Last night’s Republican primary debate had its share of fireworks, and they were not limited to those set off by current frontrunner Donald Trump. On the national-security front, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky engaged in a bit of a slugfest over warrantless surveillance, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas criticized the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, for recent testimony he gave about the Islamic State. The candidates had only a few things to say about the Department of Defense (DoD) and the state of the U.S. military, though, and those comments left much to be desired.
Leaving aside his thoughts on whether transgender military personnel should be able to serve openly, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hyperbolically claimed the military has been “decimated” in recent years. Similarly, neurosurgeon Ben Carson sounded off about how he would “shore up” the military after the reductions in defense spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011. Carson based his comments on the standard Republican lament that the U.S. Navy was the smallest since 1915, ignoring the technological changes that make comparisons to the World War I-era fleet largely meaningless.
The criticism leveled by Huckabee and Carson also ignores that the United States is still spending near-record high amounts on defense. Average annual DoD budget authority between 1948 and 1989 was $454 billion when adjusted for inflation. The Budget Control Act spending limit for fiscal 2016 is $499 billion. Only two times during the Cold War did the United States spend more on defense, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it spends today: during the Korean War and at the height of the Reagan defense buildup. Moreover, acquisition funding in next year’s budget request alone is more than what China—with the next-largest defense budget—spent entirely on its military in 2014, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Christie also weighed in on defense, focusing on the Navy. Christie argued that under his administration the United States would build a 350-ship Navy. It is unclear how he came to that figure. Current Navy plans project a 306-ship fleet. More important, the Congressional Budget Office says even that plan is unaffordable. Christie also argued that the replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) must be a priority. While he is correct, he gave no indication of where he would find tradeoffs to pay for it. The cost of a new SSBN has been projected around $95 billion. While the House of Representatives has created a special department-wide fund for the submarine, the money still has to come from somewhere.
One-minute answers provide little opportunity for detailed policy prescriptions, and presidential debates—particularly during the primary season—are more about showmanship than substance. Hopefully, when the crowd on stage thins out at future debates, the candidates will offer details on how they plan to pay for their expensive defense plans. But holding one’s breath for the details is likely a bad idea.