As Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford prepares to step down this summer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he hopes his predecessor makes choices that favor capability over capacity when required by budget restraints, he said May 29.

The Defense Department has “done the math” to prove that it requires between 3 and 5 percent real growth over inflation in the fiscal year 2020 defense budget to meet both its capability and capacity requirements, Dunford said at a Wednesday event at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks May 29 at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Defense Dept. screenshot)

That requirement has also been used by several lawmakers to justify a potential $750 billion defense budget for 2020, the topline submitted in the presidential budget request and authorized by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last week (Defense Daily, May 23).

But as budget battles heat up on Capitol Hill with a Democratic-led House wary to spend so much on defense and a return to spending caps, Dunford noted that “you have to make tough choices” and encouraged his successors to prioritize quality over quantity. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was confirmed May 24 to become the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Dunford retires later this year.

“If we’re going to grow capacity, you need to do it in a way where it is meaningful … balanced capability, and when you have to make a choice between capacity and capability, I would go with capability,” Dunford said.

“I wouldn’t grow the force in a way that exceeds what we predict is going to be sustainable,” he added.

Dunford, who was commissioned in 1977, said he has seen the U.S. military “get that wrong twice in my career.” But the Defense Department has prioritized capability since 2015, he noted, singling out investments made in space, cyberspace, electronic warfare and other advanced technologies, “even at the cost of not growing perhaps to the degree that we wanted to do meet our commitments.”

“Getting the balance right” between the current operational needs of the Defense Department and those of its future has been a perennial challenge since Dunford first became chairman in 2015, he noted. By then, “it became clear to all of us that we were not balanced in that regard, and we needed to be as attentive to tomorrow as we had been towards meeting the current operational requirements,” he added.

By 2017, thanks to bipartisan spending bills that raised the funding cap levels imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Defense Department could address issues such as ammunition shortfalls, lack of space parts and training funds, Dunford said.

The department also began to invest in its major equipment enterprise, such as aircraft or tactical vehicles or ships, some of which had seen reduced inventory numbers, he added.

The budgets since 2017 have had “a quantifiable impact” on unit level readiness, and unit readiness since he took the chairmanship in 2015 is “significantly better,” Dunford noted. Now, after at least three years of relatively stable funding lines, the time has come to address critical capability gaps and reassert a global advantage.

“I feel very confident today in saying we can protect the homeland, we can meet our alliance commitments and we have a competitive advantage over any potential adversary,” he said. “I feel equally confident in saying that the path we have been on in [fiscal years] ‘17, ‘18, ‘19, and ‘20 has to continue for several more years in order for us to address that competitive advantage issue, which is separate and distinct from unit level readiness.”