On the Issues: Presidential Candidates Reveal Policy Plans for Military, Veterans

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Former Vice President Joe Biden in Wilmington, and President Trump at the White House.
In this combination of photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020. (AP Photo)

As part of their election bids, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have staked out generally similar positions on troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the threats posed by Russia and China, but part ways on growth in military spending, according to a survey of the candidates' views on defense issues conducted by the Military Officers Association of America.

As he often has, Trump touted the military buildup under his administration, with spending soaring to a record request of $738 billion for the coming fiscal year. Biden argued for "less" spending while maintaining strength and readiness through the elimination of so-called "legacy systems."

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and bipartisan members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have all noted that there will be pressure to limit or cut defense budgets in the coming years due to the enormous costs of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and reviving the economy.

However, Trump gave no indication that he would decrease military spending if he were to win a second term.

"Before I came into office, the military endured deep and devastating budget cuts," he said. "Our military, quite frankly, was very depleted and the Obama-Biden administration failed to give our military forces what they needed.

"Within three years of record military investment, our country has rejected a future of American decline and embraced our destiny of American dominance," Trump said.

In his response, Biden echoed the recommendations of the National Defense Strategy of 2018, shaped by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, to shift away from the focus on counter-terrorism to the great power competition threats posed by Russia and China.

To meet the new threats, "we need to maintain our superiority, but we must do so affordably and by preparing for the wars of tomorrow," Biden said.

He charged that Trump "has abandoned all fiscal discipline when it comes to defense spending. His budget is dominated by investments in aging legacy capabilities. At a time when we're winding down our main combat efforts from the last two decades, we need to make smarter investments in our military."

"We can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less," Biden said in a statement sure to be challenged by the Trump campaign. "The real question is not how much we invest -- it's how we invest."

Both Candidates Support Military Pay Increases

Trump and Biden backed pay increases to show the nation's support for the volunteer military, and both committed to keeping the U.S. out of "endless wars" and nation building efforts that fail to contribute to national security.

"In my administration, service members experienced their biggest pay raise in a decade," Trump said, referencing the 3.1% pay raise last year, "and I have voiced opposition to smaller pay increases."

Biden countered, saying, "We need to ensure that our military pay raises keep pace with increased costs of living. In my administration, this will be a high priority.

"Despite consistent pay increases in recent years, some military families are still struggling to make ends meet, and even report food insecurity, lack of quality child care, and poor financial health. That is totally unacceptable," he added.

On the big picture policy issue of where and when the U.S. must fight, Trump underlined his well-known resolve for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Biden also backed withdrawals, but with caveats.

"I will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure," Biden said. "I will bring U.S. combat troops home from Afghanistan in my first term.

"Any residual U.S. military presence would be focused only on counter-terrorism operations and supporting local partners," he added. "For the time being, we will also likely need to maintain a residual presence in Iraq and Syria, with our coalition partners, to prevent a re-emergence of ISIS."

On recruitment and possible changes to the Selective Service System, Trump said, "My historic investment in our military is meant to give those who serve every opportunity to be successful on any battlefield and to also attract the best our nation has to offer."

He did not mention the Selective Service System, but Biden said that women should be required to register for it.

"The United States does not need a larger military, and we don't need a draft," Biden said. "I would, however, ensure that women are also eligible to register for the Selective Service System so that men and women are treated equally in the event of future conflicts."

In Trump's opinion, "The best recruitment tool for an all-volunteer force is a well-transitioned veteran" in touting what he called the transformation of the Department of Veterans Affairs under his administration.

"I signed the most significant reform in VA care since its inception with the Mission Act, enabling veterans in the VA to receive care in the private community whenever it's in their best interest or when they require urgent care without any prior authorizations," he said.

Trump also suggested that he would back closing little-used VA facilities to enhance efficiency across the system.

"As policymakers across the spectrum realize, the VA also needs to be the right size to address veteran needs in the future, focusing resources on the areas where its impact can be greatest," he said.

Biden said he would "expand the list of presumptive conditions to ensure that no veteran who experienced a [traumatic brain injury] or had exposure to burn pits or other environmental toxins goes without access to VA health care and benefits."

"We must never again have an Agent Orange-like crisis," he said, referencing the VA's reluctance to expand presumptive illness lists.

Biden questioned the reforms under the Mission Act.

"This administration has underperformed on the rollout of the Mission Act, constantly underfunding the community care program, and creating unnecessary headaches for veterans with referrals, scheduling and payment," he said.

Both candidates pledged increased support for military families in housing, child care and spousal employment.

"One of the great challenges for military spouses is to find a meaningful job as they move in support of their active-duty spouse," Trump said. "We want military spouses to be able to pursue their careers and help their families thrive."

Military families who move across state lines often "lose the chance for the civilian spouse to practice their chosen profession and have to go through costly and time-intensive re-licensing," Trump said. "This administration is committed to continuing to fight for military spouse license portability."

According to Biden, "Family readiness is a national security imperative."

He committed to relaunching the "Joining Forces" initiative begun by former first lady Michelle Obama and then-second lady Dr. Jill Biden to focus on family issues and rally support from the business community.

"After two decades of sustained warfare, it is our duty to ensure that military families have the necessary support to thrive," Biden said.

The MOAA survey also included responses from Libertarian candidate for president Jo Jorgensen, whose views were in striking contrast to those of Trump and Biden.

"Total military spending should decrease," Jorgensen said. "We should turn America into one giant Switzerland: armed and neutral, with a military force that's ready to defend America's shores and soil against any foreign attack."

"With no U.S. involvement in foreign wars, a military that's laser-focused on defending America, and a citizenry with the unabridged right to keep and bear arms, America will be safe," she said.

The survey questions were sent to the candidates' teams earlier this summer, and replies were received in late July and early August, MOAA said.

Much of the Biden camp's responses reflected the 91-page Democratic Party platform adopted at the party's national convention in August.

In an unusual move, the Republican National Convention chose not to have a platform this year. Instead, it referred to the one adopted in 2016 and stated that the party's positions were the same as Trump's.

The Republican National Committee stated that the party "has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president's America-first agenda."

News outlets and think tanks have done numerous reports on Trump and Biden's policy positions on a wide range of issues, both foreign and domestic, but the MOAA survey appears to be one of the most detailed yet on defense policy.

The full MOAA survey can be seen here.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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