WASHINGTON — When the Bush administration unveils its annual spending request today, it is expected to ask for a defense budget of $481 billion -- near historic highs, even when adjusted for inflation.
It will also ask for additional funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, taking the cost of those wars this year to close to $165 billion, and will present estimates for next year's costs that would push war spending above the total cost of the Vietnam War.
But if the military's top officers have their way, today's proposal may be only a precursor to a future of even larger defense budgets.
The chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force are gearing up for a long-term campaign to convince Congress and the public that the growing demands of the Iraq war -- plus the administration's aggressive global security ambitions -- require tens of billions more each year to meet the nation's defense needs.
For more than a year, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the outgoing Army chief of staff, has pointed out that defense spending accounts for about 3.8% of the gross domestic product -- a figure that is projected to drop over the next five years, to near the lowest levels since World War II, even though the U.S. is involved in protracted fighting.
He is calling for a wider national debate on whether that percentage should be significantly increased -- and the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force said in interviews last week that they would publicly support that call in upcoming hearings on the defense budget.
"In working that [budget] problem, I believe I'm seeing challenges that leads us to the notion that maybe it's time to have this discussion about a higher percentage of GDP" devoted to defense, Air Force Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley said in a telephone interview during a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It's going to be very, very hard to get where we're going as defined in the [Pentagon's strategic plans] and to do this business on a global scale with the resources that we have."
Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen added: "At 3.8%, it just isn't enough for the strategic appetite, and the strategic appetite is tied directly to the world we're living in."
According to a senior Pentagon official, the Air Force alone is expected to tell Congress that it will need an additional $20 billion per year over the next five years, on top of the White House funding request, just to meet the strategic plans laid out by the Pentagon and the increasing demands resulting from the troop buildup in Iraq.
Questions of sacrifice
It is certainly not unexpected for military officers to seek more money for personnel and weapons systems, defense budget experts said. But the increasingly vocal complaints from all three service chiefs, even as the administration is increasing troop levels in Iraq, add complexity to the debate over the war and the challenges presented by other global adversaries.
It is also, in part, a reflection of a view held by many throughout the armed services that the military is the only U.S. institution bearing the burden of the Iraq war. In interviews and in comments reported by superior officers, many veterans have argued that the U.S. hardly seems like a country at war, with civilians making little sacrifice even as troops put their lives on the line.
That perspective on the war may set up awkward circumstances for the White House and Congress. For the White House, the services' appeal for more funding comes as Democrats argue that repeated deployments to Iraq are leaving the military without the equipment and personnel it needs if other situations arise.
At the same time, congressional Democrats -- whose new House and Senate majorities are largely based on opposition to Bush's Iraq policy -- must also balance that opposition with the public's ongoing support for the troops in harm's way.
"Nobody wants to cut off somebody's body armor or someone's Humvee, or somebody's ability to sustain themselves in Baghdad," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," referring to Democratic concerns that military spending is already too high. "Many people believe that the administration will turn around and say, 'See? They cut money from our troops that are there already.' "
Any increase in military spending above the administration's request would be on top of what is, in inflation-adjusted dollars, one of the biggest defense budgets in history.
But even at those levels, the service chiefs argue that the war's wear and tear on their equipment, along with the strategic planning that calls on them to check such global threats as a rapidly modernizing China, a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly hostile Iran, has begun to outstrip their ability to fund the Army brigades, Air Force wings and Navy strike groups needed to meet all contingencies.
"What I have found in the 18 months I have been here as chief is