The war in Afghanistan rages on, as does the conflict in Libya. U.S. troops are still deployed in Iraq. Unrest continues in the Middle East’s Arab Spring. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear efforts are accelerating, and the global war against terrorists remains. And yet despite an aging military, President Barack Obama has called for $400 billion in cuts to national security spending over the next 12 years, in addition to the $400 billion in cuts he has already made.

It is against this backdrop that Leon Panetta, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, will go before the Senate tomorrow for questioning on how he would shepherd the department into the future. The American taxpayers deserve some answers from Panetta.

Panetta, who is currently director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has already responded to a 79-page set of answers to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, but his responses largely lacked specifics. He says he expects that “difficult choices will have to be made” on defense spending. “If confirmed, I will work to make disciplined decisions in ways that minimize impacts on our national security.” Given what’s at stake—U.S. national security—more substantive responses are sorely needed.

Defending Defense—a joint project of the American Enterprise Institute, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and The Heritage Foundation—has issued the following 10 questions for Panetta that go to the heart of how he would address defense spending and the state of the U.S. military.

1. Do you agree with outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s statement that the defense budget “is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes”? If so, what is the logic for cutting defense spending even further than it already has been so far during wartime? Should defense be given higher priority than other areas of federal spending?

2. Do you agree that there is an urgent need to recapitalize large parts of America’s forces? If not, why not? How is the modernization challenge to be addressed with a defense budget that is flat or declining?

3. Secretary Gates stated in a speech on May 24 that “a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go to fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”

Presuming that President Obama’s additional proposed cuts will include a reduction in the size of America’s armed forces, what “places” would you recommend that we forgo and what “things” would you recommend that the American military stop doing?

4. Secretary Gates has stated that ill-conceived cuts to defense spending could increase America’s vulnerability in a “complex and unpredictable security environment.” Do you agree with his assessment of the dangers incurred by cuts in military spending and the role of hard power in keeping the peace?

5. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, recommended that when implementing President Obama’s plan to cut $400 billion from security spending, savings should be identified in military pay and benefits before making cuts to “force structure” (i.e., weapons programs, equipment, and the number of personnel in uniform). Do you agree with his recommendations?

6. As a chief architect of the defense budget drawdown in the 1990s, you oversaw major reductions in military procurement spending (including a 13.4 percent decline in fiscal year 1994). How have procurement decisions in the 1990s affected our operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? Given the experience of recent years—and knowing what you know now—would you have supported the same cuts?

7. China has tripled its military’s budget over the past 15 years, putting at risk our military’s long-standing ability to operate decisively and safely in northeast Asia. How should those developments inform U.S. defense investments?

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran is working on a likely nuclear weapons program. How should that inform U.S. missile defense research and development? Is Iran’s program relevant to U.S. force structure and strategic posture in the region?

8. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz has stated that the present fleet of 187 F-22 fighters creates a high risk for the U.S. military in meeting its operational demands. Given China’s development of a stealth aircraft and Russia’s development and sale of air defense systems, would you support reviewing the previous decision to end procurement of the F-22 Raptor at 187? Do you favor creating an export variant of the F-22 for sale to allied air forces?

9. The U.S. Navy has the fewest number of ships since America’s entrance into World War I. Yet it is being tasked with arguably more responsibilities than ever before. What steps would you take to bridge the gap between our 285-ship navy today and the 313-ship requirement called for? Do you support a 12-carrier navy today?

10. Current budget plans—even prior to the latest announced defense cuts—were premised upon a complete withdrawal from Iraq and a dramatic drawdown in Afghanistan by 2014. They did not anticipate the prospect of a continued, residual presence in Iraq or the possibility of a requirement for maintaining a sizeable force in Afghanistan. Do you support Secretary Gates’s proposals to reduce the end-strength of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps?

The U.S. military is charged with protecting our homeland and defending America’s interests around the world, yet it is increasingly asked to do more with less. Given the President’s call for significant cuts to an already under-funded military, it is vitally important for the American people to know where Panetta stands on defense spending before he is confirmed. And it is up to the Senate to make sure those questions are asked.

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