GOP Candidates on the Pentagon Budget

Gop_debate_picThroughout the Republican presidential primary race, there has been no shortage of comments by the candidates on their views of the Pentagon budget. The topic has been highlighted in debates, press releases, and interviews, and it is not going away.

Unfortunately, the candidates are being unrealistic, vague, or both, about their plans for the appropriate levels of defense spending.

There is, however, one common thread that underlines most candidates’ remarks: that the Pentagon budget should be increased. Apparently, Republicans believe that a larger military is a political touchstone of the Republican base. The GOP has become increasingly hawkish throughout the Obama years, while remaining ambiguous about exactly how they would handle the numerous national security challenges facing the U.S. today. While this theme is persistent, it is useful to examine the differences, or lack thereof, of the candidates’ plans for defense policy.

Current leader in the Republican polls, Donald Trump, has been incredibly vague on the issue. He has sided with most other candidates on the need to have the military be “so strong, so powerful, and so great […] that we’ll never have to use it.” When prodded on the topic, he has continuously resorted to simply glossing over the issue with unsubstantiated claims with little evidence or logic. Furthermore, his statements about the need for the U.S. to have the strongest military in the world neglect to mention that the United States already has the strongest military in the world. In fact, the U.S. spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined; three times more than China and six times more than Russia.

Senator Marco Rubio is an ardent believer in a large military, and has made this known in all of the Republican debates. He has even put forth a detailed plan for his vision of the U.S. military which includes: increasing the Navy from 282 to 323 ships by 2024, accelerating the procurement of the F-35A aircraft, modernizing the Long Range Strike Bomber for conventional and nuclear capabilities, and modernizing the nuclear arsenal. Rubio would be a big spender at the Pentagon having a budget just shy of $1 trillion by 2022. However, he has also said that the federal debt is one of the greatest national security threats, so Rubio is going to need to explain how he is going to manage these conflicting interests.

When it comes to Pentagon spending Ted Cruz is hard to pin down. Cruz tries to play two sides of the Republican Party, the hawks and the libertarian/Rand Paul side of the party. In the debate, Marco Rubio criticized Cruz for voting for the Rand Paul amendment that Rubio accused Cruz of “cutting” the Defense Department. However, the amendment didn’t really cut defense but instead put a cap on defense spending to $634 billion in 2023 instead of the $731 billion that the CBO estimated for projections. So, the amendment actually increased year-to-year spending at the Defense Department, but was just less than other Republicans were willing to cut.

In South Carolina before the primary, Cruz unveiled a detailed plan on how he would expand and upgrade the Defense Department. In a town hall, Cruz called to increase the Air Force from 4,000 planes to 6,000, cancel President Obama’s plan to shrink the Army to 450,000 soldiers by 2018, and have a minimum force of 525,000. Also, his plan increases the Navy from 273 ships to 350, with 12 new ballistic-missile submarines, and expanding missile-defense and cyberwar systems.

What is unclear is how Senator Cruz is going to pay for this expensive buildup of forces. He has said that he will follow in the steps of Ronald Reagan by introducing tax reform and regulatory reform. According to Cruz, this reform will generate extensive economic growth allowing for the investments to rebuild the military.

However, Cruz forgets that President Reagan tripled the national deficit during his Presidency; economic growth could not pay for the military buildup. Cruz has also argued for fiscal prudence and wants to make sure that any defense increases are offset with budget cuts that don’t require tax increases. Cruz has called for eliminating five federal agencies: the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the IRS, the Department of Education, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He may not know that the Department of Energy manages much of the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Governor John Kasich is the only politician on the stage that actually has experience with the Pentagon budget and has cut defense spending, serving on the House Armed Services Committee for 18 years.

Gov. Kasich during his time in Congress, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, refused to buy more B-2 bombers for Northrop Grumman, and was known as someone that would cut wasteful spending from the Pentagon, he as known as the “thrifty national security hawk”.

However, regardless of his willingness to cut the Defense Department during his time in Congress, he has currently called for renewed defense spending, such as:

Jeb Bush, in the September GOP debate, stated his desire to boost military spending but did not give specific numbers. That changed in a speech on November 18, 2015, when he proposed a detailed plan for military buildup that included 40,000 more Army personnel, 6,000 more Marines, and increases in the overall number of submarines and aircraft. This plan comes in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and is purported to give the U.S. the capability to defeat ISIL. He has previously said that the Obama administration led America into a state of “military inferiority” in which the U.S. is at risk of not being able to “carry out our global responsibilities.”

Most GOP candidates’ plans for defense are largely divorced from reality. More spending on defense does not mean more security. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once stated:  “If the Department of Defense cannot figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by a few more ships and planes.”

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen also weighed in on the issue a few years ago by saying that “the greatest threat to our national security is our national debt.” What we need from the GOP candidates now is more realistic strategies that involve smart and thoughtful spending.