Defense budget speeds toward $1 trillion, with China in mind

FILE - China's national flag is displayed next to the Pentagon logo at the Pentagon, Monday, May 7, 2012. The Pentagon will load up on advanced missiles, space defense and modern jets in its largest defense request in decades in order to meet the threat it perceives from China. The Defense Department's chief financial officer says the spending path will have the military's annual budget cross the $1 trillion threshold in just a matter of years. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Pentagon intends to load up on advanced missiles, space defense and modern jets in its largest defense request in decades in order to meet the threat it perceives from China. The spending path would put military’s annual budget over the $1 trillion threshold in just a matter of years, its chief financial officer said Monday. 

The administration is asking Congress for $842 billion for the Pentagon in the 2024 budget year. It’s the largest request since the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the mid-2000s, when the weight of hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in those overseas conflicts ballooned overseas war spending. 

Now, the budget could surge again. That’s in part to meet the higher cost of weapons and parts, but also to answer the vulnerabilities that the Ukraine war has exposed in the U.S. defense industrial base, and the strategic threat the U.S. sees from China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal, its hypersonic capabilities and its gains in space. 

Even if it only grows to account for inflation, “the budget will hit a trillion dollars,” probably before the next five years, Pentagon comptroller Michael McCord told a press briefing. “Maybe that’s going to be a psychological, big watershed moment for many of us, or some of us, but it is inevitable.” 

While the number seems astronomically high, it is only about 3% of the country’s gross domestic product. For comparison, during World War II the country was spending about one-third of its GDP on defense, McCord said. 

The budget request is part of an overall $6.8 trillion spending proposal rolled out by Biden last week, which Republicans say they’ll reject. But it’s not clear how they’ll act on the Pentagon proposal. 

Some Republicans want to go beyond the military spending request. But some have also demanded sharp reductions in federal spending — something that would be difficult to accomplish without touching the defense budget. 

While personnel and operations costs remain the largest portions of the annual defense budget, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks called this years’ request “a procurement budget” with the Pentagon increasing buys across the board of modern weapon systems. 

One of the largest new priorities is getting the U.S. defense industrial base to speed production of munitions. Ukraine’s rate of use of 155 Howitzer rounds and other precision munitions has shown the U.S. defense industrial base “is not where it needs to be,” McCord said. 

It’s been a lesson learned over the last year, particularly as the U.S. assesses how best it can prevent a similar fight over Taiwan, which could pit it against China. 

The goal of the budget is to ensure China “wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, ‘today is not the day,'” Hicks said. 

The administration, for example, is asking Congress for $30 billion to produce more missiles. But they are “not the kind of missiles that are key to the Ukraine fight,” McCord said. “These are key to Indo-Pacific deterrence,” a goal also involving advanced air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles and long-range standoff missiles. 

The Pentagon is also seeking rapid modernization of its air, space and nuclear weapons. The request includes almost $38 billion to buy new nuclear submarines, field the new B-21 stealth bomber and manufacture new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

The request would also fund research and testing for a new type of warplane, called Next Generation Air Dominance, which will have a piloted modern fighter jet, such as the F-35, commanding unmanned drones that accompany it on missions. The Air Force won’t say much about the drones, which they are calling “collaborative combat aircraft” – except that they are planning to field 1,000 of them. 

The request includes the “largest space budget ever,” McCord said, as space has proven to be vital in the war in Ukraine and a critical front in any future confrontation. The Pentagon is seeking $33 billion to make its satellite communications more resilient to jamming or attack and rapidly field a new constellation of missile warning systems to assist in the detection, tracking and defense against a new generation of Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles. 

Even the Chinese spy balloon episode had an impact, even though the budget request was largely completed before the balloon was detected, drifted across the country and was shot down. The Pentagon is seeking about $90 million to add capabilities to better detect similar objects in the atmosphere in the future.