By Admiral Ernie Elliot

After the International Atomic Energy Agency dropped the bombshell news that Iran has accelerated its drive to build a nuclear weapon, you’d expect leaders on Capitol Hill to hold a flurry of hearings on how to counter the threat.

Instead, congressional hearing rooms have been booked solid to discuss how to slash national security spending. Budget cuts dominate the debate, while the prospect of a nuclear Iran barely raises eyebrows.

The sobering reality is that the defense cuts proposed under the debt ceiling deal would leave the U.S. with far fewer options for confronting an Iran armed with the bomb. Congress has already cut $450 billion from the Pentagon budget, which has already shrunk from 40 percent of federal spending in the 1970s to just 16 percent today. And last year Congress failed to reach a new budget agreement, triggering an additional $600 billion in automatic, across-the-board defense cuts that, absurdly, will affect all Pentagon programs equally, cutting armored vehicles as well as janitorial services. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the defense cuts totaling $1 trillion  a “doomsday mechanism” for our national security.

Panetta has predicted that half of these cuts would come out of funding to replace critical equipment as well as research and development into new technologies to keep us safe. Accounting for only 27 percent of all defense spending, this investment is at an historical low, at just over 1 percent of GDP. Shrinking it further will cut deeply into our national defense capabilities.

These unprecedented cuts could hamper intelligence operations by constraining funding for unmanned reconnaissanceaircraft and satellites we need to locate terrorists and keep an eye on Iran. They would also weaken our ability to carry out air strikes and humanitarian missions by slashing funding to replace fighter jets, bombers and cargo aircraft that are older than at any time in history. The cuts could also slow developments to our missile defenses that leaders on both sides of the aisle say are necessary to defend against the long-range nuclear ballistic missiles that experts say countries like Iran are developing to threaten the Middle East, Europe and the U.S.

The report on Iran’s accelerating nuclear program — which includes developing a nuclear warhead and detonation technologies — comes on the heels of news that the country has built underground silos that experts say can protect long-range ballistic missiles from air strikes. Iran has launched several satellites into space on the back of rockets that can easily be converted to intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching Europe, perhaps even the U.S. And we already know that the Iranian regime is willing to go to extraordinary and violent lengths to attack America, coordinating deadly militia attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and reportedlybehind a recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil.

On the other side of the world, North Korea has tested several nuclear weapons, starting in 2006. It has also flight testedseveral Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missiles, said to be capable of hitting Alaska or California with a nuclear payload. Defense Secretary LeonPanetta recently reiterated that North Korea’s nuclear ballistic missile program is a “serious threat” to U.S. national security.

Hundreds of simulations and dozens of flight tests have proved that the U.S.’s current missile defenses are robust enough to defend against current threats. But experts say that the systems need continual upgrades to stay ahead of the ballistic missile technology rogue nations are developing in secret.

Deep budget cuts could slow these upgrades and give our enemies just the time they need to surprise us with a technological leap.

Worse, these cuts are being debated in public, and the world — including the governments of countries like Iran and North Korea — is watching. Whatever the reality, they may be tempted to act against the U.S. if they are convinced we are lowering our defenses enough to give them a chance at success.

The report on Iran’s race to the bomb is a much-needed reminder of the dangerous world outside the current budget debate. Let’s hope Congress takes the opportunity to roll back some of these drastic defense cuts and send the right message to those who would threaten the nation.