WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army chief of staff has said that if the budget top line in future years either stays the same or decreases, he doesn’t see the service’s end strength dropping, but he also doesn’t see it growing.

“When it comes to what chiefs have to grapple with in a budget, it’s end strength and structure, it’s readiness, and it’s modernization. Those are the three kind of big resource buckets we have,” Gen. James McConville said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Next symposium, held virtually March 16.

“On the end strength and structure, I don’t see us growing at the rate I would like to grow in the end strength. In fact, we are probably going to flatten out end strength where we are right now,” he added.

The troop count is about 486,000 in the active force and a little more than a million in the total force, which McConville noted is the same size force the Army had on 9/11.

“We don’t want to make it any smaller,” he said. “I would like to make it bigger, but what we have to do is prioritize, and I’ve got to make sure the Army is ready to fight today.”

The service wants to grow the force to more than 500,000 active-duty soldiers by 2028, with a current plan of adding 1,000-1,500 soldiers per year. But it appears unlikely the flat budgets expected in the near future will be enough for the service to both grow the force and modernize it.

The Army is taking a hard look at readiness, McConville said, and that includes looking for ways to effectively train the forces using less money. One step the service has taken involves focusing on training smaller units, which is less expensive, he explained.

“So if you get more readiness out of doing small unit-level training and then your combat training centers to get the higher level of training, we might be able to be more efficient with the money that we spend on readiness,” he said.

Army leaders have been adamant they will not use modernization as the bill payer for readiness again, which it has historically done, because the need to transform the force has become too critical and many of the modernization efforts are already deep into development and prototyping efforts.

“I believe that we must modernize the Army,” McConville said. “Every 40 years the Army needs to transform. It did in 1940, it did in 1980 and we’re in 2020 right now. I think I owe it to my successors that I have the Army on a good path to transformation, and we will see many of the systems we’re talking about getting fielded in 2023.”

If the Army takes deeper cuts, it could mean some modernization priorities take a hit to save the most critical future capabilities in development.

“I believe we’ll look at continuing to fully resource-selected, [cross-functional team] efforts that are deemed especially critical even under a significant top-line reduction,” Lt. Gen. James Pasquarette, the Army’s G-8 chief, said last fall. Cross-functional teams manage each of the service’s top modernization priorities under Army Futures Command, the four-star command set up a few years ago to modernize the force.

Pasquarette said he couldn’t share what those critical programs would be, adding that at this point, Army leadership doesn’t know. But Army Futures Command chief Gen. Mike Murray “will be intimately, personally involved” in a review of priorities “if it gets to that point with the Army leadership. I’m the guy that has some thoughts and recommendations, who would adjust the resources in response to those decisions,” Pasquarette said.

The Army has already gone through two and a half years of deep budget scrubs through its “night court” process, which seeks to find funding areas in the budget that don’t align with the National Defense Strategy and the service’s modernization efforts, and move those dollars into accounts that meet service priorities. In the Army’s first night court, the chief, secretary, vice chief and undersecretary presided over decisions — big and small, easy and tough — for roughly 600 programs, shifting $33 billion from programs across the fiscal 2020 through fiscal 2024 five-year plan.

In FY20, the Army invested $8.6 billion in modernization efforts and, across the next five years, is investing a total of $57 billion, a 137 percent increase from the previous year’s five-year plan.

The Army found another 80 programs or so to scale back or cancel to free up funding in FY21, but service leadership has admitted it’s getting harder to find low-hanging fruit in the process.