The Pentagon’s top military officer on Friday said the department needs to increase its use of war games and exercises to make critical decision on modernization priorities facing potential budget constraints in the near future.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told attendees at the Military Reporters & Editors conference that growing power competition with China and Russia will require the Pentagon to rigorously test potentially capabilities to maximize return on investment for modernization programs.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“We’re at the point now where the combination of challenges, the erosion of our competitive advantage and a projection of flatline resources is going to have to cause us to think our way out of this problem. The methodology for thinking about that problem is this exercises, war games and experimentation,” Dunford said.

Dunford said the department is not expecting continual budget increases, and anticipates using war games to better inform decisions about where the services should spend their modernization funds.

“What we want to be able to do in 2021 or 2022 is talk about ‘okay, we need to make investments in space, cyberspace, maritime and so forth, and we actually don’t have sufficient resources to make the investments in all of these cylinders of excellence,’ Dunford said. “So how are we going to make the choice between a dollar in cyber, a dollar in resiliency for space, a dollar in the electromagnetic spectrum, increasing our submarines’ ability to operate. We’re going to have to make those decisions based on the appreciation for the outcome of achieving campaign objectives with certain inventory of capabilities and capacities inside the joint force.”

Dunford said this approach will be based on ensuring the U.S. retains technological overmatch and China and Russia make increasing investments in artificial intelligence, cyber, hypersonic missile and electromagnetic spectrum capabilities.

“Because the competitive advantage has eroded, in my judgment, the secretary [of defense] is going to have to be much more focused on the guidance he gives. He not only has to prioritize the allocation of resources as we execute the budget, but he’s got to five, seven or 10 years before that make sure the collective efforts of the service’s developing capabilities that we need tomorrow are going to result in us having a competitive advantage on the backside,” Dunford said.

The joint staff is is also near completion of a new document that would translate the Pentagon’s latest national defense strategy into a future operational concept for employment, according to Dunford.

“That document has to drive the path of capability development. That document has to be the basis for our exercises and our wargaming. And I will go the secretary in the coming weeks and say here are the priorities for us in the coming 24 months for exercises, here’s the priority for experimentation,” Dunford said.