In response to a soldier’s question in 2004 about lacking the appropriate training and equipment for counterinsurgency in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quipped, “you go to war with the army you have.

That may be true, but it is the secretary of Defense’s responsibility for determining the type of military the country needs. When President Obama presents the fiscal year 2010 budget on Tuesday, we’ll see what kind of military Secretary Gates thinks the United States needs.  

Gates’ views on military force structure are relatively well known. His 2008 National Defense Strategy guides thinking about how the military is developed and employed. As I argued in a previous New Atlanticist piece, Gates sees it as a “blueprint to succeed in the years to come.” The strategy is a very readable and useful document to understand U.S. defense priorities, defense assumptions about the world, and needed changes. The continuities from past administrations are evident. The military still finds a core mission in defending the United States and achieving success in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But there is a tension between fighting and winning today’s wars versus preparing for possible wars of the future. Underlying the future size and shape of the U.S. military are three schools of thought: traditionalist, modernist, and post-modernist. 

The traditionalist school sees challenges in peer competitors requiring preparation for high-end warfare reminiscent of D-Day and the Battle of Midway. Today, China is typically singled out as the likely peer competitor for the United States (it was Japan in the early 1990s). Traditionalists charge that preparation for major war against another military power is the proper use of the military and should guide defense planning. Traditionalists object to soft uses of the military and worry that “feel good” operations undermine the military’s warfighting ethos. This is the Defense Department’s predisposition, but Gates is challenging the bureaucracy to plan for the most likely types of operations and not necessarily the most destructive. 

Within the traditionalist school resides the modernist school. It sees preparing for and prevailing in major war as the military’s sole purpose, but the key distinction is the role of technology. For the traditionalist, mass through personnel numbers is a principle of war. For the modernist, technology replaces mass. A modernist’s military is dominated by high-end weapon systems like F-22, the Army’s Future Combat System, and the Navy’s electric rail-gun. Modernists object to the high levels of manpower required for stability and engagement operations because they negatively impact acquisition accounts. 

During the 1990s, the technologists prevailed in defense debates; technology could make warfighting more efficient. While quick “victories” in Iraq and Afghanistan validated the modernist way of war, subsequent insurgencies challenged their relevance. Based on pre-decisional decisions, their favorite weapon systems are likely to face cuts. F-22 has already fallen from a planned 800 to just 200. Gates has already called for the military departments to develop 75 percent solutions and not the 99 percent solutions it favors. 

A third school of thought is undergoing a revival. Post-modernists see the security environment dominated by weak states and non-state actors. With this view, the military should be optimized for small wars, counterinsurgency, and reconstruction operations. For post-modernists, it is better to address underlying conditions or confront local crises before they become regional ones. They don’t see any peer competitor over the next two decades and the importance of prevailing in today’s conflicts is essential to having a future. This school seems to have Secretary Gates’ ear, as he’s recognized that he already has a military with the ability to kick down the door but lacks the capacity to clean up the mess afterwards. 

In spite of the economic downturn and large budget deficits, defense is unlikely to face major cuts. With two important operations ongoing and security assistance programs with 149 countries, the U.S. military is in high demand. President Obama’s strategic outlook does not suggest this will change. And with the inability or unwillingness of allies and partners to increase contributions to international security, the post-modernists are likely to guide future defense spending to get Gates’ balanced force structure. The obvious winner will be the ground pounder that will be better prepared for the next deployment. The obvious loser will be the modernists who seek to dissuade the next major war.

Derek Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. These views are his own.