The Pentagon, contractors and defense mavens in Congress are in a state of high anxiety, and with good reason. A Nov. 23 deadline looms next week for a “Super Committee” of Congress to produce a plan to trim at least $1.2 trillion from the federal budget deficit over a decade. Automatic cuts—agreed to last summer in the budget deficit debate that almost led to an embarrassing default on treasury bonds—are a sort of meat cleaver dangling over the committee to induce the panel to use its scalpel to craft a better plan. If the panel fails, defense spending is supposed to be chopped by $600 billion—and this would be on top of the $450 billion-plus the Obama administration has already trimmed from its spending plans.

A pall of pessimism hangs over Washington because the six Democrats and six Republicans on the Super Committee seem unlikely to reach a consensus on a package of spending cuts and tax reforms in time. There are many possibilities for where Washington will eventually end up on defense rollbacks—everything from the $600 billion to no additional cuts (see p. 54).

Some of the hair-on-fire rhetoric of late has been unhelpful. The range of cuts being discussed is still well within the proportions of drawdowns after the ends of the Korean, Vietnam and Cold wars. Even the most drastic cuts will not end the U.S.'s superpower status. But neither are current spending levels—despite being the highest ever in real terms—inherently unaffordable. Even at nearly $2 billion a day, defense spending is not especially high historically, either as a share of federal spending or in proportion to the national economy. As then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in May, “The defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country's fiscal woes.” That said, defense spending is not the best means of bolstering the economy. Justifying defense as a jobs program, as the Aerospace Industries Association has done, is either disingenuous or misses the point.

Defense is about capabilities and missions, threats and options. It is not simply gross numbers of either dollars or personnel. If Washington is serious about trimming defense expenditures while preserving as much national security as possible—a problem faced in other capitals as well—leaders must realize that across-the-board cuts constitute a short-sighted and dangerous way to draw down.

Those who would cut more should indicate precisely what they would give up. That means not simply listing programs to be cut. It means spelling out the capabilities they would forgo, the areas in which they would accept more risk—both technologically and geographically. To that end, responsible authorities should consider the full range of options:

•Does the U.S. need to maintain current troop levels in Europe and South Korea? Are the benefits and burdens of maintaining them being shared appropriately among allies?

•What are the national security objectives regarding China? What is the likelihood of the various contingencies for which the U.S. might prepare?

•Which particular foreign policy objectives can be achieved more cost-effectively without military force?

•When can allies be relied upon to carry out or lead missions? The success of the allied air campaign to support insurgents in Libya is encouraging. It could even lead to smarter procurement decisions in Europe.

•Is the intelligence community of 16 organizations appropriately sized? How should the value of the $80 billion spent annually be compared to other defense programs?

•Is a nuclear triad of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarines still necessary?

•Can the shifting of missions to unmanned systems be accelerated? Or slowed?

•Does the U.S. need all the bases it currently has at home and abroad?

•In what areas should competition in the industrial base be preserved?

•What can be done to end waste in procurement (see p. 31)? The U.S. has an unenviable record of starting—then canceling, years later—hugely expensive programs. The list of recent large programs that have been scuttled after fielding little or no hardware includes the Army's Future Combat System, Crusader self-propelled howitzer and Comanche helicopter; the Air Force's Npoess and TSAT satellite systems; the Navy's Seawolf attack submarines, and the Marines' VH-71 presidential helicopter and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

Such failures cannot be laid entirely at the feet of aerospace and defense companies, though they are hardly blameless. Rather, it is the U.S. system which allows an “iron triangle” of contractors, the Defense Department and Congress to perpetuate marginal and bloated programs.

Our intent is not to point fingers. Our goal is to make it clear that these are large, complex issues that must be addressed with rigor, intellectual honesty and sophistication about the broader foreign policy and economic implications. Defense spending is not arithmetic, it is calculus—and it is hard.