As Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump square off for their first debate of the election season, one question the candidates will tackle is the state of the American military.
The Clinton camp has touted America’s military prowess as the best in the world, while the Trump campaign has claimed that the Obama White House has decimated U.S. forces, allowing for the rise of near-peer states such as Russia and China.
Top military officials and analysts, however, say the answer lies somewhere in the middle, saying the U.S. military maintains its world superiority but proposed cuts under sequestration could undermine that status across the globe.
Both candidates have been outspoken in their stances on the state of the U.S. military and their respective ways forward for the force. But in the run-up to Monday night’s debate, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump have eschewed the difficult details on how they plan to make their policies reality, instead focusing on campaign rhetoric, touting their national security bona fides.
For her part, Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly touted Washington’s military superiority across the globe, highlighting her first-hand experience in dealing with national security policy both as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and later as secretary of state.
Her military and national security platform calls for a “smart and sustainable defense budget driven by strategy, not by bluster and loose talk,” according to the Clinton campaign’s website
That strategy calls for the repeal of massive, across-the-board military funding cuts under the Budget Control Act, known colloquially as sequestration.
Mrs. Clinton proposes paying for that repeal through a series of reforms to the Pentagon’s acquisition process, while “curbing runaway cost growth” within the department and services’ massive bureaucracy. But the Clinton camp has yet to provide details on those proposed reforms or efforts to curb costs inside the Pentagon.
The Democratic candidate also has yet to go on record on what total force numbers and spending budgets would look like under her administration. However, Mrs. Clinton has spent months hammering away at Mr. Trump’s inexperience in national security and foreign affairs.
For his part, Mr., Trump is calling for a restoration of force levels across the services to pre-sequestration numbers, including a 540,000-man Army, backed by 350-ship Navy and an Air Force of 1,200 fighters.
Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly cited the candidate’s incendiary remarks on a proposed Muslim ban, suggestions U.S. allies in the Pacific should acquire nuclear weapons and Mr. Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime.
“They know they can count on me to be the kind of commander in chief who will protect our country and our troops, and they know they cannot count on Donald Trump,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at a campaign stop in Florida earlier this month. “His whole campaign has been one long insult to all those who have worn the uniform.”
For his part, Mr. Trump has fired back against the Clinton camp, bashing the Democratic nominee for her hawkish record during her time leading the State Department and her role in the response to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“Sometimes it has seemed like there wasn’t a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn’t want to invade, intervene or topple,” Mr. Trump said in a Sept. 7 speech. “She is trigger-happy and unstable when it comes to war.”
Mr. Trump has already co-opted many of the hallmarks of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy into his national security platform — from increased use of drones to a reliance on special operations forces, to combat Islamic State.
Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump is also calling for the end of sequestration, saying the Obama White House’s plan has fully decimated America’s military presence in the world. Again like Mrs. Clinton, the GOP nominee plans to offset those cuts with a series of “common-sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks” while providing little detail on what those reforms would entail.
While active duty military officials have been loath to weigh in on this year’s presidential campaign, senior Pentagon officials and top service brass have not been shy about publicizing the devastating, long-term effects of defense cuts under sequestration.
Proposed 2017 spending levels for the U.S. military, to finance ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as efforts to curb Russian and Chinese aggression in eastern Europe and the Pacific respectively were all drafted to keep in line with sequestration.
Sequestration, spread over several years, “baffles our friends, emboldens our foes [and is] managerially and strategically unsound, and it’s unfairly dispiriting to our troops, to their families and our workforce,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress on last Thursday.
While U.S. forces comprise “the most capable and professional military in the world,” the budget cuts under sequestration continue to slowly whittle away those gains, in the face of a continually unstable slate of global threats, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during the same hearing.
What Pentagon leaders and presidential campaigns must understand the future of U.S. forces cannot be dictated by the spending trends and strategies of the past, according to one former Army general.
“The [military] strategy and dollars of 2011 … over the next 15 years from now, that Army is going to be gone,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno said during a future force symposium at the Washington D.C.-based Atlantic Council earlier this month.
The budget cuts imposed by the Obama administration under sequestration has “put at high risk” U.S. national security imperatives, said Lt. Gen. Barno, who is now a non-resident fellow on national security affairs at the Atlantic Council. However, the Trump campaign’s promise to grow the Army is simply unrealistic, says Nora Bensahel, a defense and national security expert at the Atlantic Council.
“There is no way to get the Army that tradeoff,” she said during a symposium there earlier this month, referring to the massive budget cuts needed to support plans to boost the service’s numbers north of 450,000 troops.
The fiscal realities facing the Army and the rest of the services, regardless of who occupies the White House, will force the Pentagon “to use what we have” to maintain Washington’s military superiority, according to Ms. Bensahel, multitasking of military units to carry out a wide array of missions, from traditional combat operations to training and advising foreign forces.
It also means a heavier reliance on foreign forces, backed by American firepower, to wage wars in support of U.S. interests worldwide, Lt. Gen. Barno added. “We really don’t have much of a choice” given the Pentagon’s fiscal future, he said.
As contentious election season hurdles to a close, Mr. Carter said that once the final ballots are cast, it will be the job of the next president to close the wounds of this year’s brutal campaign season and focus on future threats together.
“We know that the only way to get budget stability is with everybody coming together … that is in my judgment, the only way we can get to stability,” Mr. Carter said.