The Pentagon needs to take a look at the need for overseas bases, deployments, and exercises as the country grapples with the fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and other priorities, the military’s top officer said Dec. 2.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, speaking at a virtual Brookings Institution event, said the Defense Department’s budget, after years of growth, will “start flattening out,” and “could actually decline significantly.” While a 5 percent level of real growth would be “ideal” to fund modernization and readiness programs, “I don’t anticipate that it will happen.”
“Your military is dependent upon a national economy,” Milley said. “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. So the most important priority that you need is to take care of the COVID piece, get that behind us, and breathe new life into the economy.”
Milley said the Defense Department needs to adjust its priorities to ensure it can optimize the money it does get, he said.
“We have to really take a hard look at what we do, where we do it,” he said. “… For example, there’s a considerable amount of money that the United States expends on overseas deployments, or 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 national security interest? Is every one of those exercises that we do really, critically important? Real hard looks at everything that we do, I think, is warranted.”
The comments come as the U.S. is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and is also looking to downsize the number of personnel based across Europe. The Pentagon, under direction from former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, is also undergoing “zero-based reviews” of each combatant command to determine the correct force structure for each.
Milley’s warning is the latest among senior U.S. military officials that tough budget decisions are coming. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr, in his “Accelerate Change or Lose” memorandum in August wrote that future budget pressures “will require the most difficult force structure decisions in generations. We cannot shy away from these decisions,” he wrote.