There is I believe a powerful public sentiment in this country that in a world of mounting violence, widespread national instability and rampant terrorism, our security is highly dependent on the thin line of volunteer military who fight our battles around the globe, often paying a fearful price for their service.
But that sentiment, as strong as it is, seems to carry little weight in Congress where the rush to downsize the military, driven by concerns about the budget deficit, is getting out of hand. One prominent admiral has even suggested that reducing the soldier count by 200,000 more - in addition to the 100,000 reduction already in the works - would cover the entire sequester for the Defense Department. I am concerned about Navy officers recommending cutbacks in Army personnel. The primary thrust of the Goldwater-Nichols military reform of 1986 was to forge a JOINT military, but in the face of budget cuts, parochialism is again rearing its ugly head.
There is a perception that the exodus from Afghanistan will give us another peace dividend as happened when the Soviet Union collapsed. I doubt it. Everywhere I see great potential for trouble. We left Iraq which is on the brink of anarchy. Afghanistan may well disintegrate as our troops pull out. War could break out in Korea. Tensions between China and its neighbors could spark open conflict. We have troops trying to promote stability in dozens of trouble spots around the world, any one of which could blow up at any time.
The Navy and the Air Force budgets are largely off limits because of their reliance on high tech gadgetry that Congress loves to fund. Over a long career in the Army, I watched the influx of advanced technologies with both awe and a certain amount of skepticism. Without question, we have used technology to great advantage in the military. The growing use of drones, for example, enables us to take out terrorists without risking the lives of our people. But today as in previous eras, the notion that big cannons and mighty ships and fast airplanes can win wars is fallacious. To defeat a brave, determined enemy, and we have many today, you must have boots on the ground.
There is now talk of reducing the Army to 490,000. That would be a bit more than what we had on the eve of 9/11, but it is not in my book anywhere what we need to guarantee our nation's security. My friends at Army Magazine have long maintained that the baseline should be 700,000, and that seems about right to me.
I know Congress needs to reduce spending, but there was prudent ways to do that without compromising national defense - such as shutting down production of unneeded weapons systems and surplus military installations. The time has come for our elected leaders to treat military funding as a national security issue, not a big pork barrel.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.