Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Military Times reached out to his campaign for answers on several questions related to his military and veteran policy plans if he is elected president.
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President Donald Trump has touted that the U.S. military is now stronger than ever before, due to increases in military spending and fewer battlefield restrictions on troops. What is your assessment of the current state and readiness of the armed forces? Are they in a better place than they were four years ago? Why?
President Trump does not have a strategy guiding how and where our forces are currently deployed around the world, and Bennet knows our military remains overutilized and unmoored to overarching goals. Operational tempo remains high, putting constant strain on servicemembers and their families. Bennet is concerned we are making ad hoc decisions without clear and achievable political goals.
He believes that to maintain alliances and influence, we need a rapidly deployable and forward-engaged force, but we must take a hard look at where we’re using force around the world and make tough decisions about U.S. presence. Without such a conversation, the readiness of U.S. forces will not be optimal. This is a question the political leadership of the nation has failed to answer for nearly 20 years, and that Bennet intends to answer as president.
After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
The position and number of U.S. forces abroad must be determined on a case-by-case basis and based on political objectives.
For example, Bennet believes that there is not a military solution in Afghanistan, and it is time to draw down forces. The United States needs to work towards a political solution in which we are clear about what we aim to achieve. We must determine our objective, something that hasn’t been clear in Afghanistan for a number of years, and withdraw forces based on that mission.
Regarding Iraq and Syria, Bennet believes that it would be unwise to speculate as to a specific troop level given the complexity and changing dynamics in the region and the nature of the threat. As the security environment evolves, Bennet will ensure we are equipped to combat the threat of ISIS and other violent extremist groups.
Bennet knows that U.S. investment in the NATO alliance, including through our presence on the continent, is critical to long-term stability, peace, and security. While Russia continues its threatening behavior, Bennet will continue to support efforts to deter and defend against Russian aggression, including through rotational deployments and multinational training and exercises. As president, Bennet will constantly reevaluate our posture related to the threat, in close coordination with our allies and partners.
What is the top personnel policy problem you see facing the armed forces today? How will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
Bennet believes that one of the biggest personnel problems facing the armed forces today is the ability to recruit and retain servicemembers in advanced technology fields. As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and as the senior senator from the state of Colorado —which is home to some of the nation’s most critical military missions and is the second largest aerospace economy — Bennet has seen what effective investment in these fields can do for our national security.
To maintain U.S. military superiority, the national security community must invest in emerging technology and, critically, in a workforce that excels at pursuing our national interests through this technology. Space, cyber space, nuclear, and artificial intelligence are important fields for our national security, and the Department of Defense must think innovatively about how to recruit, train, and retain personnel who will lead the U.S. force and sustain U.S. military superiority in the face of next-generation threats.
This must include partnership with the private sector and academia, and pipelines that increase diversity in these fields, on which Colorado has taken a leading role.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
Bennet believes there is waste and inefficiency within the Pentagon that can and should be addressed, including by reducing bureaucracy and streamlining our acquisition process. As president, Bennet will prioritize funding away from expensive, legacy programs to focus on next-generation threats, and in order to do that, he will take a hard look at where we’re using force around the world and make tough decisions about our presence in places like Afghanistan.
Our nation’s security comes from more than the size of our military, and we must invest in the other elements of American security, like our intelligence capabilities, and our diplomatic and economic power.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
There is not a single solution to address the increasing suicide rates in both military and veteran populations—it will require a president to take a holistic community approach. As president, Bennet will work to develop a culture that treats mental and physical health as equally critical to military readiness.
He will ensure the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs invest substantially in access to mental and behavioral health care and work to encourage a culture that recognizes the importance of this care and decreases stigma associated with seeking it. And he will ensure the military invests in training leadership to recognize indicators associated with risk and encourages leaders to speak openly about mental health and seeking care.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
Bennet’s top priority is ensuring timely and efficient access to quality mental and behavioral health care and comprehensive resources in support of those services. This will require investment from the federal level but also partnership with individual communities to ensure that mechanisms for care and resources are built based on local and regional needs and solutions.
Have administration officials gone too far in pushing veterans health care services into the private sector? Would you repeal or alter existing VA community care programs?
Bennet does not believe veterans care should be privatized. As president, Bennet will work to ensure veterans have timely access to quality care in a manner that makes sense for them. At times, this may mean access to care in the community. Bennet will focus on ensuring the process for accessing care in the community is streamlined and efficient and that the VA is resourced to provide veterans the world-class care they deserve.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.