America is nearing a decisive moment.  Unless Congress acts to change current law, automatic sequestration cuts will slash future spending on national defense across-the-board by over $500 billion beginning early next year.  Combined with the $487 billion in cuts already put forward by the President in February, America’s military will see its budget drop on average by $100 billion annually over the next decade.

As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned lawmakers in a November 2011 letter, sequestration will be “devastating,” yielding “[t]he smallest ground forces since 1940,” “a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest level since 1915,” and “[t]he smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force.”  General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bluntly told Congress that the sequester’s mandated reductions create “very high risk” to national security.

Although these cuts will not be implemented until January 2013, their effects will be felt almost immediately—by units preparing to fight in Afghanistan and operate elsewhere in the world.  As General Dempsey has pointed out, “[S]equestration leaves me three places to go to get the money: operations, maintenance and training.  That’s the definition of a hollow force.”

There will be the inevitable effects of sequestration on America’s defense industrial base as well.  As outgoing Lockheed Martin CEO Bob Stevens recently remarked: “The impact on industry would be devastating, with a significant disruption of ongoing programs and initiatives, facility closures and substantial additional personnel reductions that would severely impact advanced manufacturing operations, erode engineering expertise, and accelerate the loss of skills and knowledge, directly undermining a key provision of our new national security strategy, which is to preserve the industrial base, not dismantle it.”

To avoid this train wreck to national security but maintain fiscal discipline, the House of Representatives will have an opportunity to vote this week on a reconciliation bill that would forestall sequestration’s cuts to defense for next year while, at the same time, offering alternative reductions in federal spending.  The measure, if enacted into law, would be a critical first step in getting our fiscal house in order and doing so in a responsible manner.  As House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has said, “Letting budgetary concerns drive national security strategy means choosing decline.  By contrast, putting defense first among government’s priorities while simultaneously lifting the debt burden and ensuring a more prosperous America would enable the nation to afford a modernized military that is properly sized for the breadth of the challenges America faces.”

Congressman Ryan is right.  But time is running out as, in the words of Defense Secretary Panetta, the “shadow of sequestration” begins to fall on the men and women of the American military.