AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Congress was in a generous mood last week. It approved spending increases across the board. But the biggest winner was the military. Listen here to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIM MATTIS: Today we received the largest military budget in history.
CHANG: NPR's Greg Myre looks at how the Pentagon plans to spend it.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Congress is giving the military an additional $61 billion this year. That's roughly Russia's entire military budget. It's more than the Trump administration requested. And it rivals two big spending surges during the George W. Bush administration.
TODD HARRISON: And in both of those cases, the increase in funding was due to war-related operations.
MYRE: Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the military has just six months to spend this extra money before the fiscal year ends in September. So can they do it?
HARRISON: If there's one thing the Department of Defense is good at spending, it's spending money quickly. And so I am fully confident they'll be able to spend the money before it expires.
MYRE: To help, Congress is letting the military spend a bigger chunk at the end of the year than is normally allowed. The Pentagon and its many supporters in Congress say this money is badly needed because budget constraints imposed in 2011 have eroded military readiness.
MAC THORNBERRY: The first job of the federal government is to defend the country, but we have cut too much in the last eight years and we have to make up for some of that ground that's been lost.
MYRE: Mac Thornberry is the Texas Republican who heads the House Armed Services Committee.
THORNBERRY: As big as this year's defense budget looks, it's not enough to fix the problems. But it is enough to start to turn the corner to fix the problems.
MYRE: The overall defense budget clocks in at $700 billion this year. The Navy will buy 14 new ships. The Air Force is getting 90 of its most advanced fighter jets, the F-35. And the Army will receive dozens of new helicopters. But there's also an army of critics who say military spending is too high. Regardless of where one stands on this question, there's a broad consensus that the herky-jerky process in recent years makes it very difficult for the military to plan.
BOB HALE: If I were the comptroller, I would want a full year. I would want a normal process. I would want less budget uncertainty.
MYRE: Bob Hale was the comptroller of the Defense Department from 2009 to 2014. He's now an adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton.
HALE: By far, the biggest thing that was a thorn in my side was the budget instability. And I don't see it ending.
MYRE: The budget deal also gives the military another bump next year. Congressman Thornberry believes this will remove some of the uncertainty and establish a new spending baseline.
THORNBERRY: The way that the Pentagon and many of us in Congress are looking at this is we've got some catch up to do these two years.
MYRE: This big hike in military spending has broad support from Republicans and Democrats. But Harrison, the budget analyst, says new weapons and healthcare costs keep rising rapidly. Just to maintain current levels, he says, the Pentagon needs to spend about 3 percent above inflation every year.
HARRISON: We're going to have to make a decision as a nation about our overall defense strategy. If you want to maintain the same level of involvement in the world, then you're going to need to fund a larger military.
MYRE: And this comes as budget forecasters predict annual deficits of a trillion dollars in the near future. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.