WASHINGTON — Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is not a fighter pilot, wing commander or war planner. But he is waging what many officers consider a crucial battle: ensuring that the U.S. military is ready for a major war.
Dunlap, like many officers across the military, believes the armed forces must prepare for a large-scale war against technologically sophisticated, well-equipped adversaries, rather than long-term ground conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.
First, however, they face an adversary much closer to home -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
For more than 30 years, the Pentagon establishment considered it an essential duty to prepare for a war of national survival. But under Gates, that focus has fallen from favor.
In public speeches and private meetings, Gates has chastised many commanders as ignoring wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while they plan for speculative future conflicts.
"We should not starve the forces at war today to prepare for a war that may never come," Gates said in a stinging address last month, one of a series he has delivered. Gates even has coined a term for what he sees as a military disorder: "next-war-itis."
Spurred by Gates and sobered by setbacks in the Middle East, many commanders have signed on to the Defense secretary's view.
But Dunlap and others are pushing back. They believe that the Iraq war is beginning to wind down and that the United States, chastened by its experience there, is unlikely to ever again become embroiled in a long-term ground conflict where adversaries rely on irregular, "asymmetric" fighting methods.
"We need the bulk of the Army prepared to go toe-to-toe with the heaviest combat formations our adversaries can field," Dunlap said. "For what it is worth, I predict the next big war will be conventional, or I should say symmetrical. In my judgment, we are not going to get into the business of occupying a hostile country of millions of people."
Dunlap, a military lawyer, has emerged as the most outspoken advocate for what many once considered the military's core mission: preparing to fight and defeat countries determined to destroy the U.S. or its interests.
He is not alone. In military journals, midlevel officers' conferences and gatherings around the Pentagon, a growing number have expressed concern that the Defense Department's planning and resources are being trained disproportionately on small guerrilla wars.
At the same time, they fear that important military skills -- storming beaches, fighting tank battles, using air and land power in unison to attack enemy lines -- are beginning to atrophy.
"The military is almost always accused of preparing to fight the last war," said former Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne. "The most interesting part of 'next-war-itis' is that we are being accused of trying to fight the next war."
The military, Wynne said, has the responsibility to prepare for wars against competing nations even as it fights what he calls the war of "choice" in Iraq. "We shouldn't have to pick between this war and the next war," he said. "That is a bad deal."
Wynne and the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, were fired by Gates last month after an investigation criticized Air Force oversight of the nation's nuclear arsenal. But Wynne believes his philosophical disagreement with Gates over future threats and the weapons needed to counter them played into his ouster.
Many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan side squarely with Gates. They believe future conflicts will look like the current wars, and argue that the U.S. must not lose its newfound expertise in counterinsurgency warfare.
"I think that nation-state and conventional war is in a state of hibernation," said Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, who commanded U.S. forces in Fallouja in 2004. "I don't think it's gone away, but the most likely threats probably today are not going to be conventional or from another state."
Mattis argues that the current fight is not an interlude.
"I recognize some people want to say: 'Let's hold our breath. The irregular world will go away, then we can get back to good old soldiering again,' " he said. "Unfortunately, in war, the enemy gets a vote."
The debate has real-world implications. Air Force officials have been unable to buy more F-22 fighters, needed for future air power. Gates prefers to spend money on heavily armored ground vehicles to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are many other ramifications. Marine Corps and Army training centers, for instance, now teach soldiers to fight among urban locals, track down insurgent cells and avoid roadside bombs.
Maxie L. McFarland, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, predicts the Army will be involved in regional conflicts -- over energy resources, extremist movements or environmental changes -- in places of growing strategic importance, such as Nigeria.