President Donald Trump speaks during a full honors welcoming ceremony for Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon, July 25, 2019.
President Donald Trump speaks during a full honors welcoming ceremony for Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon, July 25, 2019.

PENTAGON - U.S. President Donald Trump may not be done building up the country's military.

Speaking at a welcoming ceremony at the Pentagon for newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday, Trump hinted he is planning to continue to increase the Defense Department budget.

"We had a budget approved when I first came in, billions and billions of dollars more than it was previously," Trump said. "Then I went to $716 billion."

"And I won't tell you what this one is. I can only tell you it is even more," he added.

A budget deal announced Tuesday by the White House and congressional leaders calls for $738 billion in defense spending in 2020 and another almost $741 billion in 2021.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives approved the deal late Thursday. The U.S. Senate, which must also approve the deal, is set to vote next week.

Before coming to the Pentagon Thursday, Trump expressed support for the agreement on Twitter, telling lawmakers they "should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets."

But in his comments during Esper's welcoming ceremony, Trump said he wanted to give the military more, "ensuring American dominance across every war-fighting domain."

"We're building new tanks and ships and submarines and planes and missile systems to ensure that our warriors operate with unrivaled capability in conflict," he said. "We've upgraded our nuclear [capability] very, very powerfully. … Pray to God we never have to use it."

"Any battlefield will be a battlefield on which we win," Trump added.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a full honors welcoming ceremony for him at the Pentagon, July 25, 2019.

'Great power competition'

The 55-year-old Esper is a former soldier and a former secretary of the Army, and has also worked as a congressional aide and as a lobbyist for Raytheon, the nation's third-largest defense contractor. 
 
He now becomes the Defense Department's first permanent leader since former secretary Jim Mattis resigned in December of last year following differences with Trump over U.S. strategy and troop levels in Syria. And he echoed the administration's message that the country cannot let up on bolstering its military might.

"Great power competition has re-emerged as China and Russia seek to displace the United States and shift the balance of power and their favor," Esper said Thursday. "Iran continues to sow discord and threaten its neighbors throughout the Middle East."

"We will continue to strengthen our military and deter conflict in order to preserve the peace and advance America's interests," he added.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, and others, applaud during a full honors welcoming ceremony for Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon, July 25, 2019.

Islamic State

In addition to competition with Russia and China, and growing tensions with Iran, Esper is faced with an ongoing insurgency by supporters of the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria, and with pressure to help wind down the almost 18-year war in Afghanistan.

In a statement earlier Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the U.S. remained committed to a "conditions-based drawdown."

Pompeo also said that he had dispatched the country's highest-ranking military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, along with Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, to Kabul to discuss the next steps in the peace process.

 Separately Thursday, the Senate confirmed Dunford's replacement, current Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley.

Milley will take over as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in October, when Dunford's term comes to an end.