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U.S. military budget inches closer to $1 trillion mark, as concerns over federal deficit grow

U.S. Air Force A-10 aircraft takes part in the urban fighting drill June 13 during the NATO Saber Strike exercise in the Soviet-era former military town near Skrunda, Latvia. (Ints Kalnins/TPX Images of the Day/Reuters)

The U.S. Senate on Monday voted to give the military $716 billion for 2019, approving one of the biggest defense budgets in modern American history despite concerns from some economists and lawmakers about the rapidly rising federal deficit.

The 2019 military budget, approved by an 85-to-10 vote, gives America's armed forces an $82 billion increase from 2017.

The military has called the additional funding necessary to improve its ability to respond to international crises, while critics say Congress should not be giving a significant boost to spending at the Defense Department at a moment of relatively diminished U.S. military involvement around the globe. About 17 percent of America's $4 trillion federal budget goes to the military, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Budget experts said the dramatic increase in military spending will exacerbate America's debt hole, by pushing the government further into the red and increasing the amount the federal government spends on debt interest payments. Congress's official budget scorekeeper recently projected the federal deficit will rise to more than $1 trillion a year by 2020, sparking concerns among both Republicans and Democrats in Congress that spending is growing at an unsustainable rate and could trigger higher inflation.

The military's "base" budget, not including a contingency fund for overseas operations, will be the biggest in recent American history since at least the 1970s, adjusting for inflation, according to multiple military budget experts. Including this contingency fund, which includes substantial wartime operation spending, America's military budget was bigger for several years in the Obama administration. The 2019 budget largely rose with inflation from 2018, which saw the bulk of the increase from 2017.

"Earlier this year, both parties came together and decided on a massive expansion of defense spending and to not pay for it," said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan think tank. "We'll be near $1 trillion deficits next year, and the fact we're spending so much on defense means we have less resources for everything else and makes our debt more out of control."

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have expressed alarm about America's rising deficit, with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) criticizing "chronic overspending" in the federal government and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) arguing that Republicans had "blown this deficit up to places one couldn't even imagine it could go."

Like most of their colleagues, both voted for the military budget increase.

The military budget fell sharply under the Obama administration, as the Iraq War wound down and a Republican-led Congress sought to reduce overall federal spending. But military officials say that decline put America's armed services behind those of key foreign countries, as China has ramped up its military spending, and that they need bigger investments in cyber warfare, "next generation" combat vehicles and other high-technology military equipment to protect the nation's overseas allies.

Defense officials repeatedly said they needed the additional funding to improve the military's "readiness," including the preparedness of troops for battle. The budget also gave a pay raise to the military's enormous workforce, which includes 1.42 million military employees and hundreds of thousands of civilian workers.

"Our regional competitors in the Pacific and in Europe have been studying our strengths and our vulnerabilities for more than a decade," Maj. Gen. Paul A. Chamberlain said in February. "Their modernization efforts are slowly eroding our competitive advantage, and this budget request addresses that, by providing the necessary resources to ensure the Army's superiority."

But opponents say America is sending a signal to the world that it is preparing to go to war, in part through billions in new investments in nuclear weapons research, new nuclear warheads, updated aircraft carriers and ballistic submarines whose practical application some say is hard to imagine in a modern war. Pointing to the calamity following the invasion in Iraq, they also question the assumption that the United States can use military force to solve political or humanitarian issues around the world.

"This is not only wasteful, it's dangerous: It tells other countries that the nuclear arms race is back on," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. "All of this money is being spent in service of the idea we can go anywhere and fight any battle, and the recent history shows that doesn't make a lot of sense or make us safer."

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Critics also say the Pentagon is bloated with administrative waste and contracts, pointing to a 2016 internal report finding that the military buried evidence of $125 billion of bureaucratic waste, and that America already spends far more on its military than any other country. America spends more on its military than the next 11 countries combined, according to Matthew Fay, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Niskanen Center, a think tank.

Pouring billions into the military also limits America's ability to spend on health care, child care and other key domestic spending priorities, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a recent speech on the Senate floor, noting the nation has among the worst health and child poverty rates in the developed world.

The bigger military budget is being accompanied by a roughly equivalent increase in spending on domestic programs, as part of an agreement reached by the two parties in March to lift caps on spending that Congress imposed earlier in the decade.

The military budget elicited little dissent in the Senate. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah.) and Sanders voted against the measure, as did a handful of Democratic senators, including possible 2020 presidential candidates such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) voted for the measure.

The Senate vote follows the approval of similar legislation in the House. The two bills are expected to go to a conference between the chambers to iron out the differences.

The increase in military spending is one of the largest in modern U.S. history, jumping by 9.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, according to Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

Since the Reagan administration, the military has increased by comparable levels only a handful of times: jumping by 23 percent in 2003 the buildup to the Iraq War; and by about 8 percent for three straight years between 2006 and 2008, during the troop buildup, according to Harrison.

"If you want the military to maintain all of our existing security commitments around the world, then you need a defense budget like this," Harrison said. "But if you are willing to reduce some of those security commitments, you could make do with a much smaller defense budget."