There is a massive fight simmering just below the surface here in DC, one that looks to get really ugly, really quick, and with major long-term consequences for national politics. No, its not the pending SCOTUS confirmation fight, but the battle over the Pentagon budget. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has taken on one of the most powerful and entrenched political forces in Washington, the Defense spending lobby, and as Eisenhower had warned, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” How right he was, and its taken a SecDef as powerful as Gates to launch the fight to bring this to the foreground.

The spark for this conflagration was Gates “reform budget” that reallocated defense spending. His proposal to cut or cap certain weapons systems while promoting others has rankled the Services, and their ideas of how they ought to provide for the common defense. Indeed, the US military is now about to embark on the one war it is most prepared to fight–the war for budget share and major weapons systems. Ten years ago, a fantastic little book described the DoD’s attitude toward the budget process as This War Really Matters, and its the fight that the Services, Contractors, and Congress are best prepared to wage.

The issues of the day involve the decision to shift money from legacy weapons systems designed to fight a “peer competitor” force (was USSR, now China conveniently fills that role) with weapons better suited for counterinsurgency operations, ie the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I trace part of this struggle to the historical evolution of an overlapping, unclear, and muddled command structure of today’s US Military establishment. In World War II, the fights between Army and Navy were epic, leading to two separate theater commanders in the Pacific (MacArthur and Nimitz) fighting, essentially, two separate wars against Japan. The National Security Act of 1947 unified the services under a civilian secretary, creating DoD. However, the Secretary was initially weak and the Services were strong, leading to several subsequent reforms. The most significant was the Goldwater-Nichols Act, giving us the structure we have today. As a result of Goldwater-Nichols, there are two separate structures of authority in the US military. Operationally, the chain of command passes from the President through the Secretary of Defense, and directly to the Combatant Commander who has complete and total command over all units in his theater (or functional area). However, for procurement, training, and equipping the force, authority passes from the Secretary to the Service Secretary and Chief of Staff of the uniformed service, who determine what the services should buy and how they will use it. Thus, the services sense of identity and mission have a huge role in procurement. Thus, combatant commanders must go to war with the army/navy/air force they have, not the one they would like.

Gates seeks to change this, privileging the needs of current combat operations over long-term service identity. Consider the most high profile of these cases in the Air Force. The AF has long seen strategic bombing and air to air combat as its core missions, and has thus pushed for a 5th generation air superiority fighter and new bomber. Gates wants to cut the future bomber and cap the F-22, instead buying more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and UAV’s. Indeed, some have speculated that the F-22 is the last manned fighter plane of its kind, with the future of air-war employing UAVs in combat roles. Current operations in the CENTCOM theater bear this out. The F-22 has not been used at all in either 6+ year long war, while the demand for UAV’s has skyrocketed, and they have become some of the most significant (if not controversial) weapons platforms in use. But, what is a modern US Air Force without fighter pilots?

Now the services and Congress are notorious for thwarting Pentagon budgeting plans. Congress sees the DoD budget as an unchallenged lard-fest, where government subsidies can be thrown to companies in a local district. Contractors facilitate this by actively distributing weapons system production in key Congressional districts, gaining allies for particular programs on the Hill. The Services have long had back-channels to lobby Congress to save particular weapons systems or insert new procurement that the Administration did not request. Gates seeks to end this practice.

The stakes are high. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake. Contracts, careers, and jobs are on the line. And, somewhere in there, the idea of American National Security almost matters. There will be principled arguments on both sides about the legitimate security needs of the United States. There will be a detailed discussion of the trade-offs between a counter-insurgency focused force vs. a peer competitor force. However, these principled and well reasoned arguments will probably be in the minority. Instead, we’ll see a lot more poorly reasoned arguments (I’ll let Ricks call it dumb) and faux-grandstanding about the rising China threat designed to produce only one logical conclusion: The Army/Air Force/Navy absolutely must must have the FCS/F-22/DDG-1000 to counter the “real” threats of the future.

Be wary of such arguments. Beneath all the posturing, beneath the future threats, dire warnings, and beneath the demands of 21st century warfare are good old fashion pork-barrel politics, of who gets what from whom: the most lucrative contracts in all the Federal Budget, supplying major weapons systems to the DoD.

If Gates can win this war, it will be as significant to the overall conduct of US National Security policy as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, This War Really Matters.