By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is seeking what he called a “historic” 9 percent increase in military spending, even as the United States has wound down major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and remains the world’s strongest military power.
Trump will ask Congress to boost Pentagon spending in the next fiscal year by $54 billion in his first budget proposal and slash the same amount from non-defense spending, including a large reduction in foreign aid, a White House budget official said on Monday.
The president does not have the final say on federal spending. His plan for the military is part of a budget proposal to Congress, which although it is controlled by his fellow Republicans, will not necessarily follow his plans. Budget negotiations with lawmakers can take months to play out.
Trump told state governors at the White House that his budget plan included a “historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America.”
“This is a landmark event and message to the world in these dangerous times, of American strength, security and resolve. We must ensure that our courageous servicemen and women have the tools they need to deter war and when called upon to fight in our name, only do one thing: Win,” he said.
Officials familiar with Trump’s budget blueprint said the defense increase would be financed partly by cuts to the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency and other non-defense programs.
“We’re going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people,” Trump said.
Trump’s budget will not seek cuts in federal social programs such as Social Security and Medicare, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Sunday.
Such a military spending hike would be unusual given that the United States is not engaged in a major war, although its special forces and Air Force are active against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
An official familiar with the proposal said Trump’s request for the Pentagon included more money for shipbuilding, military aircraft and establishing “a more robust presence in key international waterways and choke points” such as the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea.
That could put Washington at odds with Iran and China. The United States already has the world’s most powerful fighting force and it spends far more than any other country on defense.
Defense spending in the most recent fiscal year was $584 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, so Trump’s planned $54 billion increase would be a rise of 9.2 percent. About one-sixth of the federal budget goes to military spending.
Mark Cancian, an adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said Trump’s plan was in line with the kind of military spending seen before the Iraq war.
“This is certainly comparable to the largest peacetime buildups, which would be 2003,” said Cancian, who worked at the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department. He cautioned that the proposal was far from being a budget. “This is just giving everyone the top line.”
Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, said Trump’s plan to slash funding for federal agencies to free up money for the Pentagon showed he was not putting American working families first.
“A $54 billion cut will do far-reaching and long-lasting damage to our ability to meet the needs of the American people and win the jobs of the future,” Pelosi said. “The president is surrendering America’s leadership in innovation, education, science and clean energy.”
In a speech to conservative activists on Friday, Trump promised “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.”
A second official said the State Department’s budget could be cut by as much as 30 percent, which would force a major restructuring of the department and elimination of programs.
The United States spends about $50 billion annually on the State Department and foreign assistance.
More than 120 retired U.S. generals and admirals urged Congress on Monday to fully fund U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid, saying that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.”
Trump has said previously he would expand the Army to 540,000 active-duty troops from its current 480,000, increase the Marine Corps to 36 battalions from 23 – or as many as 10,000 more Marines – boost the Navy to 350 ships and submarines from 276, and raise the number of Air Force tactical aircraft to 1,200 from 1,100.
He has not said where he would place the extra hardware and forces or made clear what they would be used for. The United States has been shutting some of its military bases in recent years.
Trump has also said he would bolster the development of missile defenses and cyber capabilities. Last week, he told Reuters the United States had “fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity.” He pledged to ensure that “we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
Trump also said on Monday he would talk about his plans for infrastructure spending in a speech to Congress on Tuesday. “We’re going to start spending on infrastructure big,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan, Idrees Ali and David Alexander; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
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