To cut, or not to cut? That is the dilemma facing Washington's Republican leadership when it comes to the military. Traditional GOP principles hold that slashing the defense budget is anathema, particularly when the U.S. is conducting two wars overseas. But for Tea Party-backed House freshmen determined to tackle the deficit, no government department should be spared the axe. Here, an instant guide to the split:

Why are Republicans debating this now?
The split within the GOP was crystalized by $178 billion in cuts announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this month. Gates proposes to shrink the size of the Army and Marine Corps after 2014, and to reform the Pentagon's intelligence network. Tea Party-backed representatives support the plan, while traditional Republicans do not. (Watch a Russia Today discussion about spending cuts)

What are the traditional Republicans worried about?
Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said this week that he would "not support initiatives that will leave our military less capable and less able to fight." McKeon is particularly concerned by Gates' plan to cancel the $14.4 billion development of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, an amphibious tank. Such cuts "jeopardize long-standing core capabilities that comprise the foundation of American military strength," says conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

So why are Tea Party-backed officials pushing for cuts?
Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY), speaking at the same hearing as McKeon, said that "everything needs to be on the table" when it comes to trimming government spending. The spiralling deficit, said the retired Army colonel, is itself a threat to our national security. "He's right," says Jacob Heilbrunn at The National Interest. Forward thinkers like Gibson must "force the GOP to stop trying to exempt the military from budget cuts."

Isn't this just politics as usual?

Not this time. Gates says there's a real possibility that disagreement on cuts could force Congress to reject the FY 2011 budget. Such a move would hold the Pentagon to last year's spending levels and create a $23 billion black hole in its budget "that could weaken a wartime military." Lawmakers are "so eager to fight over the longer-range Pentagon spending proposal," reports the Associated Press, "that they are ignoring the near-term effects of not passing a new budget for the current year."

Who will win the battle?
Those Republicans in favor of cuts will likely prevail in the end, says Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is thought to be in favor of "principled" reform of the military budget. If "deficit-minded Republicans and the incoming class of Tea Party types" can form an alliance with liberal Democrats in favor of shrinking the Pentagon, "hefty military cuts" could be on the horizon.

Sources: New York Times, Politico, The Nation, Associated Press, The Heritage Foundation