Bases that can’t be closed, weapons that can’t be retired, benefits that can’t be touched. What’s left? The essentials.

While the budget battles in recent years have been difficult for many parts of the federal government, they have forced the Pentagon into a perpetual state of crisis management, limping from one budget showdown to the next. This fiscal chaos is not conducive to carrying out the nation’s defense.

If military spending must decline as part of an overall reduction in federal spending, Congress should abide by three simple rules: (1) a gradual decline in military spending rather than a sharp drop; (2) a greater degree of budgetary certainty for the coming years; and (3) the flexibility necessary for the Pentagon to make smart, strategically informed reductions.

The Ryan-Murray budget agreement, passed by Congress late last year, conforms to two of these rules. It reduces the cuts required in 2014-15 so that spending reductions are phased in gradually. It also gives the Defense Department more certainty in its future funding because both the House and Senate passed the two-year deal in a bipartisan manner. While Congress must still pass appropriations bills that conform to the budget caps, Ryan-Murray allows Pentagon planners to do something they haven’t done in several years—prepare a realistic defense budget that has a chance of passing.

One important task remains. Congress needs to give the Pentagon greater flexibility to make smart reductions informed by strategy. This requires more than passing an annual appropriations bill and avoiding sequestration. It means Congress must set aside parochial political interests and allow the Pentagon to make tough decisions that are likely to be unpopular with some constituencies.

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