Politico Pro Defense (subscription required) had a fascinating story last week about an internal Pentagon dispute that has gone public. In the report, Politico’s Austin Wright shows Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter butting heads with long-serving Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, as well as with Eric Fanning, currently slated to be the next Secretary of the Army. Reading the report provides insights into where some reforms at the Department of Defense should take place.

The crux of the disagreement is about “capacity” versus “capability.” Carter is interested in improving the latter by sacrificing numbers—in this case, troops and ships—for increased lethality in the weapons it buys. He demonstrated his priorities by canceling the remaining twelve Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) purchases due to questions about its firepower and survivability. For his part, Fanning, testified in his recent confirmation hearing that the planned reductions in Army end-strength—from 490,000 to 450,000 soldiers—need to be reevaluated. Mabus and other Navy leaders have pushed back hard against Carter’s decision to truncate LCS buys.

None of this should be particularly surprising. The Army has become more enamored with advanced technology since its “Big Five” weapons programs came of age in the 1980s, but the service still tends to judge its health by its number of active-duty soldiers. For the Navy, the size of the fleet has always been an important measure. This tendency was nicely illustrated in 1988, near the peak of Reagan’s military build-up, when then-Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb resigned in protest because the service fell just shy of the 600-ship fleet it was promised,

The service secretaries’ arguments are parochial, but the case for capacity over capability makes some sense for the Navy. Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a retired naval officer, argued recently in an essay at War on the Rocks that the “presence” an increased number of ships provides is useful in deterring war. Hendrix writes:

Secretary Carter’s directive to increase advanced capabilities in the fleet at the expense of the size of the fleet — and specifically at the expense of small combatants which have historically been central to naval operations — ignores the importance of presence and runs counter to the long history of American national strategy. In the end, it will decrease naval presence, allow tensions to rise among local actors, and invite a competition in the maritime environment that has been suppressed for 70 years by constant presence. Historically, these are the very steps that led to war.

Carter takes a different view. According to a quote in Wright’s story, the secretary of defense recently stated, “I have made clear in our discussions, in my budgetary guidance, and in public remarks that our military is first and foremost a warfighting force, and while we seek to deter wars, we must also be prepared to fight and win them.”

While focusing too heavily on ship counts is a poor way to judge a navy’s strength, there is something to be said for Hendrix’s argument. The United States is a maritime power separated from much of the rest of the world by two large oceans. If a larger fleet can help deter future conflict, then increasing the size of the Navy to pursue that mission is a discussion worth having—though optimum fleet size will always remain up for debate.

The tricky part is how to achieve greater capacity without breaking the bank. There are two ways to do so, and they are not mutually exclusive. First, would be to follow the advice of Hendrix, who has long been a proponent of a “high-low mix of ships” that achieves capacity through construction of greater numbers of low-tech, comparatively inexpensive frigates to go along with more expensive naval platforms. The problem with this idea is the tendency among the military services to be enamored with adding new technology to their existing platforms, increasing the cost of individual units and making it more difficult to buy them in bulk. The LCS is a prime example of this, as the original concept was for a small, cheap, almost disposal ship that could be purchased in large numbers. As new “requirements” were added to the original LCS design though, the price of each skyrocketed.

The second way to achieve greater capacity is to give the Navy a greater share of the overall defense budget at the expense of the other services. Again, as a maritime nation, prioritizing the Navy makes sense and is not unheard of historically, either. The resulting competition for funding may help lead to innovations that provide the increases in capability Carter desires. Moreover, competition between the services might have a salutary effect on service logrolling that enables “requirements creep.” Not only would the Navy have funding for both capacity and capability under such a scenario, but the other services might need to find more cost effective ways of operating that could achieve a similar high-low mix to what Hendrix recommends instead of “gold-plating” their programs.

Breaking up the status quo will not be easy for Carter, though. Ever since Robert McNamara’s tenure as secretary of defense, the services have worked hard to ensure they would not be manipulated in a similar fashion again. The Goldwater-Nichols Act further empowered them to push back against the Pentagon’s civilian leadership by empowering the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, increasing the analytical power of the Joint Staff, and institutionalizing service logrolling in organs like the Joint Requirements Oversight Board. Moreover, Congress is usually happy to support the military, given its overall popularity with voters and the parochial interests many current programs serve in local congressional districts.

With the fiscal year 2017 budget request set for release February 9th, it is unlikely any significant change to the services’ shares of the budget will take place this year. But Carter has one more year to craft a defense budget before the Obama administration leaves office. The current secretary of defense sees himself as something of a reformer. That budget request might offer him one last opportunity to be one.