Our political leaders face a big moment. Dangerous cuts to our defense budget are slated to take effect on Jan. 3, 2013. If Congress and the president do nothing, this budget time bomb will detonate, creating severe, long-term problems for national security.
The Budget Control Act (BCA) mandates more than a trillion-dollar cut in federal spending. The lion's share, 43 percent, will come from Pentagon accounts even though defense makes up just 11 percent of total federal spending.
Under former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, the Pentagon absorbed cuts of $400 billion (called "efficiencies") starting in 2009. Last year, the new defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, acceded to a tranche of BCA-directed spending cuts totaling more than $400 billion.
The second step of the BCA forces another half-trillion-dollar cut onto defense. There is no strategic analysis to indicate how such reductions possibly can be accommodated without weakening the defense of the nation. Indeed, the $500 billion sequester eschews all strategic thought. Rather, it insists on a "blind" 9 percent across-the-board cut in Pentagon accounts.
The size and nature of the cuts cannot help but have a detrimental effect on the readiness of America's military and the long-term viability of our defense industrial base. In the words of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it poses "an unacceptable risk" -- one that unnecessarily will tempt our enemies.
Anyone surveying the world situation without rose-colored glasses can see a troubled globe still filled with adversaries. And those adversaries are growing in capability. Mr. Panetta himself has warned of severe consequences if Congress fails to head off the defense sequestration. In April testimony on Capitol Hill, he described the future military as inevitably "a hollow, unbalanced or weaker force" unless lawmakers act to remove "the shadow of sequestration."
Unfortunately, key leaders of the Senate -- and even the commander in chief himself -- appear to think there are issues more important than maintaining the national defense. They are not fighting to "solve" the problem of excessive cuts to defense, no matter how "blind" and deleterious they may be, because they do not regard the sequester as excessive. Instead, they see it as a golden opportunity, a way to reduce defense spending significantly, far beyond what they could achieve through the normal legislative process, without leaving any fingerprints.
Lawmakers worried about our future force have criticized the president as being "missing in action," too tied up in campaigning for re-election to lead a charge on Capitol Hill to restore adequate funding for the Pentagon. But the president's lack of leadership on the issue does not arise from dithering, distraction or failure to pay attention.
Indeed, he has served notice that he will veto any legislative attempt to avoid the "fiscal cliff." Clearly, the president sees the BCA as a no-lose proposition, a vehicle that will force Congress either to raise taxes (to avoid sequester) or to accept the scheduled slashing of defense. The president seems quite content with either of these outcomes.
Thus, it's up to Congress to be the responsible party in Washington. And time is running out. Lawmakers must shift into overdrive to find a way out of the BCA-induced death spiral for our defense.
What's needed is for Congress to sit down and agree on a real budget, one that sets intelligent spending priorities. And maintaining a strong national defense should always be a top federal priority.
Congress needs no new tools or powers to pass a budget. All it needs is the will to meet this basic responsibility.
The sooner Congress resolves its three-years-and-counting budget impasse, the better. Each additional day of delay makes it more difficult for defense suppliers and military leaders to plan ahead in a very risky world.
Sequestration hurts defense now,and can cripple our security for decades to come. Gambling with the readiness and safety of America is not leadership; it is an abdication of responsibility.
• Steven P. Bucci is senior research fellow for Defense and Homeland Security at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).