WASHINGTON — Tough talk on foreign policy and calls for a more muscular military carried the night during the second GOP presidential debate Wednesday.
Mike Huckabee, the former governor turned TV commentator, summed up the passionate but mostly unspecific positions on the armed services with a description of the United States at the end of his presidency: “We would have the most incredible well-trained, well-equipped, well-prepared military in the history of mankind.”
Frontrunner Donald Trump wasted no time, mentioning military buildup and caring for veterans during his introduction. Sen. Marco Rubio twice said the military has been “eviscerated.” None, however, offered a way to abandon automatic budget cuts, or sequestration, which the brass says is responsible for planned cuts throughout the military.
Viewers looking for more details on what a military might look like under Huckabee, Trump or any other candidate were left hanging during the three-hour debate in California. Unless they were listening closely to Carly Fiorina.
The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard was a standout at the debate for her tangles with Trump, but she also went further than any other Republican hopeful in proposing some lofty goals for the services, including a beefed-up Army and Marine Corps.
“We need to reform the Department of Defense, we need as well to invest in our military technology, and we need to care for our veterans so 307,000 aren’t dying waiting for health care,” Fiorina said, pressing on by talking over the moderators of the debate on CNN, which nearly excluded her.
In sudden, rapid succession, she set out hard numbers for the services.
Fiorina proposed the Army have 50 combat brigades, a major increase and reversal for the shrinking service. The Army announced two years ago it would cut headquarters units but keep its combat capability by moving from 45 to 33 brigades, which retired Gen. Ray Odierno had described as “increasing our tooth-to-tail” ratio.
The Marine Corps would also get a significant boost under President Fiorina, increasing to 36 battalions. The service is pursuing a goal of 24 battalions after exiting the Afghanistan War with 27 and facing the same post-war budget pressures as the Army.
Fiorina backed the Navy plan to increase from 273 deployable warships to 300 by the end of the decade, a build-up that Secretary Ray Mabus has called critical to the country’s security and economy. But she floated the possibility of up to 350 ships – a costly number that remains unlikely.
“We need the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it,” she said.
Other candidates focused on the world no longer grasping that fact.
Dr. Ben Carson, who has been polling in the No. 2 slot just behind Trump, called out the capabilities and shortcomings of the individual services in Wednesday’s debate. It was similar to talking points he used in the first GOP debate last month.
“There is no question that a lot of these problems that we have been talking about in terms of the international situation is because we are weak,” Carson said. “It is because our Navy is so small. It is because our Air Force is incapable of doing the same things that it did a few years ago.”
He held his strongest criticism for the Marine Corps.
“It’s because our Marine Corps is not ready to be deployed,” said Carson, in a comment that likely led to Marines around the world clenching fists and gritting teeth.
The candidates also left out any debate on how to pay for the increased military forces. Navy ships can cost billions, and upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal, as Fiorina also proposed, would likely cost hundreds of billions over the coming decades. Adding troops will certainly require more money.
The White House, Pentagon and Congress are wrestling over the 2016 defense budget and ballooning personnel costs. Policy debates are focused on how to reduce runaway health care expenses, reform retirement pay and rein in troop benefits such as commissaries.
President Barack Obama is playing a big part in the unfolding drama over the upcoming defense budget, which could lead to another shutdown of the federal government at the end of the month. He has proposed a boost to defense spending past existing caps, but also threatened to veto any budget from Congress that does not also do away with mandatory spending caps on domestic spending. Lawmakers are forced to meet certain spending reductions or face automatic, across-the-board cuts called sequestration.
Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and brother of President George W. Bush, was the only candidate to tap into the defense budget uncertainty gripping Washington, D.C., as part of his calls for a stronger military.
“The first thing that we need to do is to stop the craziness of the sequester. Rebuild our military so that our -- so that we don’t deploy people over and over again without the necessary equipment to keep them safe, to send a signal to the world that we’re serious,” he said.
Bush has pushed the elimination of sequestration in his platform – a position nearly everybody in Congress and the White House shares. But a solution has eluded lawmakers for years and Bush did not offer one on the dais.
On Wednesday, just backing the idea of a buildup seemed enough.
“If we’re going to lead the world, then we need to have the strongest military possible,” he said.