Rising budget deficits make it imperative to cut federal spending, but why is the Defense Department, of all government departments, at the head of the line? Given that we are still engaged in, depending on how you count, three major wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, War on Terror), this hardly seems like the time to be cutting back on our overstretched armed forces. Yet that is precisely what’s happening. Even Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who has shown a willingness to take a scalpel to his own budget, is now worrying about a possible “crisis” if Congress does not increase the amount available to the Pentagon in a continuing resolution that is being used to fund the government in lieu of a budget. As the New York Times notes:

If that stopgap budget stays in place for the entire fiscal year, it would result in military spending of $526 billion, not counting the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or a cut of $23 billion from the administration’s request of $549 billion. Mr. Gates demanded that Congress approve 2011 spending of at least $540 billion.

Even if the Pentagon gets everything it needs for this year, it will suffer a cut next year:

For next year, the Pentagon is requesting $670.6 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. That includes $553 billion for its base budget and $117.8 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a result, the total of $693 billion in 2010 might have represented the peak for the surge in military spending that began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

This is a worrisome prospect because the world remains a dangerous place, and the U.S. armed forces remain committed to a wide variety of missions. This isn’t to say that every dime of Pentagon spending is sacrosanct. But at the same time that the Department of Defense is seeing vital capabilities threatened, it is being forced to spend billions of dollars on boondoggles imposed by Congress — such as a second engine for the F-35, the airborne laser, and an out-of-control Defense Department health-care system.

Congress has to decide whether it is serious about austerity or not. If it is, it will give up on programs deemed overly costly by the Pentagon’s own leaders — while fully funding the essential requirements we need to fight our nation’s wars and maintain a global presence.