WASHINGTON — The Pentagon expects to request 3-5 percent base budget growth above inflation every year from 2019 through 2023, a dollar figure the nation's top defense voices say is the bare minimum needed to maintain America's military capabilities at current levels.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that anything less than 3 percent growth annually could lead to America falling behind near-peer competitors such as China or Russia.

The Department of Defense now believe it needs annual growth of "3 percent just to maintain the competitive level," Dunford said, adding they "need at least 5 percent for several years to come, before we can be competitive.

How many years is several? Mattis said he expects to ask for base budget growth "along the lines of close to 5 percent growth, 3 to 5 percent growth for 2019 to '23."

And 3 percent must represent the floor, Dunford added, saying: "We know now that continued growth in the base budget of at least 3 percent above inflation is the floor necessary to preserve just the competitive advantage we have today, and we can’t assume our adversaries will remain still."

Under the first budget request from the Trump administration, the Pentagon’s budget rose $18.5 billion more than the Obama administration projected for 2018 — a sizable increase for most government agencies, but relatively small for the DoD, especially in light of promises from President Donald Trump that he would rebuild the military.

SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., spent much of the hearing poking at Mattis and Dunford on the fact that, to the chairman, that budget increase does not do enough for the military. Noting that the Trump budget plan already requires busting the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, McCain, who has called for Pentagon funding in the realm of $640 billion, made his position clear: ""If we're gonna bust the BCA, why not bust it to what we need it to be?"

Mattis deferred on whether more money was needed, saying: "I'm here to defend the budget as it stands because I can defend every priority there," but acknowledging the various unfunded lists submitted by the services would be a good spot to look if Congress awards the department more money.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a budgetary expert with the American Enterprise Institute, believes Dunford’s estimate that 3 percent needs to be a floor is "an accurate assumption," but one that would only support the status quo by emphasizing readiness and not major recapitalization of capital assets.

But the idea even 5 percent growth above inflation would solve everything doesn’t hold true for Eaglen, who notes that "even expecting Congress to add to Trump's '18 budget just like they did in '17, it won't rebuild readiness and modernization in tandem. This keeps deferring modernization, which only makes the cost go up when they get around to it."

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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