The defense budget has been sliced into virtually the same-sized pieces for decades, with roughly equal shares of resources going to the Army, Air Force, and Navy. In a move analysts say is sure to strike fear among some services, Congress this week will begin asking why.
A bipartisan House panel is nudging the Pentagon to begin a conversation on how to reform itself in many ways. But at the Pentagon, talk of change usually has a budgetary impact.
And, despite the past several years of "nation-building" and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been virtually no change in the way the defense budget is carved up in at least 40 years, says Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee, who chairs the panel.
"That right there is a statistical indictment of the process," Representative Cooper says. "There had to be a year in which there were greater needs in one area or another, and the system was unable to accommodate it."
The fiscal 2009 budget request released this month, for example, shows the Army requesting a 27 percent share, the Air Force asking for a 28 percent share, and the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, wanting a 29 percent share of the proposed $515 billion budget.
Cooper's seven-member panel is expected to release a study this week on each of the branches' "roles and missions" that may threaten services that are seen to perform more conventional warfare. With the focus on the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that makes some in the Navy and Air Force worry.
Cooper hopes the study will spark a broader debate about the need to reform national security, with new emphases on cybersecurity and nonmilitary government agencies. The panel isn't recommending specific changes to the budget as much as it is raising concerns about the Pentagon's historical aversion to change. More specifically, some services are clinging to a version of warfare the panel believes is dated.
"There should be vociferous support from inside the services, since the military has been left carrying the burden of the failures of our national security institutions," reads a draft of the report, to be released Thursday. "Instead, our military has resisted change just as they have past efforts at reform. The Air Force and Navy are reemphasizing more traditional threats and downplaying the unexpected threats we face today."
In fact, the Navy has tried to emphasize its so-called soft-power capabilities to combat terrorism, and senior Air Force officials seek to remind Congress that conventional threats, like those presented by China, still remain.
Congress is asking the same questions that many in and out of uniform have raised for some time. "After seven years of war, that we haven't budged one inch away from the cold war apportionment of the budget to me is Kafka-esque," said Robert Scales Jr., a retired Army major general, speaking last week at a think tank. "I just can't explain it. I don't understand."
The Pentagon has begun its own internal review of roles and missions. But with budgetary planners essentially in limbo until a new administration arrives next year, it's unclear how much impact such discussions will have, says Loren Thompson, a senior analyst at The Lexington Institute, a think tank outside Washington.
It may serve to create a debate in anticipation of the broader effort to review the nation's strategic planning document, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). But when all is said and done, it's likely that things will remain largely the same, Mr. Thompson says.
"My guess is, when the roles and missions and QDR processes are complete, the historic share of the services will not change much in the defense budget," he says.
But such talk of budgetary reform can sound like fighting words to some inside the Pentagon, as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged earlier this month during hearings on Capitol Hill.
"What I worry about in this ... is that, not done well, it has a tendency to turn services against each other," Admiral Mullen said.
And moving money from one service to another can be politically insurmountable. Each service, with its own political constituency on Capitol Hill, carefully guards what belongs to it.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have emphasized the need for ground troops, leading to focus on the Army and Marine Corps. Meanwhile, while the Navy and Air Force both contribute much to operations overseas, they are seen as virtual "silent partners."
That has forced both services to step up their marketing efforts. The Navy is holding events it calls "Conversations with the Country" in an effort to call attention to its new maritime strategy, which focuses on fighting terrorism in untraditional ways. And the Air Force on Sunday launched a new ad campaign to highlight the allure of the nation's air superiority, employing a marketing theme titled "Above All."