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Why the military wants $716 billion from Congress

Why the military wants $716 billion from Congress
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The Trump administration is poised to ask Congress for $716 billion for defense for fiscal 2019, a major hike that budget analysts say aligns with administration’s stated goals of bulking up the military and preparing it to potentially fight near-peer rivals after years of focusing on terrorism.

“A total of $716 billion means that they are putting themselves on the trajectory for a big buildup in military power,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The caveat, though, is to really carry out the plans that they talked about in the past, you wouldn’t just need 7 percent growth in [fiscal] '19; you would need similar levels of growth in the years following.”

President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE came into office pledging to rebuild what he described as a “depleted” military. 

“You know, our military has been depleted over the last long period of time, even beyond [former President] Obama,” Trump reiterated Thursday at the annual Republican congressional retreat. “It’s been depleted. We’ve got to build up. This should not be a party thing; this should be common sense. Without our military, we might not be here talking. We have to have a strong military.”

His campaign promises included growing the Navy from 274 ships to 350, adding another 60,000 soldiers to the Army and giving the Air Force at least 100 more combat aircraft. 

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But his fiscal 2018 budget request of $668 billion was just 3 percent more than Obama had planned and included no additional ships, no new soldiers and eight fewer aircraft. 

Congress also remains locked in a budget battle — meaning it has appropriated no money toward achieving a military buildup in fiscal 2018. 

But the calendar churns on, and the Trump administration is expected to release its fiscal 2019 budget on Feb. 12, despite the lack of a funding deal for this year. 

This week, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE confirmed to Republican lawmakers the administration will be asking for $716 billion for defense for fiscal 2019. 

“I’m not subtle,” Mattis told House and Senate Republicans on Thursday at their annual retreat at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. 

“I need to make the military more lethal. Some people think I’m supposed to be an equal-opportunity employer,” Mattis added, according to several sources in the closed-door meeting.

Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that he is "very happy" with the $716 billion request for next year.

"The money is going from readiness to modernization to nuclear deterrent," he said. "You look at the strategy, and you see where it's going." 

It’s unclear what specifically that $716 billion will buy and how it will be divvied up between the Pentagon base budget, a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account and non-Pentagon defense funding such as the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons program. Bloomberg reported that $597 billion would be in the Pentagon base budget. 

Harrison said the $716 billion figure is what would be needed to execute the National Defense Strategy that Mattis laid out last month.

The strategy describes a return to a so-called great power competition with rivals Russia and China. While that’s the top concern, the military will still have to protect against terrorism, as well as contend with rogue governments such as Iran and North Korea, according to the strategy. 

In other words, the strategy is asking the military to do more than it’s doing now, hence the spending hike, Harrison said. 

“I think it is fair to say if you want to do more, you’re going to need a larger force and you’re going to need to spend more than today,” he said. “There’s good evidence that the military is already stretched thin, like we’re seeing with higher accident rates in the Navy and aviation community. If you’re trying to do more than the size of the force we have today can support, you either reduce what you’re trying to do or increase size of force and fund it.”

In addition to aligning with the National Defense Strategy, $716 billion also gets the Pentagon closer to a plan released a year ago by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds DOJ: Arizona recount could violate civil rights laws Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE (R-Ariz.), Harrison said. That plan suggested annual increases that would bring the defense budget to $800 billion in fiscal 2022 to pay for more troops for the Army and Marine Corps, more ships for the Navy and more planes for the Air Force. 

Fred Bartels, a defense budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted a $6 billion difference between McCain’s fiscal 2019 proposal and the Pentagon’s. 

But, Bartels added, the $716 billion budget proposal indicates a “seriousness” about building up the military that wasn’t present in the fiscal 2018 request.

Even if the military weren’t being asked to do more, Bartels argued, the increase would be necessary. 

He pointed to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s Thursday address at the Heritage Foundation, in which the chief said maintenance has taken a hit in the environment of continual stopgap spending measures. 

“Even if you’re not adding one single soldier or airman or one actual platform, you still need to rebuild to be deployed,” Bartels said. “If you have a ship that isn’t maintenanced, you don’t have naval power.”