America’s founding father, General George Washington, famously said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.”

On Thursday morning CIA director Leon Panetta, whom President Obama has tapped to succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Committee members should remember Washington’s maxim and consider asking questions that revolve around the following theme: “Will the United States military be prepared under your oversight?”

After nearly a decade of continuous warfare, underinvestment in next-generation equipment and systems—and stress from dramatically reduced force levels in the 1990s—the U.S. military is in bad shape. The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel concluded that the Pentagon now faces the urgent need to recapitalize large parts of the force. Meeting these crucial modernization requirements will require immediate, substantial, and sustained investment over the long term. In this budget-cutting atmosphere, however, the present course appears ready to “hollow out” the military, as Gates has recently acknowledged.

To understand the problem we face today, ask yourself if you would let your teenager drive a 30-year-old car for his or her first vehicle. In fact, the average age of major U.S. military platforms is more than 25 years, and they have parts that have become or are fast becoming technology obsolete. For example, the combat vehicle fleet of Abrams tanks is largely based on technology from the 1980s and before. The U.S. Navy’s fleet today contains the smallest number of ships since 1916, and it is retiring Cold War–era submarines faster than they can be replaced with new ones. Moreover, the military’s equipment is old and getting older, in part because it is employed at breakneck wartime rates.

Amidst this situation, President Obama’s deficit reduction plan calls for an additional $400 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next 12 years. This comes in addition to the approximately $400 billion already cut by the Administration during the previous two years and the cancellation or delay of over 50 major weapons systems since Obama began his presidency.

Obama’s additional cuts mean that the core defense budget will steadily decline in real dollar terms and as a share of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) to just 3 percent. The baseline defense budget is now 3.5 percent of America’s GDP, a figure well below the post–World War II average of 7.5 percent. The budget will lead to dangerously low personnel levels, raising the risk that a smaller and already stressed military will not be able to respond to future demands. If any surprise event happens that significantly changes the current landscape, it could take huge sacrifices to respond.

It is also important to remember the quantitative and qualitative growth of Chinese military capabilities, Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and the ongoing modernization of Russian missile capabilities. We should also not forget the fact that Osama bin Laden’s killing, and other successes in the global war against terrorists, are in large part due to the United States’ hard power capabilities.

In order to maintain America’s leadership role in a dangerous world, the U.S. needs to preserve its military strength through sustained modernization and investment. In his final months as Secretary of Defense, Gates has said that defense spending is not the cause of our budgetary woes. He also warned that further cutting defense could increase America’s vulnerability in a “complex and unpredictable security environment.” Senators should consider raising these issues with Panetta with eye to seeing how he best thinks America can preserve peace and avoid war in the future.