Politicians looking for places to save money after an era of spending binges are now set to solve their self-made problem on the back of the U.S. military. Responding to this pressure, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen will conduct a press briefing at 2 p.m. to discuss efficiencies initiatives in the Department of Defense.

Cutting the defense budget without any change in U.S. foreign policy commitments would cause direct harm to those in uniform. Instead of asking, “How we can cut defense?” lawmakers should be asking, “What is required to protect the nation?” and developing a robust defense budget from there. America’s military power should match the commitments that America’s military is expected to keep, which in turn are dictated by how America’s political leaders, over time, define the nation’s interests and responsibilities.

The 112th Congress should answer a fundamental question before even considering the latest defense efficiency and cut proposals: Do current and planned defense budgets allow the U.S. military to fully support the national security strategy without jeopardizing readiness or core military capabilities?

In June, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell stated, “The bottom line is for us to be able to continue to do all of the things that are going to be asked of us, we need to be as big and as well-equipped as we have been. And you can’t do that on 1 percent real growth.”

Members of Congress often like to say they are simply getting rid of waste or cutting government bureaucracy. Everyone is for making the Pentagon more efficient, but no one wants to hurt the troops. Yet that is exactly what will happen if Congress isn’t careful.

Those calling for defense cuts also tend to ignore the reality that defense has already been significantly cut over the past two years. Over 50 major programs for modern, upgraded systems were canceled in last year’s defense budget because of cost constraints. The plan to give tomorrow’s forces yesterday’s equipment should be unacceptable to all Americans.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the nation in August: “It is important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign leads to steep and unwise reductions in defense. The current and planned defense budgets—which project modest but steady growth—represent the minimum level of spending necessary to sustain a military at war and to protect our interests and future capabilities in a dangerous and unstable world.” Gates has also said that his single “greatest worry is that we will do to the defense budget what we have done before. That is, to slash it in an effort to find some kind of a dividend to put the money someplace else.”

Thankfully, U.S. Representative Buck McKeon (R–CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, agrees. John Holly, a spokesman for McKeon, said, “Mr. McKeon doesn’t want to see any savings generated with the military services harvested for other spending outside of the Department of Defense. Due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the need to develop a force structure capable of meeting future threats, he wants any savings to be reinvested into higher national security priorities.”

Congress should support the Secretary of Defense in his effort to grow the defense budget modestly and allow any savings generated by the military services to be reinvested into higher priorities, including modernization.

The time to rebuild the military is now. America’s enemies will likely exploit areas of weakness, attacking precisely those areas where the country is least prepared. But maintaining a broad range of capabilities will minimize these risks. As President Reagan clearly knew, weakness invites aggression and challenge.