Sen. John McCain called Monday for a massive boost in defense spending totaling more than $85 billion per year over the next half-decade, saying that is just the beginning of what it will take to restore the U.S. military to a dominant role.
The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman’s plans, detailed in a white paper, are an important marker, laying out defense hawks’ wish list as Congress prepares to debate budget priorities under the Trump administration.
Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said that after years of bleeding, the Pentagon will struggle to fight the war on terrorism while preparing to engage emerging threats in Russia and China.
The Defense Department, he said, needs more fighter aircraft, a giant increase in the number of ships in the Navy, boosts in the number of Marines and Air Force personnel and a major modernization of the Army that has been due for decades.
Mr. McCain also called for ending the budget caps imposed by the 2011 debt deal, which left the Pentagon struggling financially, and wreaked havoc on the budget, forcing Congress to use gimmicks to add money back into the Defense Department.
“Rebuilding our military will not be cheap — $430 billion above current defense plans over the next five years. But the cost of inaction is worse,” Mr. McCain said. “We owe it to our men and women in uniform to chart a better course.”
The Defense Department spent about $580 billion last year. Mr. McCain wants the government to increase that to about $700 billion on defense in fiscal year 2018, rising to $800 billion by 2022.
It’s a major ask for a department already so sprawling that it’s unable to certify its own books and is regularly wracked by spending scandals.
President-elect Donald Trump has signaled that he has his eye on some of the Pentagon’s top contractors, calling the CEOs of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. to Trump Tower to pressure them to cut costs on big-ticket items. Boeing quickly promised to find savings in the replacement Air Force One project, and Lockheed Martin, after some initial reluctance, said it would try to cut costs of the F-35 fighter.
But Mr. Trump also said during the campaign that he opposed the “sequesters” — the nickname given to the spending cuts imposed by the 2011 deficit deal. He also said he would add ships to the Navy and planes to the Air Force and boost troop strength in the Army and Marine Corps.
He said he would ask Congress to “fully offset” the Pentagon’s increases through cuts in the rest of government, though his final defense spending figure remains to be seen.
“As soon as I take office, I will ask Congress to fully eliminate the defense sequester and will submit a new budget to rebuild our military,” he said in a September policy speech on the issue.
On Capitol Hill, the size of military spending has bedeviled lawmakers for years, and the debate fueled several of the shutdown showdowns that have plagued Congress during President Obama’s tenure.
Lawmakers generally fall into three categories: budget-hawk Republicans who say the Pentagon could sustain cuts, defense-hawk Republicans who say the department needs an increase and Democrats who say any increased Pentagon spending should be matched by more money for education, health care and other domestic needs.
With Republicans unable to agree on their own, leaders often had to ask Democrats for support or turned to gimmicks such as shifting defense funding into former war-spending accounts to avoid running afoul of budget rules.
Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill say it’s time to end the war-spending gimmick, but how to do that remains elusive.
Retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, nominated to serve as defense secretary, said at his confirmation hearing last week that he agreed that shifting money from normal operations to war-funding accounts was a problem, but he added that it was up to Congress to figure out how to fix it.
“I can’t tell you how to get there,” he said.
Still, he said, the budget cuts have put American troops at greater risk.
At that hearing, Mr. McCain told him the 2011 deal has to go. “This will not be cheap, but it pales in comparison to the cost of failing to deter a war, or worse, losing one,” he said.
Mr. McCain has used his position on the Armed Services Committee to lead acquisition and procurement reforms and said a funding boost doesn’t mean a blank check.
In his white paper, he said the Pentagon should consider buying a mix of both the most advanced equipment and older tools that are cheaper, but still good enough for some jobs.
As one example, he said even as the Air Force and Navy procure state-of-the-art F-35s, which are fifth-generation fighter jets, they should also be buying more fourth-generation fighters to handle threats that don’t involve “near-peer” major-power adversaries.
Mr. McCain also said the services need to increase their manpower steadily to maintain standards. That means limiting to increases of just 8,000 soldiers and 3,000 Marines each year.
Space warfare, cyberthreats and a modernized nuclear strategy are also on the table, he said.