As appeared in the Wall Street Journal:
What principles should guide the congressional super committee as it prepares to cut over $1 trillion from the federal budget by Thanksgiving? Priority No. 1 should be: not a penny more out of defense. A staggering level of defense spending is already on the butcher's block.
Since then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched an "efficiency" campaign in 2009, we have cut over half a trillion dollars from our armed forces. Although defense spending accounts for less than 20% of our federal budget, it has absorbed approximately half of our deficit-reduction efforts since 2009.
Now the super committee is operating under a mandate that holds our military hostage. If the 12 members don't agree on $1 trillion in cuts from the vast federal budget, an automatic "trigger" will cut $500 billion from defense along with $500 billion from elsewhere.
Such a drastic cut would force the Navy to mothball over 60 ships, including two of our precious 11 carrier battle groups, according to analysis by the Republican staff of the House Armed Services Committee. It would also force us to shed one-third of our Army maneuver battalions and Air Force fighter jets.
The Marine Corps, meanwhile, would have to rewrite its warfighting doctrine and re-evaluate its core mission. The Corps already has too few ships to keep Marines at sea. Cuts would likely cancel production of several Marine aircraft lines and prevent the long-overdue replacement of the Marine amphibious assault vehicle. In short, the Marines would no longer be the service that is "most ready when the nation is least ready."
These radical changes would significantly degrade, if not eliminate, our ability to fulfill our commitments to allies like Taiwan and Israel. When asked by a Senate committee if the super committee's trigger would be "shooting ourselves in the foot," newly minted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quipped: "We'd be shooting ourselves in the head."
What's more, cutting our military—either by eliminating programs or laying off soldiers—brings grave economic costs. The U.S. military is the principal guardian of our globalized economy's avenues of commerce. We protect the realms where business occurs and prosperity is born, including space, the skies, cyberspace and the world's oceans.
We live in a world where violence on the Korean peninsula, or in the South China Sea, or around the Mediterranean can ripple across the world economy, damaging markets that have a historically low tolerance for uncertainty and doubt. The U.S. military is the benevolent power jealously guarding the stability that makes global, and domestic, fiscal health possible.
And on the economic front, if the super committee fails to reach an agreement, its automatic cuts would kill upwards of 800,000 active-duty, civilian and industrial American jobs. This would inflate our unemployment rate by a full percentage point, close shipyards and assembly lines, and damage the industrial base that our warfighters need to stay fully supplied and equipped.
Armchair budgeteers often point out that the U.S. spends more on defense than the next several nations combined. This clumsy argument lacks critical nuance. It costs exponentially more money to sustain a U.S. service member than to keep a Chinese, Iranian or North Korean soldier under arms. And it costs money to sustain an all-volunteer force, which must compete with the private sector to attract quality recruits.
We rightly insist that our armed forces have the best training, equipment and leadership in the world. This is why personnel costs account for over half of our overall defense budget.
Other nations that can simply press their citizens into service have no such fiscal or moral obligations to their force, nor do they share America's unique role in sustaining global stability.
This highlights the real danger inherent in the temptation to target the Pentagon for even more cuts: If we violate the sacred trust of our service members—some on their sixth and seventh war zone deployments—we risk breaking the back of our all-volunteer force. Who then, will have our backs?
American safety and economic security rest on the shoulders of the U.S. military. Lately it seems we have taken their sacrifices for granted. From here forward, Washington—the super committee, Congress generally, and the president—must focus on the real drivers of our debt, namely entitlements and social welfare, not on the protector of our prosperity.
Mr. McKeon, a California Republican, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.