Joe Biden is a former senator from Delaware and served as vice president under Barack Obama from 2008 to 2016. 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.
To see all of the candidate responses, click here.
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?
I have enormous admiration and respect for our men and women in uniform and those who support them. These amazing people work with dedication and professionalism to make our military as ready and effective as possible. Notwithstanding the increased funding for the Department of Defense, the stress on the force remains a great concern, as President Trump has expanded our troop presence in Afghanistan, and, despite his rhetoric about getting out of the Middle East, increased the number of forces deployed there in recent months.
President Trump seems to be more interested in fighting the wars of the last century than anticipating future threats. He is over-investing in legacy capabilities, and not doing enough to address new challenges in areas such as space and cyberspace. And on the whole, he is not making progress to deal with the high-end threats – Russia and China – that are of greatest concern to our security.
Of equal concern is the damage that President Trump has caused to our alliances, one of our most important strategic assets. He has taken a battering ram to NATO and abandoned close friends who sacrificed themselves in battle fighting ISIS on our behalf, causing other potential partners to question the credibility of the United States. None of this leaves us in a better place.
After one year of your administration, how large will the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan be? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
In Afghanistan and the Middle East, our security interests are enduring but not unlimited. Our top priority should be counterterrorism. There is a huge difference between the open-ended deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops without a clear mission or exit strategy and small numbers of special operators and intelligence assets who can leverage local partners, keep the pressure on terrorist networks, and deter aggression.
I would end the former but support the latter as a smart, strong, and sustainable use of American power. I would bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan during my first term. We can end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland — from remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State there and in Pakistan — and never have to go back. As part of this effort, we should pursue diplomatic engagement with the Taliban and support talks between Afghan leaders and the Taliban.
This past September, President Trump terminated a diplomatic effort with the Taliban that was showing promise. He tried to create a made-for-TV moment by inviting the Taliban to Camp David – an appalling move on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary – and then just as thoughtlessly said he was calling off the negotiations. In the Middle East, we must keep the Islamic State from rebounding, a real concern even after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
President Trump’s abrupt and irresponsible decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria was also dangerous. He betrayed our Kurdish partners who made tremendous sacrifices to recover territory from ISIS in Syria. Turkey’s incursion and America’s retreat have seriously destabilized an already fragile and war-torn region, causing a humanitarian disaster and empowering U.S. adversaries, including Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. It also sent a message to anyone who would work with us that the United States under a Trump administration cannot be trusted.
U.S. forces also have important roles to play in the Middle East in deterring Iran’s provocative behavior and keeping open pathways for the global economy. A lean regional presence, coupled with robust diplomacy, can help secure these goals. In Europe, our forces and the European Defense Initiative are integral to fulfilling the commitment of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. These forces and prepositioned equipment in Europe also serve U.S. interests when we undertake missions in neighboring regions. We should also ensure that NATO partners are continuing to increase their contributions to the common defense, consistent with the commitments made in the Wales Summit declaration in 2014.
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?
Our security depends on personnel policies that give us the ability to both recruit and retain the diverse cross-section of the American people that we need to deal with the threats we face. All Americans who are qualified and capable of serving should have the opportunity to do so, a principle that the Trump administration has violated.
A Biden administration will focus intensely on the health of the force, and build on the work of the Joining Forces Initiative to support military families. I will prioritize funding to ensure world-class training, intellectual development, and superior technical capabilities within the military.
I will also pursue more flexible personnel policies to continue evolving our military talent management system to help develop and retain our members with critical skills. My Administration will also support military family-friendly initiatives such as: increasing time between moves to provide greater stability; investing in the health infrastructure necessary to ensure that dependents, spouses, and children have access to the support they need; and providing a comprehensive Resident Bill of Rights for all military families as a credible step toward regaining confidence in on-base Housing.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
The United States has the best-trained and best-equipped military force the world has ever seen, but our superiority is being challenged in ways not seen since the Cold War. With the return to great power competition posed by the rise of China and a revanchist Russia, we need to maintain our superiority, but we must do so affordably and by preparing for the wars of tomorrow.
President 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. The real question is not how much we invest — it’s how we invest.
We have to make smart investments in technologies and innovations — including in cyber, space, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence — that will be necessary to meet the threats of the future. We have to move away from investments in legacy systems that won’t be relevant for tomorrow’s wars and we have to rethink the contributions we and our allies make to our collective security. And we have to invest in our other elements of national power. Our military is one tool in our toolbox. We have become over-dependent on the military to advance our security interests overseas — and underinvested in other tools including diplomacy, economic power, education, and science and technology.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
Suicide is a national public health crisis, and it is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. As a society, we need to work together to eliminate the stigma felt by those who are suffering and struggling with their mental health. There is no shame in asking for help.
Service members and veterans are at an elevated risk of dying by suicide — and the rates for veterans exceed the national averages — and the rate is rising alarmingly among some groups. Even one death by suicide is devastating, and we must stem this tide.
Within the first 200 days of taking office, my administration will publish a comprehensive, public health and cross-sector approach to addressing suicide in veterans, service members, and their families. The Trump administration has grossly mismanaged the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), at one point leaving millions of dollars dedicated to suicide prevention efforts unused, and that’s just not right.
In my administration, the Defense Department’s Suicide Prevention Office and the VA will have the resources and staff they need to make smart investments with the allocated funds. I will ensure that all those in need of care have quality support and assistance by strengthening coordination with stakeholders and the private sector.
My administration will also tackle the issues that contribute to higher suicide risk, such as PTSD, sexual assault, and harassment. We will develop better interventions to mitigate pain and economic vulnerability and address safe firearm storage. I will increase access to mental health treatment by enforcing full mental health parity and ensuring all Americans have access to high quality mental health care, regardless of their insurance coverage status.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
For starters, I will not out-source policy-making as Trump has done by allowing some of his Mar-a-Lago friends to influence decisions at the highest level of the VA. We have a solemn obligation as a government to prepare and equip the men and women we send to war, and to care for them when they return.
My administration will increase the VA’s capacity by investing in hiring, training, and equipping our VA to deliver the very best in programs and services. We owe it to our veterans to be at the forefront of innovation, quality, safety, and efficiency. My administration will eliminate barriers that slow benefit delivery and invest in programs that will modernize systems, improve facilities, and ensure the VA is a leader in health care.
I am committed to protecting veterans from predatory individuals and organizations, like some for-profit colleges that have enriched themselves with G.I. Bill funds while providing veterans with a sub-par education.
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?
President Trump has allowed his unqualified and unappointed friends to advance radical theories of privatization and push for the closure of VA facilities. We owe it to our veterans to keep our promises, particularly the guarantee of access to quality health care — health care they earned in service to our country.
During the Obama-Biden administration, we improved access to health care offerings for veterans in their communities, but there is still more work to do. Private sector points of care were designed to provide care to veterans when it was faster, closer, or offered superior services for a particular veteran’s needs. We must ensure that health care purchased in the community actually improves access and convenience and does not compromise the health of our veterans.
My administration will establish the right balance of VA care and purchased care, region by region, based on veteran needs, existing VA capacity, and availability of market alternatives.
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.