No matter the outcome of the congressional supercommittee's efforts this week to begin taming the federal deficit, the public knows -- or should know -- that four big sacrifices are required to set the nation on a sane fiscal path.

First, some Americans will have to pay higher taxes. Second, some will have to accept reduced or delayed Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Third, the health care system must be more thoroughly reformed to cut excessive cost and treatment. Fourth -- and here's the one that gets far less attention than it should -- military spending must be cut dramatically.

That shouldn't be so hard. The external threats this nation faces in the decades ahead are less likely to come from military force than from economic rivalries that imperil our standard of living.

The future battleground is more apt to involve our own capacity to improve education, innovation, infrastructure, energy efficiency and the other components of a competitive economy.

Major military undertakings, such as a costly nuclear arms race against the Chinese or massive land invasions of Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, China or other potential enemies are not in the Pentagon's playbook, nor should they be.

"We're going to be developing a smaller, lighter, more agile, flexible joint force that has to conduct a full range of military activities that are necessary to defend our national interests," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the New York Times last week.

"So even though they're going to be smaller and lighter, we've got to make sure they always maintain a technological edge."

That's not to say that external threats are trivial. Terrorism remains. Exotic and horrible weapons will fall into irresponsible hands, or perhaps are in those hands already.

But an integrated approach (Homeland Security, intelligence assets, tactical military force, etc.) is the most effective deterrent and shouldn't require the current level of defense spending.

Since 2001, the Pentagon's budget has grown 50 percent to more than $700 billion a year. Altogether, the military accounts for about 20 percent of federal spending -- or closer to 25 percent if defense-related programs in other agencies and the portion of the national debt attributable to defense are included.

From that amount, President Obama has directed Panetta to cut $450 billion over the next 10 years. But that could be just a start. If Congress' special bipartisan committee on deficit reduction fails to meet its target this week, the military could face an additional, automatic $500 billion cut over the next decade.

That projection is supposed to send shivers through Congress and force members of the bipartisan committee to strike a deal.

Fear has long been the most effective emotion in American politics, and Panetta has been playing his role to the hilt with dire warnings of base closings, canceled weapons programs and drastic reductions in troops.

But there are better, broader reasons for meeting the deficit deadline. Even a defense cut of $950 billion over 10 years amounts to only about 15 percent, hardly a paralyzing cut for an agency whose budget has exploded in recent years and now faces major drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As former Reagan defense aide Larry Korb and other analysts have suggested, there are good reasons to cut the numbers of nuclear weapons, troops in Europe and Air Force fighter planes, among other programs.

And the military must face up to the same health care cost pressures as the rest of society.

Unfortunately, however, Panetta is right to suggest that these changes pose "huge political challenges" -- and not only because of lost jobs and the usual pork-barrel worries over closed bases and canceled weapons systems.

The military has become part of an impressive marketing campaign that makes budget reductions seem almost un-American.

Veterans Day, once observed with somber remembrance and the simple elegance of red poppies, was celebrated in rah-rah fashion this year, with a major college basketball game on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

That's fine, as long as we're clear on one thing: Making responsible cuts to the Pentagon's budget to protect the nation's economy is not un-American.