WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and John McCain each promise that as president they'd continue to transform the U.S. military into a bigger, more agile force that can tackle insurgencies and help allies thwart terrorism.
However, the candidates differ on what role the military should play in global affairs.
"The Department of Defense has been the preemptive force of the last eight years," said Col. Michael Meese, a professor and the head of the department of social sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Whether Defense continues in that role — or the State Department, with the U.S. Agency for International Development, picks it up — is a question for the next administration, Meese said.
While there may be big differences in how the presidential candidates would use the military, they generally agree on what kind of force the U.S. needs.
"Temperamentally, Senators Obama and McCain are very different on defense. But when you read the details of their defense positions, they are remarkably similar," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a conservative public policy organization. "They both want to bolster intelligence, focus on counter-terrorism, reduce big-ticket weapons systems and crack down on defense contracts."
Both men call for rebuilding U.S. ground forces, whose troops and equipment have been exhausted by seven years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The next president will find a military that's still struggling to balance training for counter-insurgency and maintaining its ability to fight conventional wars.
McCain would like to increase the size of U.S. ground forces — the Army and Marines — by 150,000 troops to roughly 900,000.
Obama supports a Pentagon plan to expand the Army by 65,000 and the Marines by 27,000 in the next decade.
Obama and McCain also have said that they're concerned about the shortage of non-commissioned officers in the Army because so many mid-career senior enlisted men and women are leaving the military, exhausted by multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Both candidates want to add more military civil-affairs units, which are battalion-size units of roughly 600 troops designed to work with local governments in the wake of conflicts. Such units could help the U.S. rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, but neither candidate offers specifics on how large a military civil-affairs force should be.
Obama says the National Guard needs better equipment and health care and has called for it to have a greater role.
McCain has made veterans issues a priority, promising to get veterans better health care. He also has supported increasing the monthly veterans' education benefit to $1,500 from $1,200.
They both support missile defense, although Obama has called for more testing of the systems, while McCain has said he wants to deploy them as quickly as possible.
Both candidates have called for more transparency in how the Pentagon doles out defense contracts. McCain, who led the fight against a huge Air Force tanker contract, has promised to review defense contracts and opposes emergency bills to supplement the defense budget.
Obama has said he would trim supplemental bills for defense spending and that overall defense spending would remain steady.
"Whether we get Obama or McCain, we will get a bigger military. They will have different attitudes on how it is used," Thompson said.
McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, has suggested that the military can be the face of U.S. engagement around the world.
He's called for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until victory is assured. His campaign has said the surge was such a success in Iraq that the U.S. military should apply the "surge principles" in Afghanistan, suggesting that he'd send more troops there. He's also called for more training of allies that are combating terrorism within their borders.
McCain also has said that the U.S. can't allow Iran to develop its nuclear arsenal, suggesting that he'd use force if necessary to prevent that.
"There is only one thing worse than a military solution," McCain said in July 2007. "And that . . . is a nuclear-armed Iran."
Obama also has said that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, but he's put more emphasis on trying to reach a negotiated settlement with Tehran. In fact, Obama has made it clear that he thinks robust U.S. diplomacy could substitute, at least in part, for the Bush administration's reliance on the military to carry out America's will in the world.
The Democratic presidential nominee has vowed to end the war in Iraq and to bring U.S. combat forces home over 16 months. He'd shift some U.S. forces from Iraq into Afghanistan, which he calls the real front line in the war on terror, and it's where the 9/11 attacks were planned.
Obama also has pushed for the U.S. military to enter Pakistan, unilaterally if necessary, to go after Osama bin Laden. McCain has criticized Obama's stand, saying he's announcing his plan to the enemy and inviting Pakistani resistance rather than cooperation, but McCain's also called Pakistan "a failed state."
"Both have an appreciation for the limits of military power. But they must decide: Does the United States want to be involved in nation building?" said Jake Kipp, the deputy director of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
For all their plans, the next president cannot fully predict how he'd use the military.
"There are things that cannot be controlled by the new president. A lot of times, he will be responding to events," Kipp said. "As they say in the military: The enemy has a vote."
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