WASHINGTON — Pentagon planners need a “reality check” about future defense budgets and must accept that military dollars may be drying up, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday.

“I suspect that, at best, the Pentagon’s budgets will start flattening out. There’s a reasonable prospect that they could actually decline significantly, depending on what happens” with the broader economy, Gen. Mark Milley said at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution.

“In an ideal world, I believe that we would need 3 percent to 5 percent sustained level of real growth in order to continue the modernization programs and readiness programs, and so on, that we have,” Milley added. “But that’s also not necessarily going to happen, and I don’t anticipate that it will happen. So we have to — we the uniforms, we here at the Pentagon, civilian and military alike — we’ve got to do a quick reality check on the national budget and what is likely to happen in the not too distant future.”

His comments are not likely a surprise to defense watchers, as there was a growing consensus for most of this year that even if President Donald Trump was reelected, defense spending was likely to be flat. But Milley’s prediction is a concrete acknowledgement that as the department works on its fiscal 2022 budget request, it must look for ways to save money.

It’s unclear where savings will come from, but the country’s top officer did say savings can come from drawing down facilities and exercises overseas — comments that may set off alarm bells for U.S. allies and partners.

The department must “take a hard look at what we do, where we do it,” he said. “There’s a considerable amount that the United States expends on overseas deployments, on overseas bases and locations, etc. 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?

“Hard looks, real hard looks at everything that we do, I think is warranted. And I have no problem in leading us through that to the extent that we can.”

In the short term, Milley’s predictions seem likely to come true. On Monday, Defense One reported that the Pentagon’s budget top line for FY22 is currently set at $722 billion, roughly 2 percent higher than what the military requested in FY21; department officials have argued for several years that anything less than 3-5 percent real growth year over year is effectively flat.

While that budget figure may change when the incoming Biden administration gets its hand on it, the figure is a telling sign that even an administration that has made “rebuilding the military” a key plank of its tenure is looking to cut costs.

More broadly, Milley cast the defense budget as just one part of the overall economic health of the nation, and seemed to say that after the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn that it has caused, the military must accept its place on the list of priorities.

“I believe you have to have a very strong and capable military. But you also have to have a very 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 — all things well beyond the purview of the Department of Defense,” he said.

“Your military is dependent upon a national economy. And we have had a significant pandemic. We’ve had a downturn and an economic situation nationally for almost going on a year now. We’ve got significant unemployment and so on and so forth. So the most important part that you need to do is take care of the COVID piece, get that behind us and breathe new life into the economy. Once you do that, then you can put additional monies into the military.”

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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