It is both a blessing and a curse that 2015 was the year we stopped hearing people ask the demoralizing question of whether the United States of America still needed a standing Army. World events—in Syria and Iraq, Ukraine and Russia, in Eastern Africa and on the Korean Peninsula—changed the question to one equally demoralizing: How much Army can we afford?Affordability shouldn’t be how a powerful nation decides the size of the one military branch with the unique capability of sustained dominance on the ground anywhere on the globe. Ours is a force that can mobilize and quickly respond to man-made and natural crises with a customized set of capabilities to meet any demand and also provide foundational services used by the other military services, civilian agencies and allies.Affordability, however, appears to be the primary driver in deciding the Army’s size as a result of assumptions—now widely agreed to no longer be accurate—that peace was almost upon us after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.The nation needs a strong Army as a safeguard against risk, a situation in which we always hope for the best while planning for the worst. Nothing displays American power like the boots of U.S. soldiers on the ground, and there are several examples. Army Special Forces soldiers just happened to be in Nepal in April when a devastating earthquake hit. They shifted immediately from their training to helping organize relief and rescue efforts. In Africa, about 100 members of the 101st Airborne Division, along with soldiers and researchers from U.S. Army Medical Command, were part of the successful battle to stop the spread of the Ebola virus. In Ukraine and Iraq, soldiers have been on the ground providing training to local forces.Being ready for anything is not a new concept. It was President George Washington who set the framework for a prepared military. In a 1793 message to Congress, he said, “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be ready to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”Gen. George C. Marshall, who liked to quote Washington, wrote in 1945 that the nation needed to be prepared because “we can be certain that the next war, if there is one, will be even more total than this one.”The world is more complex today than when Washington was president or Marshall was the Army chief of staff. Our relationships with even some of our closest traditional allies are strained from a combination of divergent interests, misunderstandings and, frankly, some missteps. National security threats, current and distant, are popping up around the globe, requiring a wide spread of soldiers.While the number of U.S. soldiers in U.S. Central Command has dropped to about 25,000, the Army remains forward-based or deployed with about 2,000 soldiers in South America; about 60,000 in the Asia/Pacific Theater; about 27,000 in Europe; and 1,000 in Africa. Those numbers include vital but small rotational deployments to Eastern Europe as part of an effort to respond to Russian aggression in Crimea, to Asia as part of the so-called Pacific shift, and to Africa.To cover a wider swath of the globe, the Army has turned to innovative ideas such as regionally aligned units and more rotational deployments. In Europe, for example, where U.S. Army bases have been closing, activity sets of tanks and armored vehicles are being prepositioned in Grafenwöhr, Germany, while the deployment of stateside units to Europe has increased. In a show of U.S. capabilities and commitment, Operation Dragoon Ride included a 1,100-mile, 13-day road march from Estonia to Germany, a move that was a combination of public relations and a reminder that the U.S. could respond to Russian aggression.Regionally aligned forces and rotations also have been important in the Pacific, where the Army has been strengthening and growing partnerships through exercises, humanitarian operations and joint training. Some of these exercises have been under the umbrella of Pacific Pathways, a major initiative to create a semi-permanent U.S. Army presence through unit rotations.Earlier this year, we joined Army leaders in warning that the postwar drawdown that was planned no longer made sense in light of new threats. Nothing we’ve said has stopped the decline, with the Army having shed 80,000 active-duty soldiers in the last three years and scheduled to drop another 40,000 by the fall of 2018.The Total Force—active, Army Guard and Army Reserve—stands at just over 1 million, with about 490,000 active, 350,00 Army National Guard and 198,000 Army Reserve soldiers. The total will fall below 1 million within two years, under the best-case forecast for budgets.This may not be the bottom. Army officials have warned that sequestration, the automatic budget cuts threatened if Congress and the White House cannot agree on spending priorities, could reduce the active force to 420,000, leaving a total force of 950,000—or maybe even fewer if reserve components also lose soldiers.The civilian workforce won’t be spared. The 2016 budget would reduce the 209,000 Army civilians by 4,000. Army officials, when announcing in July how they’d allocate the cut of 40,000 soldiers among posts, warned to expect a cut of 17,000 in the civilian workforce.In my estimation and based on my 36 years of service in the Army and 17 years as the Association of the U.S. Army’s president, slipping below a total force of 1 million presents a serious risk to our nation. We can shave the active force as long as what we retain is capable, trained and modernized, and as long as we also have fully trained, equipped and ready troops in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard ready to mobilize. A total force of less than 1 million is inadequate to the task.Doing more with less has long been the soldier way, but there are limits to what can be accomplished by merely trying harder. Our soldiers and their colleagues in the Army’s civilian workforce are understandably weary of always looking for corners to cut, and we need to be concerned about their morale.A smaller Army can be achieved only by resorting to at least some involuntary retirements or separations for soldiers and civilians, something certain to create anxiety in the workforce. It doesn’t help on the anxiety meter for the government to be engaged in a prolonged discussion about cutting personnel costs by reining in pay and benefits. Caps on pay and allowances, increasing the patient share of medical costs and overhauling military retirement might be necessary evils in times of tight budgets, but years of chatter without action on the proposals may be harder on morale than actual reforms.Whatever challenges the Army faces, it can never make a mistake of taking, or allowing others to take, the loyalty and resilience of active, National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers for granted.What should happen in 2016? Three things:- The Army’s drawdown needs to stop, at least temporarily, to give time for serious consideration of myriad threats facing the U.S., and what role ground forces may be required to perform. Such a moratorium might need to be extended through the presidential elections because the next commander in chief will have to make some important budgetary and national security decisions.- Sequestration needs to be repealed as soon as possible, for the peace of mind of our soldiers and civilians, their families, the defense industry that supports our Army, and our citizens and allies. Not having a meat ax hanging over our defense budget also might quell some of the ill winds created by our potential adversaries, who could view inability to guarantee our level of military spending as a sign of weakness.- The nation needs to appreciate why we have, and why we still need, an Army—something that seems easy to forget if you consider the Army’s only purposes to be fighting and winning wars. We are a nation that abhors war. It is incumbent upon those of us who know the Army is there to prevent war as much as fight one to explain the danger that comes from being ill-prepared.We need an Army that can deter war, assure our allies, shape the environment and support civil authorities. Anything less puts our nation at risk.