The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters Tuesday that Pentagon officials are “doing our best to avoid” furloughs of the Department of Defense’s 800,000 civilian employees, but he said that the department is still uncertain whether the 14 days now planned can be reduced.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel  “has about on a daily basis asked us if 14 is the right number, with the idea that we’d like to furlough as little as possible,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a lunch in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

“He’s challenged us to keep looking,” Dempsey added. “I don’t know if we’re going to find the opportunity to avoid it entirely, but we would certainly like to do so.”

The Defense Department is trying to maintain rough parity in furloughs across the department while balancing the military services’ varied perspectives. The Navy has said it can make budget cuts mandated by the sequester without furloughs, while Army officials say the war in Afghanistan and other priorities make it nearly impossible to make the cuts without furloughs.

“It’s heart wrenching that we’re out at the point where we have to furlough those civilian counterparts who work just as hard as their uniformed counterparts,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey said a final decision might not come until later in May.

He also warned that damage to the force readiness brought by budget cuts could turn into retention problems down the road as service members leave the force

“Over time, and unless we get our budget house in order … I will be concerned about atrophying skills and readiness,” Dempsey said.