In a classic case of closing the barn door after the horses have bolted, the newly appointed secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, and retiring Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen held a joint press -conference this past Thursday in which they decried the impending cuts to the defense budget made likely by the debt ceiling deal. In particular, they complained that, if the still-to-be-appointed joint committee of House and Senate members is unable to reach an agreement on how to trim $1.5 trillion more over the next decade from the federal budget, or Congress as a whole refuses to pass the committee’s recommendations, the automatic $500 to $600 billion in defense cuts that could be mandated by the debt -agreement would be “disastrous” and “unacceptable.” Indeed, for just FY 2013 alone, the automatic cuts could result in defense spending being slashed by approximately $100 billion from the administration’s own projected figure in last winter’s budget submission​—​a cut of nearly 20 percent.

Of course, one reason these additional cuts would be disastrous is that the administration​—​along with members of Congress​—​has already accepted as a done deal the agreement’s initial cut to “security” spending that will likely reduce defense accounts by some $25 to $30 billion for next year and $330 to $350 billion over the next ten.

Coming on the heels of $400 billion already cut from defense by the administration in its first two years, the Pentagon is looking at the prospect of trying to maintain a defense capability second to none, with global responsibilities and new threats on the horizon (Iran, China), shorn of $1.3 trillion over the next decade it expected to have just three years ago. It is simply not the case that defense has not been “on the table” when it comes to deficit reduction efforts. Indeed, military budgets have been on the table since the 1990s’ “peace dividend.” One only wishes that were also true for entitlements.

Moreover, these cuts come at the worst time. The American military has been ridden hard for a decade and now faces the prospect of being put away wet. As the recent hearings on readiness before the House Armed Services Committee showed, this is a military that is slipping​—​and in some cases has already slipped​—​into a state that leaves it unprepared for any new major contingency.

Nor is this news. Just one year ago, the bipartisan panel Congress created to review the Pentagon’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review​—​headed by former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former defense secretary William Perry​—​concluded that “there is a significant and growing gap between the ‘force structure’ of the military​—​its size and its inventory of equipment​—​and the missions it will be called on to perform in the future.” Instead of cutting defense, there exists an “urgent necessity of recapitalizing and modernizing the weapons and equipment inventory of all the services.” The fact that everyone assumes that the debt deal’s initial cut of some $330 billion from the Pentagon’s coffers doesn’t amount to much reflects just how far we’ve come in ignoring the true state of the American military. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan sketched the decline in American culture a quarter century ago when he noted that we were “defining deviancy down.” That is, we were lowering the bar for what was once considered unacceptable behavior, and giving a pass to things society once frowned upon. Well, welcome to the world of defining defense down.

While the defense budget has grown substantially over the past decade, most of that increase has gone to fighting two wars (wars that Congress authorized by large margins), paying for the men and women who are at war, and maintaining the aging equipment they use. Undoubtedly, there are savings to be made in Pentagon programs like TRICARE for Life, the military’s health care plan. But even here, getting that program into sensible order will save at most a few billion annually​—​nothing on the order of the kind of “savings” required by the current arbitrary and mandated cuts.

No, to meet the hundreds of billions in reductions set by the debt agreement, the only real alternative will be to cut the size of the active-duty force, strip it of some capabilities, and cancel or greatly reduce the procurement of new platforms and weapons systems. The result will be a military that is smaller and less capable of meeting present and rising dangers. In the words of incoming Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey, there’s a “very high risk” to following this path. Yet, right now, we seem to be doing so blindly. As a first order of business, and well before the Joint Committee reports in late November, Congress and the appropriate oversight committees should be demanding to know from the administration and the military precisely what those very high risks are. We believe an honest assessment of those risks will lead to the assessment that the price of these cuts will be the inability to respond effectively to a real national security crisis—and that this is a cost to peace and security that we are unwilling to pay. And then Congress has to act to ensure that these planned defense cuts do not stand.

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