09/10/2014 11:34 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Military Cutbacks

There is a great debate afoot in the nation's capital about the downsizing of the U.S. military in a time when new and more ominous threats seem to be emerging on every hand. The Russians are rustling their sabers in Ukraine, the Chinese are challenging our aircraft in Asia and yet another force of Islamic terrorists is on the march in the Mideast.

President Obama had made a big deal out of extricating our troops from Iraq and is now doing the same with Afghanistan. But it is clear our attempt at nation building in Iraq is not finished and we may soon discover the same about Afghanistan. If those nations dissolve into chaos and anarchy, all of our sacrifice will be in vain and the world will be a more perilous place. The rising threat of the nihilistic Islamic force trying to forge a new regime of blood and terror across Iraq and Syria only underscores the challenge we face.

While all this is going on, Congress is chopping back on military spending with little consideration of the potential consequences. Already, the U.S. Army is being cut from an Iraq-Afghanistan peak of 566,000 to about 450,000 and the budget calls for further cuts.

But calculating the actual numbers of boots on the ground requires care. As with all government agencies, the Pentagon is relying more and more on private sector contractors to perform many basic functions. Overall, there are actually fewer people on the federal payroll today -- about 2 million -- than when Ronald Reagan was president -- 2.3 million. But that doesn't mean the government is smaller. Many jobs once performed by federal employees are today being performed by private contractors.

The Defense Department for example has about 800,000 civilian workers plus about 700,000 full time contract employees. The Pentagon is spending about $300 billion a year on private contractors that perform a variety of functions that used to be done by people in uniform. This was happening way back when I commanded military bases -- Forts Gordon and Huachuca -- and I thought then and now it made good sense. We needed our military personnel training for combat missions, not cooking breakfast or cleaning living quarters. Contracting out many support functions enhanced our fighting ability.

But the question how many people we should have in uniform remains. The specter of dangerous adversaries around the globe pursuing aggressive actions against our interests underscores the critical need to keep our defense strong. Since 2010, inflation adjusted defense spending has fallen 21 percent -- a draconian cutback. We are spending a paltry 3.4 percent of our gross domestic product on defense and it is scheduled to fall even more. Like many others, I believe it should be at least 4 percent and a substantial portion of that should go to support boots on the ground. Air power is important, but ground forces decide the outcome.

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.