President Obama’s record on national defense is a campaign issue in 2016. Some Republicans say the U.S. Army and Navy will be too small at the end of the Obama administration. Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz recently attacked the president for having “dramatically degraded our military.”
A candidate for northern Michigan’s seat in U.S. Congress is also using this argument. Last month, former state legislator Jason Allen kicked off his congressional campaign at his family’s clothing store in Traverse City.
“I’m very concerned about the direction America is heading,” Allen said.
When asked by IPR News Radio why he had decided to run, Allen said the first issue on his list was the drop in troop levels, and he made a bold statement about just how large those reductions are.
“First of all from a national defense perspective, we’ll have the smallest military since before the first World War,” Allen said.
This claim immediately attracted criticism online. One person wrote on IPR’s Facebook page that Allen was lying.
It turns out his statement is partially true.
Right now, the U.S. Navy does have its smallest fleet since before World War I, but the Army is headed towards troop levels that compare with before World War II — not World War I.
Jason Allen acknowledges he was incorrect, but he says he’s worried nonetheless about American military power. Defense spending has fallen off since 2010.
“We have to either invest and modernize,” Allen says, “or we are going to have to take a look at the role of the United States military.”
Allen, who served in the Michigan National Guard, says threats loom from Europe, to the Middle East, to Asia.
The Army may need more divisions and more money to do things like modernize weaponry, he says.
“Certainly with the aging of some of our aircraft [and] the smallness of some of our ships, there is going to be additional expenditures required,” Allen says.
The budget for the U.S. Department of Defense is about $585 billion this year, which is a slight increase from 2015.
State Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), the other Republican running in the 1st Congressional District race, says he’ll listen to what military leaders say they need if he’s elected.
But Caspserson says Congress shouldn’t give more money to the military without first doing its homework.
“We do have to get our affairs in order when it comes to spending,” Casperson says, “ because … if we don’t get our affairs in order how are we going to help other people if we were weak in that way?”
What Casperson doesn’t want to see are cuts made to the military just for the sake of making cuts. And that’s how some have characterized recent budget-making in Washington.
Automatic budget cuts called sequestration slashed the defense budget in 2013.
On the Democratic side of the race, Jerry Cannon says automatic budget cuts are not a smart way to do business.
“If my message was anything, we’ve got to stop this sequestration business and let our smart people do the things that they do best and our political leaders need to listen to them,” Cannon says.
Cannon, who is a retired U.S. Army general, says he’d like to see troop levels in the Army stay where they are right now at about 490,000.
"The world isn't standing still"
The Department of Defense says the Army will lose an additional 40,000 troops by 2018.
“The Army and Marine Corps are getting smaller,” says David Ochmanek, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. “They increased in size in order to handle the demands of the simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now that those have wound down they are in the process of going back to the size force that they were before.”
At its peak size after September 11, the Army had around 570,000 troops.
“In an absolute sense we are not a weaker nation militarily than we were three or four years ago,” Ochmanek says. “But the world isn’t standing still.”
Ochmanek says the nation should be spending slightly more, especially to upgrade things like missile defense systems. Whoever the next congressman from northern Michigan is, he won’t have to vote on the military budget right away, because the Department of Defense has a budget in place for the next two years.
Lon Johnson, the other Democratic candidate, would not comment for this story.