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Deficits and efficiency be damned. Pentagon riding high

Way back in 2011, when Republicans, and at least a few Democrats, still cared about budget deficits, Congress and President Barack Obama struck their budget “sequestration” deal, setting limits on how much the nation’s defense and domestic discretionary budgets could grow.

Under that deal, the defense budget for 2018 was supposed to be $548 billion, still more than the next seven nations spend combined. Recently Congress, having decided that deficits don’t matter, set the 2018 defense budget at $700 billion and the 2019 budget at $716 billion. Domestic spending went up as well.

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Sequestration now seems like a joke, and it was. Almost immediately, Congress — urged along by the generals in the Pentagon — decided the military couldn’t make do on a half-trillion dollars. As usual, the Pentagon backed Congress down by making noises about eliminating weapons made in key congressional districts.

Donald Trump was elected president, having criticized Obama for turning the U.S. military into a “disaster.” Obama, following sequestration guidelines and drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did reduce military spending growth. But Trump’s first defense budget request was only 3 percent larger than Obama’s last. Trump’s latest proposal would boost Pentagon spending by 14 percent over two years.

Another big change: The Defense Department released its National Defense Strategy review in January. It calls for a return to great power competition with Russia and China while at the same time maintaining anti-terrorism operations and building a nuclear defense shield. It’s easy to see how that would eat $716 billion a year.

“The money is going from readiness to modernization to nuclear deterrent,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said of the $716 billion budget. “You look at the strategy, and you see where it’s going.”

The budget asks for more ships (including some the Navy didn’t ask for), more planes (including 24 St. Louis-made F/A-18s and 90 of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that Trump has correctly said are overpriced) and more troops (8,500 for the Army, 5,000 for the Navy, 5,800 for the Air Force and 1,000 new Marines).

The troops will get a 2.4 percent raise, too, in line with what private sector wage growth is expected to be. And even though there’s general agreement that the nation has far more military bases than it needs, there will be no new round of base-closing talks.

Not factored into the new military budget was a 2015 Pentagon study that found $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations. Shocked at the report’s findings, “senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results,” the Washington Post reported.

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With the urgency for streamlining operations gone and a deficits-be-damned attitude abroad in Washington, the military is back to its Reagan-era budgetary glory days. Who needs a parade?

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch