While America tries to reduce its debt and get its financial house in order, it should not take a penny more out of defense, argues House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R–CA) in The Wall Street Journal.

“Priority No. 1” for the “supercommittee,” argues Chairman McKeon, “should be: not a penny more out of defense.” The Defense Department, while making up less than 20 percent of the federal budget, has contributed to half of America’s deficit-reduction since 2009. Contrary to popular belief, defense spending has already been “on the table.” In the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, more cuts would “be shooting ourselves in the head.”

If the supercommittee fails to reach agreement on deficit reduction, the law triggers automatic spending “sequestration” cuts of $1.2 trillion—of which roughly half a trillion or more would come from the Department of Defense’s budget. Such cuts would kill upwards of 800,000 active-duty, civilian, and industrial American jobs and inflate the unemployment rate by a full percentage point.

The cuts would deeply undermine the Marine Corps’s role as the expeditionary force in ready, leading to the smallest force in 50 years. They would take the Army below pre-9/11 troop levels, and the Air Force would have two-thirds fewer fighters and strategic bombers than in 1990. And last but not least, the Navy would have to mothball over 60 ships, including two carrier battle groups.

McKeon, as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and privy to a wealth of information about the capabilities and role the U.S. military plays in the world, eloquently warns that these cuts to the Navy would endanger not only national security but also the global economy. The Navy defends freedom from those who attack us and secures vital sea lanes of commerce around the world worth over $14 trillion annually.

McKeon reminds us that the men and women of the U.S. military are putting their lives in danger every day to provide us with the freedoms we hold dear. Personnel costs make up over half of the defense budget because it costs exponentially more to sustain a U.S. service member than it does to keep a Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean soldier under arms. By continuing to slash cut the defense budget, we are simply putting their lives in great risk.

This brings to mind the oft-stated remark of a prominent member of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Randy Forbes (R–VA): “I don’t want [our soldiers] ever to be in a fair fight. I want them to be in a fight that we know that they are going to win.”

Finally, McKeon challenged the U.S. Congress and the supercommittee to go after the debt crisis by going after the real drivers of America’s bulging debt—the Big Three entitlements—not the defense budget.

Jackson Marsteller is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. Click here for more information on interning at Heritage.