In a new Department of Defense report, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, predicted a flat or decreased National Defense budget citing the coronavirus pandemic as the cause. 

The report, which was released by the Pentagon today, shows the interconnectedness of the American economy and our national defense posture. According to General Milley, getting the U.S. economy back on track is the first step to meeting the threats posed by China and Russia. To do that, says Milley, we must first control the virus. 

“We have had a significant pandemic,” General Milley said to DoD News. “We’ve had… an economic situation nationally for almost going on [sic] a year now. We’ve got significant unemployment.”

Solving the issues at home is the first step to being able to fund our military, said Milley. The pandemic has uprooted our national budget and with billions of dollars on the table for a second coronavirus relief package, the money has to come from someplace. But General Milley’s position is resolute: You first attack the pandemic. “Once you do that then you can put additional money into a military,” says the general. 

But it’s a balancing act.

Operation Warp Speed announced today that 20 million vaccine doses could be ready for distribution within the month. Now, multiple companies have shown positive vaccine results and one, Pfizer, has been greenlit by the U.K. government with vaccination beginning in a matter of days, according to the AP

But even with the encouragement of a viable vaccine, Milley says that the defense budget will likely have to flatten or decrease. “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.” 

There’s no doubt that a good chunk of the roughly $700 billion allocated to the DoD this fiscal year will be chewed up by overseas operations, but huge tranches of funding are needed simply to retain our military domination. The DoD has earmarked $56.9 billion for investments in the Air domain, $32.3 billion for the Maritime domain, and another $21.3 billion for munitions alone. Twenty-one billion is allocated for the restoration and building of facilities. 

According to General Milley, a flat budget won’t capsize our defense capabilities. “[It] doesn’t mean that the world’s going to end for us,” he specified. “What that means is that we have to tighten up and take a much harder look at priorities and where we put the moneys [sic] we do get.”

The 2021 budget includes the largest Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation (RDT&E) budget in DoD history, clocking in at $106.6 billion. This budget will largely be consumed by investments in ACE technologies, or Advanced Capabilities Enablers, like Artificial Intelligence, Hypersonics, Microelectronics, and Autonomy. Projects like the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept — a next-gen ICBM-like rocket that can be launched from an aircraft and hit a target anywhere in the world in less than an hour — hint at how the DoD sees future conflicts, More importantly, the hint at the type of funding we’ll need to invest in keeping up with other global powers like Russia and China. 

But Milley sees the military — and our military investments and technology — as part of being a great power, something that also stems from a healthy 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.”

It’s clear that Milley is preparing the DoD for a tightening of the belt. “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?”

But being critical of where and how we deploy does not mean being constrained by our budgets should something happen. Included in the 2021 budget is an additional $69 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations. Sometimes criticized as being a Pentagon slush fund, the OCO provides the DoD with a separate bucket of funding that can be used for funding wartime operations overseas. The 2021 OCO budget is slightly smaller than the previous year’s since it anticipates a smaller footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, a move already underway at the Pentagon. 

At the end of the day says Milley, “we have to… take a hard look at what we do [and] where we do it.”