Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
ABOARD USS YORKTOWN — Seeking an advantage in military-heavy South Carolina, Ted Cruz made an aggressive plea Tuesday for rebuilding the U.S. armed forces, promising it could be done without growing the government or involving the country in unnecessary conflicts around the globe.
"More tooth, less tail — that will be our guiding philosophy," the U.S. senator from Texas said aboard this aircraft carrier, offering a harsh assessment of the "seven years of neglect" he said the military has experienced under President Barack Obama and pledging to reverse the trend.
Cruz went into a new level of detail while laying out his plan, invoking former President Ronald Reagan's Peace through Strength doctrine to argue the United States can build up a military "strong enough that, God willing, we will not need to use it." Cruz called for at least 525,000 soldiers ready for combat (there are now fewer than 500,000) and an active-duty force of at least 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, an increase from the current 1.3 million.
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Rebuilding the military "should not be an indiscriminate exercise in re-inflating the tire, but rather, it will require serious thought and planning," Cruz said. "Our goal should not simply to be to pour back into the Defense Department the vast sums that President Obama has so irresponsibly drained out but rather to seize this opportunity to make generational investments."
Painting a bleak picture of U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama, Cruz said the country is currently "running a security deficit," vulnerable to threats from abroad due to an outdated and demoralized military. Cruz accused Obama and his administration of being too eager to negotiate with foreign enemies, resulting in diminished U.S. influence around the globe.
"If there is a silver lining in the Obama-Clinton foreign policy debacle, it is that now we know what a world without America would start to look like — far more dangerous and beholden to terrorists," Cruz said.
Cruz was perhaps most emphatic about rooting political correctness out of the military, pledging to "restore the U.S. military's combat ethos" to the armed forces. He reiterated his opposition to requiring women to sign up for the draft, and he promised to review the Marine Corps' request to exempt its female members from serving in combat positions.
Cruz also hinted at contrasts with his rivals for the Republican nomination, suggesting some are too eager to drag the United States in to foreign conflicts in which Americans have little at stake. He specifically cited some of his Republican opponents' support for toppling the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, a position he he used against U.S. Sen Marco Rubio of Florida.
"We will not go picking fights around the globe," Cruz said. "The purpose of this rebuilt military is not to intervene in every conflict and to engage in expensive and protracted exercises in nation building. ... The purpose of this military will be to advance and defend the interests of the United States."
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Acknowledging rebuilding the military will not be cheap, Cruz said it could be paid for through tax and regulatory reform, trimming federal spending and selling federal assets and property. He sought to get in front of criticism of the cost of his plan, saying, "If you think it's too expensive to defend this nation, try not defending it."
Before Cruz even took the stage here, his GOP rivals were renewing their criticism of his national security credentials, citing his votes against national defense spending and for curbing some U.S. intelligence capabilities. The campaign of Rubio, Cruz's most vocal critic on national security, reiterated its charge that the Texas senator's positions reflect a pattern of political opportunism.
"Senator Cruz will say or do anything to win an election including lying to cover-up his own weak record on national security," Rubio spokesman Joe Pounder said in a statement. "Senator Cruz is the only candidate in this race who has consistently sided against our military and intelligence professionals and whose foreign policy vision changes with his poll numbers."
A distant second to Donald Trump in most polls, Cruz is hoping to draw some support from the large military and veteran population in South Carolina. He is receiving some help from former Gov. Rick Perry, an Air Force veteran who introduced him aboard the USS Yorktown and campaigned with him throughout the rest of the day.
"Pilots use checklists. Checklists will save your life," Perry said on the aircraft carrier. "The man I'm about to introduce — he has two checklists that he works on and works from on a daily basis: The Bible and the United States Constitution."
At a rally Tuesday afternoon in Columbia, Cruz kept up his focus on the military as he received the endorsement of Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer and announced an expanded veterans coalition that now includes more than 23,000 members. The senator also used his remarks there to press questions about the temperament of GOP opponent Donald Trump, suggesting the billionaire would not be a safe bet as commander in chief.
"When radical Islamic terrorists wage jihad against the United States of America, the answer is not to tweet insults at them," Cruz said. "The answer instead is to unleash the holy wrath of the United States on anyone that would declare war on us."
Later Tuesday afternoon, Cruz's campaign took aim at another rival, Rubio, with the release of a new ad featuring U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a Cruz supporter who served in the Navy. In the 30-second spot, Bridenstine said the immigration reform bill Rubio helped author in 2013 "would have made this country less safe" and called Rubio's attacks on Cruz "flat-out false."