defense budget.
Romney has accused Obama of short-changing the country's armed forces and has vowed to boost funding for the world's most powerful military, promising more warships, more submarines and more troops in uniform.
"I'll roll back President Obama's deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military," Romney said in a major foreign policy speech this month. "I'll make the critical defense investments that we need to remain secure."
The former Massachusetts governor would reverse a decision by the Obama administration to scale back the size of the Army and Marine Corps by about 100,000 troops, and says he would build 15 ships a year instead of the nine planned by Obama.
Romney, whose advisers include the former navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, John Lehman, and ex-CIA director Michael Hayden, who served in George W. Bush's administration, has promised to boost defense spending to four percent of GDP.
His pledge would mean expanding the military's budget by a massive $2 trillion over 10 years, a 35 percent increase compared to Obama's plan, according to analysts.
Romney touted his vision of a bigger navy in Virginia, home to the largest naval base in the world, as well as a crucial state in the presidential race.
But it remains unclear exactly how Romney would pay for expanding defense spending given his promise to narrow the mushrooming budget deficit. His advisers say he would slash the Pentagon's vast civilian bureaucracy and cut other domestic spending.
For his part, Obama has overseen modest increases in the Pentagon's gargantuan budget over the past four years, with spending at more than $600 billion a year.
Charging Romney with offering up more money than the top brass has requested, Obama has promised to avoid cuts to defense while proposing a "leaner" military.
Under Obama's blueprint, defense spending would stay flat but keep pace with inflation, amounting to about 2.9 percent of GDP, with troop numbers roughly back to pre-2001 levels.
"Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats," Obama said in a speech in January.
On Iran, Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, Romney has attacked the president's record as weak, slamming him for "leading from behind."
Unlike Obama, he favors arming Syria's rebels. He also has criticized Obama's announced plans for a drawdown in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, arguing that telegraphing the deadline encourages the Taliban to dig in and await the departure of US troops.
But in the end, the differences between the two candidates on national security are "minimal" and "rhetorical," said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University.
Romney has not questioned Obama's drone bombing campaign against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and elsewhere, and has yet to define how his policy in Iran would differ from Obama's approach, other than improving relations with Israel.
Obama's campaign has portrayed Romney as engaging in "loose talk" and bluster but a Romney adviser, Dov Zakheim, said the Republican hopeful is focused on seapower as a means of pursuing modern-day gunboat diplomacy.
What Romney is "trying to do is diplomatically convey strength, and the navy is the best way to do that," said Zakheim, a former senior Pentagon official.
But for Adams, who worked on defense budgets under Bill Clinton, Romney has failed to lay out a vision behind the promised increase in spending.
"He has not said why any of that is needed," Adams told AFP.
While both candidates have sought to sell themselves as defenders of America's military power, harsh fiscal realities likely will force the next president to contemplate scaling back the Pentagon's budget, he said.
"What strikes me is that neither Obama nor Romney is realistic about what I think will happen to the defense budget, which is it will go down," Adams said.
In the aftermath of previous conflicts, defense spending declined as public attention shifted to domestic concerns, and Adams predicted the same would happen as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
"The public doesn't care and it opens up political space for other issues and for defense being on the table."
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