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What the GOP Candidates Said About Defense During the First Debate

B-52 Stratofortress
B-52 Stratofortress

In their first debate, Republican presidential candidates pitched lofty, if unlikely, proposals for the U.S. military, from boosting the size of the Navy to a 350-ship fleet to deploying a new missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

Ten of the GOP members running for the Oval Office gathered on Thursday in Cleveland for a televised primetime debate on Fox News.

Here's a breakdown of what some of the candidates said on a range of defense-related topics, from troops and equipment, to a resurgent Russia in Eastern Europe, to Islamic militants in the Middle East, to the recent nuclear deal with Iran, according to a transcript of the event.

Troops and Equipment

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the most specific in terms of his plan for the U.S. military, which has been downsizing after the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and amid federal spending caps. The governor said he wants at least 500,000 active-duty soldiers in the Army, at least 185,000 active-duty Marines in the Marine Corps, a 350-ship Navy, upgraded Ohio-class submarines, and a 2,600-aircraft Air Force. "Those are the kind of things that are going to send a clear message around the world," he said.

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, said the military has been weakened under the Obama administration. "Our Navy is at its smallest size since 1917; our Air Force, since 1940," he said. "In recent testimony, the commandant of the Marine Corps said half of the non-deployed units were not ready. And you know, the sequester is cutting the heart out of our personnel. Our generals are retiring because they don't want to be part of this, and at the same time, our enemies are increasing."

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, also noted the increasing age of the fleets. "We're flying B-52s," he said, referring to the Cold War-era bomber. "The most recent one that was put in service was November of 1962. A lot of the B-52s we're flying, we've only got 44 that are in service combat ready, and the fact is, most of them are older than me. And that's pretty scary."

None of the candidates specified how he would pay for more military personnel and equipment. Republicans and Democrats in Congress remain at an impasse over taxes and spending, and can't agree on an alternative to the 2011 deficit-control legislation that established automatic spending caps known as sequestration.

Billionaire Donald Trump, arguably the most vocal of any presidential candidate, was noticeably quiet on this topic. At the end of the debate, he only said, "Our military has to be strengthened. Our vets have to be taken care of."

Iraq and ISIS

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reiterated previous comments that the decision by his brother, George W. Bush, to invade Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. "Knowing what we know now, with faulty intelligence, and not having security be the first priority when -- when we invaded, it was a mistake," he said.

However, Bush blamed the rise of militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, on President Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. "Barack Obama became president, and he abandoned Iraq," he said. "He left, and when he left al-Qaida was done for. ISIS was created because of the void that we left, and that void now exists as a caliphate the size of Indiana."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul argued against sending weapons and equipment to Iraqi military forces because they could end up in the hands of terrorists. "I'm the leading voice in America for not arming the allies of ISIS," he said. "ISIS rides around in a billion dollars' worth of U.S. Humvees. It's a disgrace. We've got to stop -- we shouldn't fund our enemies, for goodness sakes. ... One of the ways we stop them is by not funding them and not arming them."

Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Echoing similar comments by Sen. John McCain, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called for deploying weapons to Ukraine so its forces can better fight pro-Russian separatists. Walker also proposed deploying missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"Putin believes in the old Lenin adage: You probe with bayonets," he said. "When you find mush, you push. When you find steel, you stop. Under Obama and Clinton, we found a lot of mush over the last two years."

Walker added, "We need to have a national security that puts steel in front of our enemies. I would send weapons to Ukraine. I would work with NATO to put forces on the eastern border of Poland and the Baltic nations, and I would reinstate, put in place back in the missile defense system that we had in Poland and in the Czech Republic."

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2006 had recommended installing 10 long-range missile defense interceptors in Poland and an associated radar installation in the Czech Republic to provide protection against Iranian missiles for the U.S. and European allies. The plan was shelved in 2009 in favor of a phased approach that relied on ship-based missile defenses.

Iran Deal

Walker also said he'd undo the historic nuclear deal the U.S. and several Western nations reached with Iran. The pact is designed to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, but critics have said it will jump-start the country's economy and generate more revenue for the regime's military forces.

"I still remember, as a kid, tying a yellow ribbon around a tree in front of my house during the 444 days that Iran held 52 Americans hostage," he said, referring to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. "Iran is not a place we should be doing business with."

He added, "To me, you terminate the deal on day one, you reinstate the sanctions authorized by Congress, you go to Congress and put in place even more crippling sanctions in place, and then you convince our allies to do the same."

Paul said he also opposes the Iranian deal and plans to vote against it partly because Obama didn't negotiate from a position of strength.

"If there's going to be a negotiation, you're going to have to believe somehow that the Iranians are going to comply. I asked this question to John Kerry, I said, 'Do you believe they're trustworthy?' and he said, 'No,' and I said, 'Well, how are we going to get them to comply?'" he said. "I would have never released the sanctions before there was consistent evidence of compliance."

Huckabee agreed, saying the U.S. "got nothing" as a result of the talks.

"We didn't even get four hostages out," he said. "We got nothing, and Iran gets everything they want. We said we would have anywhere, anytime negotiations and inspections, we gave that up. We said that we would make sure that they didn't have any nuclear capacity, we gave that up."

He added, "What the Iranians have said is, 'We will wipe Israel off the face of the map, and we will bring death to America.' When someone points a gun at your head and loads it, by God, you ought to take them seriously, and we need to take that seriously."

Domestic Surveillance

Christie and Paul sparred over the domestic surveillance of phone and email records of U.S. citizens. Christie, who served as a U.S. attorney during the George W. Bush administration, defended the practice, while Paul said it violates the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizures.

"I'm the only person on this stage who's actually filed applications under the Patriot Act, who has gone before the federal -- the Foreign Intelligence Service court, who has prosecuted and investigated and jailed terrorists in this country after September 11th," Christie said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. "When you actually have to be responsible for doing this, you can do it, and we did it, for seven years in my office, respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland."

Paul accused Christie of "fundamentally" misunderstanding the Bill of Rights and said the records can be obtained by getting a warrant from a judge. "I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans," he said.

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