Pentagon (Photo by Newscom)

Washington’s latest over-used phrase—“rethinking the defense budget”—has, for many policymakers, come to mean “what can we cut next?” On Tuesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs convened to identify solutions to tame the growing defense budget. The thinly veiled premise behind the hearing was to identify what the Administration can cut and which cuts politicians can get behind while trying to appear not to compromise national security.

Congress’s continual evaluation of government spending is vital; it can help identify efficiencies as well as waste, and reprioritize programs to reflect changing needs. Unfortunately, this hearing was less about an objective and accurate assessment of what is required to defend the nation and more about justifying defense cuts already in the cross hairs of a task force established by the committee. The recently released report Debt, Deficits, & Defense: A Way Forward by the Sustainable Defense Task Force was central to the discussion. It outlines measures that, if implemented, would cut up to $960 billion from the Pentagon’s budget between fiscal years 2011 and 2020.

The Task Force recommended reducing all major defense programs, from conventional force structure to command, support, and even infrastructure expenditures. But enacting such recommendations would have dramatic implications for U.S. military superiority, consequences hardly discussed.

The Air Force needs increased funding to modernize its aging inventory of planes, many of which will need to be retired in upcoming years. Recently, Air Force and Navy officials gave Congress a bleak assessment of modernization plans, warning that the military could be 900 fighter jets short of what it will need when 2020 rolls around. This shortfall in fighters is one example of already diminishing resources applied to ever expanding global missions for the military that could have major consequences.

As proposed by Subcommittee witnesses, policymakers could reduce missions as a solution. However, current obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan must be fulfilled because they are vital national security interests. Not to mention what must come first is the decision to reduce missions and foreign policy commitments around the world. Only then can equipment and other items be considered for cuts in defense. In this case, some in Congress are trying to put the cart before the horse. With other federal priorities, this may be acceptable. But when it comes to the nation’s defense and providing the right tools for those in uniform, this approach is downright dangerous.

Everyone is looking for a quick fix as U.S. debt continues to rise. However, reducing the defense budget will have a marginal long-term effect on the national debt. If Congressman Frank’s Task Force was serious about reducing the debt and deficit, it would instead look to the real culprit: out of control entitlement spending.