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Top US general: Pentagon needs 'reality check' for 2021 military spending

Top US general: Pentagon needs 'reality check' for 2021 military spending
© Greg Nash

The highest-ranking military official says the Pentagon needs a “reality check” in crafting the next several defense budgets as other needs facing the U.S. like tackling the coronavirus pandemic take center stage.

“We have to tighten up and take a much harder look at priorities,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyPelosi's risky blunder: Talking about Trump and nuclear war Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Joint Chiefs denounce 'sedition and insurrection' of Capitol attack MORE said during a virtual Brookings Institute event Wednesday.

He estimated that the Pentagon’s budgets will start to flatten out in the next administration with “a reasonable prospect that they could actually decline significantly, depending on what happens.”

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Budget experts long expected defense spending to be flat or decline in 2021, depending on who won the White House.

But with President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenConfirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed Biden's Sunday inauguration rehearsal postponed due to security concerns: report Murkowski says it would be 'appropriate' to bar Trump from holding office again MORE soon to take office, Democrats are expected to tussle among themselves over whether to keep funding steady or to slash it significantly.

Biden and Democratic lawmakers prominent on defense issues have said they do not anticipate big cuts in the coming year, but progressive Democrats see an opportunity for significant cuts to the $740 billion defense budget.

Milley said an ideal spending situation would be a 3 to 5 percent year-over-year growth to keep up Pentagon modernization and readiness programs, “but that’s also not necessarily going to happen, and I don’t anticipate that it will happen.”

“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," he added.

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He said the Defense Department has to take a hard look at the dollars spent on overseas deployments and bases and ask, “Is every one of those absolutely, positively necessary for the defense of the United States?”

He also acknowledged that the U.S. military costs “an enormous amount of money for the American taxpayer,” and “is dependent upon a national economy” that has recently been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent financial downturn, indicating that the military may take a back seat to other needs.

“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 our military," Milley said.