Image source: Donald J. Trump for President.

South Carolinians are about to head to the primaries today to cast their votes for the Republican nominee for President. On the other side of the country, Democrats will be caucusing in Nevada to choose their nominee. After that, the primaries start coming fast and furious :

Back to Nevada on Tuesday for the Republicans to hold a caucus. Back to South Carolina four days later for the Democrats to hold their primary. A total of 11 primaries between the two parties the following Tuesday -- and on, and on, and on.

Before the electoral season gets too hectic, we want to take a brief pause and consider: Who are these politicians angling for your votes? And if they get those votes, what precisely do they plan to do once elected? In today's column, we're going to focus on just one issue -- defense -- and examine the positions of two leading candidates for President: Businessman Donald J. Trump and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. After all, defense is big business and whoever the next President is will have major ramifications for the defense sector at large. 

President Trump...
Candidate Trump goes into a lot of detail  on his plans to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, promising to "end waste, fraud and abuse" at the VA, "hire more veterans to care for veterans," and -- of course -- "fire the corrupt and incompetent VA executives." That's a goal many military veterans will support. (Whether they'll forgive Trump's deriding Sen. McCain as "not a war hero," or let pass his bold assertion  that because he attended a military-themed high school, he received "more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military," are another question entirely).

As far as Trump's plans for the active duty military go, he sums those up in a 23-second campaign clip on YouTube, played over a visual of the nuclear supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). There, Trump declares: "I'm gonna make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody, absolutely nobody is gonna mess with us."

The endgame, says Trump, is to "make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we're never going to have to use it."

Image source: Ted

Or President Cruz?
Candidate Cruz appears to differ with Trump on that point, envisioning a significantly more robust role for the U.S. military. Like candidate Trump, Cruz sees a need to "rebuild" the U.S. military. But according to Cruz : "we need to exert leadership on the global stage, not withdraw from it." And "we need to fiercely defend our allies and interests," including through the use of airstrikes in the Middle East.

One key to this aggressive military stance -- and one of particular interest to investors in Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.15%), the nation's largest defense contractor -- is the U.S. Air Force. Cruz has declared that "we should focus on utterly defeating ISIS using our overwhelming airpower." This necessarily raises the question of what Cruz thinks about the Air Force's marquee weapons system, the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jet.

The F-35 has caught a lot of flak in Congress, not least because at an estimated $1.5 trillion in cost, the F-35 program is on course to become the most expensive weapons system in the world. That doesn't seem to worry Cruz, though. Price tag notwithstanding, in a 2013 Twitter posting, the Senator called the F-35 "way cool" -- and even autographed a plane.

Image source: Senator Ted Cruz via Twitter.

Point, counterpoint
As a general rule, politicians like to keep their policies vague, so as to make it a bit harder to accuse them of going back on their "promises" post-election. But the F-35 is one issue where we think we've identified a clear divide between the positions espoused by Candidate Trump and Candidate Cruz.

Cruz insists that "we must rebuild our military in a way that will secure our children without bankrupting them." On the fact of it, that seems to imply that Cruz will impose some fiscal restraint to the Pentagon's spending plans. Cruz is nonetheless on record also supporting Pentagon plans to keep buying F-35s -- even if the plane's cost forces the Air Force to retire existing aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog, or abandon plans to develop a carrier-capable drone fighter jet.

Trump, on the other hand, has famously  derided the F-35 as "not very good" and mused publicly that "when they say that [the F-35] cannot perform as well as the planes we already have, what are [we doing] spending so much more money?"

Whoever wins the primaries and caucuses this weekend, and over the days and weeks ahead, that's a question the next President will ultimately have to decide: "What are we doing spending so much more money," indeed?