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How Obama’s new defense budget looks like Reagan’s

This graphic, included in the Pentagon’s budget documents for fiscal 2016, was released Monday. (Defense Department image)
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The Defense Department released its proposed budget for fiscal 2016 on Monday, asking Congress for $585 billion as part of President Obama’s $4 trillion budget request. The Pentagon’s slice of the pie would amount to a $25 billion increase over this year.

Defense officials are casting that number in a different light, though. As shown in the chart above — included in budget documents released by the Pentagon — the new funding levels proposed by the administration are in line with spending levels in the 1980s, after President Reagan built up the military following steep cuts after the Vietnam War. The message: While the Defense Department doesn’t need to spend as much as it did during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it still needs the cash to prepare for a variety of crises.

“We have little margin left for error or strategic surprise,” Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Monday.

The budget includes a lot of money for high-profile acquisition projects like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ($10.6 billion to buy 57 planes), the P-8 Poseidon ($3.4 billion to buy 16 new planes) and the construction of nine new Navy ships ($11.6 billion). But the services also need to spend more money on readiness, making sure that equipment is ready to use and troops are well trained on it, defense officials said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said the military has been “surviving, but not thriving,” over the last three years.

“The proposed budget helps ensure we can manage risk and meet near-term defense needs while preparing for the future,” he said. ” However, it represents the minimum resource level necessary to remain a capable, ready and appropriately sized force able to meet our global commitments.”

As The Washington Post noted on Sunday, the federal spending cap known as sequestration has been in place since 2013. The Pentagon wants Congress set the cap aside and provide more money, saying it still needs to reset after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and perform present-day missions ranging from fighting the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria to countering Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

Many of the national security threats Reagan faced are different. But the Pentagon message is clear: It can only improvise for so long until it’s time to reassess what military is being asked to do worldwide.