Military Cutbacks: The Perils of Downsizing

As Congress and the White House gird up for another round of budget battles -- by Christmas there will be another standoff about raising the budget ceiling -- it is easy for people to forget that major budget cuts are already in the works. For example, the U.S. Army is preparing to downsize by 40,000 more active duty personnel.

A reasonable person might ask if this is wise given the perilous nature of global affairs. Terrorism is all around us, as are unstable nations -- Russia, North Korea, Iran, China -- beset by economic and social disruptions. History teaches that nations under stress will often embark on military adventures to distract their citizens from their misery. This is not a good time to be cutting back on our defensive capability.

But the cuts have been made and the Army is bearing a disproportionate share of them. This was a conscious decision of the Obama Administration in the wake of our disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan -- perhaps diminished commitment would be more accurate - in favor of the Air Force and Navy. The American people have grown weary of the sight of wounded warriors returning with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress. Our leaders, sensitive to public opinion, prefer a more sanitized version of conflict waged from the sky and sea by missiles, advanced warplanes and drones.

It is good that we have advanced technological capabilities in warfare, but as the Islamic State reminds us daily, reinforcing a hard lesson we learned in Vietnam, you cannot conquer a determined enemy from the air. When the level of threat reaches a tipping point that threatens our national security, and we all agree the enemy must be subdued at whatever cost, you must have boots on the ground, even though that means many of our people will be maimed and killed. At some point, reality supersedes political sensitivity.

To be sure, the Air Force and Navy have legitimate needs. Chronic underinvestment has left the Air Force with planes that average 28 years old. Many of its bombers and tankers are more than 50 years old. The Navy has to figure out how to budget $5 billion per submarine without drastic cuts in its shipbuilding program, and those aircraft carrier battle groups cost a lot of money.

Even so, the cutback of 40,000 active duty Army personnel is a grave mistake that will cost us. It isn't just a number that can be rectified overnight. Those are 40,000 highly trained, experience professionals who have been intensely drilled to work together and support each other under adverse conditions. The thin line of NCOs -- the veteran sergeants who get things done despite the system - will be decimated. You cannot just summon people like that from the unemployment rolls. It takes a generation to develop a cadre of well-trained, well-led and highly motivated troops. When they are gone, they're gone. The really scary part is that everyone who follows the defense budget anticipates more draconian cuts to come.

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.