There is considerable misunderstanding about what the new debt ceiling law does to the area of defense. Many people are describing the required defense cuts in terms of dollar-figure reductions. A recent article appearing in The Cable, for example, referred to a $350 billion reduction for defense.

These descriptions are abstract at best, because the law itself does not give a baseline dollar amount from which cuts would be made. Instead, it gives two scenarios for cuts to take place: spending caps or automatic spending cuts.

Spending caps. The debt ceiling law establishes dollar-figure caps on spending. These figures are applied to broad categories of spending: security, non-security and discretionary. Defense falls under the security and discretionary categories but constitutes only a portion of both. The caps are assigned to individual fiscal years, covering fiscal year 2012 through fiscal year 2021. While an analyst may assert that the assigned numbers imply a relative reduction in defense spending, this means the analyst is making assumptions, including choosing a baseline from which to cut. Another way an analyst could make a guess is simply to assign proportions of the broader security and discretionary spending categories to defense. Doing either of these things is still just a guess at the final amount of defense cuts.

Automatic cuts. The law establishes a goal of reducing federal deficits by $1.5 trillion, while requiring automatic spending reductions of $1.2 trillion if the goal is not met. In the latter case, half of the automatic spending reductions would have to come out of the defense account. Again, the numbers for deficit reduction and automatic spending cuts are not linked to a baseline amount for comparison, so it is impossible to know exactly how much will be cut.

Thus, one should immediately dismiss assertions that any analyst knows the specific dollar figure. Rather, defense will be funded at a level consistent with the dollar figure of the cap in any applicable fiscal year. However, it would also be wrong to assert that the law lacks specificity. The specifics are found in the dollar figures assigned to the caps in the first instance and deficit and spending constraints in the second instance (automatic cuts).

Unfortunately, the desire to explain the implications for defense dollar reductions can lead to other misleading descriptions. The article in The Cable asserts that “there are no actual defense cuts” required by the law. This is implausible.

For example, no serious analyst would conclude that under a security spending cap of $684 billion in fiscal year 2012, not a single dollar would come from the defense portion of that category. This is because defense makes up roughly 75 percent of “security” spending, as that term is defined by the law. In the event that the $1.5 trillion deficit-reduction target is not reached, the automatic spending cuts would kick in, and $600 billion would have to be cut from whatever figure applies to the defense account at that time. It is beyond implausible to say that the debt ceiling law will not impose a large-scale reduction in the defense account under the automatic cut.

The argument that the law does not represent policy is equally misleading. The fact is that the automatic spending reduction for defense is required by the law if things stand as they are now. This makes it the policy of the United States, and it is backed by the force of law.

There should be no doubt in the minds of anyone in Congress or the public at large that the policy established by the debt ceiling law will strip the military of its ability to secure the vital interests of the United States. The law, unless it is altered or repealed, will do irreparable harm to the United States military.