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Chairman Discusses Future Defense Budgets

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Army Gen. Mark A. Milley is a realist, and he sees future defense budgets, at best, remaining flat or possibly going down significantly in the years ahead.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon yesterday that COVID-19 has hit the nation hard, and that carries over to the budgeting process. The upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic must be countered and remedied before the United States can budget its military to prevail in great power competition.

Great power competition with China and Russia is the main factor in the strategic environment today. 

A ship sails away from another ship in choppy water.
Replenishment Duo
The USS John S. McCain sails away after a replenishment with the USNS Charles Drew in the East China Sea, Oct. 6, 2020.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Markus Castaneda
VIRIN: 201006-N-WI365-1164C

To be a great power requires a strong and capable military to be sure, but it also requires a strong and capable economy. "You have to have a very resilient country as a whole; you have to have a great education system; you've got to have great infrastructure," he said. "You have to look at it as a whole, of which the military is one piece of the whole."

The military is expensive with a budget this fiscal year of $750 billion. But preparing the military to meet the threats of the future while fighting the battles of today would require about 3 to 5 percent real growth each year. "And we would want to have a sustained, predictable, adequate budget in a timely way every year," Milley said. "But that's also not necessarily going to happen, and I don't anticipate that it will happen." 

Pentagon officials must do a quick reality check on the national budget. "I suspect that, at best, the Pentagon's budgets will start flattening out," he said. "There's a reasonable prospect that they could actually decline significantly, depending on what happens in the environment." 

An Army general sits at a table with a Pentagon sign hanging behind him.
Milley Conversation
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff holds a conversation about foreign policy with Brookings Institute Sr. Fellow Michael O'Hanlon via teleconference at the Pentagon, Dec. 2, 2020.
Photo By: Army Master Sgt. Charles E. Burden
VIRIN: 201202-D-HD608-0153

The military is not divorced from the rest of America. The military does not operate in a vacuum. What happens outside the gates affects those inside them. "We have had a significant pandemic," the general said. "We've had … an economic situation nationally for almost going on a year now. We've got significant unemployment."

Moving forward, the nation's most important priority is to take care of the coronavirus pandemic. The United States has to get that behind us and breathe new life into the economy, Milley said. "Once you do that, then you can put additional moneys into a military." 

A woman wearing personal protective equipment prepares medical equipment for incoming COVID-19 patients.
Medical Equipment
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jarimaris Garcia, a registered nurse stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Md., prepares medical equipment for incoming patients within the emergency department of Del Sol Medical Center, El Paso, Texas, Nov. 24, 2020. Northern Command, through Army North, remains committed to providing flexible Defense Department support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in support of the whole-of-America COVID-19 response.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Samantha Hall
VIRIN: 201124-A-SD713-837M

But even if everything goes perfectly in the fight against COVID-19, the military budget will flatten, he said. "That doesn't mean that the world's going to end for us," he said. "What that means is that we have to tighten up and take a much harder look at priorities and where we put the moneys we do get."

The DOD must absolutely optimize the money it will get, and ruthlessly enforce priorities, he said. 

"We have to … take a hard look at what we do [and] where we do it," he said. 

Part of this is looking at overseas footprints. "There's a considerable amount of money that the United States expends on overseas deployments or overseas bases and locations, etc.," Milley said. "Is every one of those absolutely, positively necessary for the defense of the United States? Is every one of them tied to a vital national security interest? Is every one of those exercises that we do really critically important?"

DOD leaders must take hard looks at everything the department does. "I think [it] is warranted, and I have no problem in leading us through that to the extent that we can," he said.

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