Candidates have not tipped their hands on defense spending

The next administration will face hard choices in areas such as weapons purchases and Army modernization, but so far neither presidential hopeful has offered a clear agenda.

Editor's note: This article is excerpted from a National Journal story exploring how much of a difference the next president will be able to make in a number of policy areas.

Nine years ago, an up-and-coming presidential candidate named George W. Bush staked out a bold position on national defense, calling for a high-tech "transformation" of the U.S. military in a speech at the Citadel, the military academy in Charleston, S.C. Once in office, however, in the months before Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush and his hard-driving Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, discovered just how difficult it is to shift the Pentagon -- even during peacetime, even for an administration publicly committed to defense reform.

There has been no Citadel speech in the 2008 campaign. Neither John McCain, R-Ariz., nor Barack Obama, D-Ill., has publicly staked his prestige on a particular vision of national defense the way that Bush did in 1999. For all their differences over the Iraq war, the two nominees do not disagree with the current conventional wisdom, let alone each other, on how to run the Defense Department. Both support the ongoing addition of 92,000 ground troops to the Army and Marine Corps; neither has explained where the money for all of this manpower is going to come from. So, with no clear agenda from the next president, whomever he may be, the momentum of what is sometimes called the "military-industrial-congressional complex" will carry the Defense Department forward on its current course.

It is not that the next administration does not have some hard choices to make. Official modernization plans by the four services outstrip any plausible budget scenarios. Equipment procured in the 1980s and 1990s is wearing out. The Army in particular is fraying from repeated deployments to Iraq. In 2009 alone, critical decisions will have to be made on major weapons purchases, including rebidding the Air Force's much-deferred refueling tanker; extending the $63 billion F-22 fighter program; and beginning low-rate production for parts of the Army's $128 billion Future Combat System. But if either candidate has a considered position on any of these programs, or the larger dilemmas of defense reform, he has so far not tipped his hand.

In the Senate, McCain has been the bane of Boeing, which tried to lease aerial tankers to the Pentagon. But his actions were part of his larger campaign against pork-barrel spending and insider-driven contracts rather than a result of a policy agenda on either the tanker specifically or defense procurement in general. McCain certainly has a habit of taking strong stands on particular programs, a propensity that his admirers call maverick and his critics call capricious. But his senatorial track record does not suggest an overall strategy on military spending.

As for Obama, he has an understandably short track record, if that, on general defense spending other than the Iraq war. That leaves would-be defense prognosticators with one candidate who is largely unknown and one who is well known for being unpredictable. The genuinely telling moment will come not during the campaign but during the transition, when the winner decides on a secretary of Defense. If strategic change, instead of drift, is to come for the Pentagon in the next administration, it is up to the secretary to make it happen.