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U.S. military spending set to increase for fifth consecutive year, nearing levels during height of Iraq war

File aerial photo shows the Pentagon in Washington. The U.S. military wants to expand its use of artificial intelligence in warfare but says it will take care to deploy the technology in accordance with the nation's values. The Pentagon outlined its first AI strategy on Feb. 12, 2019. (Charles Dharapak/AP File)

America’s military budget is set to grow for a fifth consecutive year to near-historic highs in 2020, as lawmakers push increases in defense spending for next year despite opposition from some liberals in Congress and deficit hawks.

The Trump administration has proposed $750 billion in defense spending as part of its budget request to Congress for next year, as well as steep cuts to domestic programs in health care and education.

House Democrats in their budget proposed increasing defense spending to $733 billion a year — an increase in line with inflation — in exchange for Republican support for an increase in domestic spending that would be twice as large.

Under either budget plan, the United States is expected to spend more on its military in 2020 than at any point since World War II, except for a handful of years at the height of the Iraq War, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank focused on foreign policy.

Harrison’s conclusion is supported by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and William Hartung, a budget expert at the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning think tank. (In dollar terms, without adjusting for inflation, America’s military budget is set to be the highest ever.)

The increase suggests the U.S. military will continue to expand despite Trump’s calls to limit America’s involvement overseas. It also contradicts predictions by some analysts that Democrats would seek to cut military spending after winning the House in the 2018 midterm elections.

The Pentagon and White House have argued that nearly two decades of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have left America’s military arsenal at risk of losing the global preeminence it has enjoyed since World War II.

Pentagon officials have said the additional resources are needed to counter military escalations in Russia and China, which have invested heavily in next-generation military weaponry. Russia claims to have already developed a hypersonic missile that can travel faster than the speed of sound, something some defense hawks warn could threaten U.S. missile defense systems that were designed decades ago. And China has invested heavily in new submarines, warships and other war equipment as its defense budget ballooned.

A 2018 report put together by the Pentagon in conjunction with the White House stated that “all facets of the manufacturing and defense industrial base are currently under threat” and claimed some entire industries within the military supply chain are “near extinction.”

“This strategy-driven budget makes necessary investments in next-generation technology, space, missiles, and cyber capabilities,” acting secretary of defense Patrick M. Shanahan said in a statement about the military’s budget request. “The operations and capabilities supported by this budget will strongly position the US military for great power competition for decades to come.”

The Congressional Progressive Caucus derailed plans to pass the budget bill written by Democratic leaders through the House last week, withholding their support as they accused party leaders of giving away too much in an opening bid in what promises to be a lengthy fight over where the federal government spends public funds.

The budget disagreement is also an early stress point between liberals who campaigned on a fundamental reordering of Washington and party leaders pushing a strategy they say is their best shot of achieving higher domestic spending in programs such as public health, highway and transit grants, medical research and national parks.

Democrats’ budget proposes increasing these domestic spending programs by as much as 5.7 percent in one year, while increasing military spending by 2.6 percent, according to a statement by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chair of the budget committee and author of the budget plan.

“I don’t want as much defense spending as is in the bill. But, again, we’re involved ultimately in a three-way negotiation on the caps," Yarmuth told reporters. "We think these numbers are the ones that position us best with the Senate and the White House.”

But members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), have called for the budget to devote as much funding to domestic programs as it does to the defense budget, either through boosted funding on social programs or with cuts to defense.

Omar pointed out in a statement that the United States already spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined. (That was also the finding of a report by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which argues for lower deficits.) She also said the military budget funds “endless wars that damage our reputation in the world and do not make us any safer.”

“Democrats need to speak to our vision instead of beginning with a compromise position,” Khanna said. “We don’t have to increase military funding in our initial offer. . . . This goes to the heart of the democratic willingness and boldness to challenge military interventionism abroad.”

America’s military spending steadily climbed throughout President George W. Bush’s administration, particularly after “the surge” in 2007 dramatically increased the number of troops in Iraq.

Military spending fell gradually from 2010 to 2015, as President Barack Obama sought to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan amid the Great Recession.

But defense spending rose again in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, and has increased every year since. Overall, military spending has already increased from $586 billion in 2015 to $716 billion in 2019.

Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office projected the United States would spend more than $7 trillion on defense over the next decade, which is in line with both the White House’s and House Democrats’ budget plans.

The CBO also projects America will spend more than $40 trillion on mandatory spending programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and $7 trillion on other “nondefense” programs, such as public health programs, infrastructure investments, and education funds.

There have been signs that the party’s liberal wing is willing to vote against big spending packages that increase military funding. In August 2018, 10 U.S. senators — including later presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — voted against a bill that would increase military spending. But it still passed by an overwhelming margin.

Some prominent Democrats, such as Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have called for cutting military spending as a way to free up funding for their other projects. At European levels of U.S. military spending, America could fund a universal child-care policy, extend health insurance to the approximately 30 million Americans who lack it or provide substantial investments in repairing the nation’s infrastructure.

But cuts to military spending are unlikely in the foreseeable future. Yarmuth’s budget was written after conversations with a range of the House Democratic caucus, according to a spokesman for the budget committee, including lawmakers who sit on the committees overseeing the military.

“The world is still a very dangerous place," said Raytheon chief executive Thomas Kennedy, whose company recorded $27 billion in sales last year, thanks to strong growth in the company’s classified and international business areas, at a recent conference. “I know the Democrats and Republicans that I talk to recognize that.”