MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. At the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid out a plan to reshape the U.S. military. Gates called for more money for unmanned spy planes, for helicopters and other items for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his new budget would eliminate a multibillion-dollar satellite program, and end production of the F-22 fighter jet. NPR defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly has the details.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Secretary Gates wants, in his words, to profoundly reform the way the Pentagon does business. That reform involves a shift in priorities — steering more resources towards the wars the U.S. military is fighting today as opposed to conventional wars the U.S. might fight in the future.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): This is a reform budget, reflecting lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KELLY: At a Pentagon news conference, Gates conceded he'll likely be criticized for focusing too much on current conflicts and not enough on future threats. Not the case, Gates said.
Sec. GATES: But it is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to overensure against a remote or diminishing risk — or, in effect, to run up the score in a capability where the United States is already dominant — is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in, and improve capabilities in areas where we are underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk I will not take.
KELLY: So here's some of what Secretary Gates wants: more money for mental health care; more money for helicopters, which are urgently needed in Afghanistan; and he wants to maximize the production of unmanned spy planes, like the Predator and Reaper drones.
Sec. GATES: It will represent a 62 percent increase in capability over the current level, and 127 percent from a year ago.
KELLY: Gates also says he's committed to maintaining conventional air superiority.
Sec. GATES: Therefore, I will recommend increasing the buy of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from the 14 aircraft bought in '09, to 30 in FY10.
KELLY: But not all fighter jet programs will be so lucky. Gates announced he wants to end production of the F-22. He's also scrapping a multibillion- dollar satellite program, and cutting the budget for missile defense. Over time, Gates wants to cut the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10, and he's scaling back the Army's modernization program. None of these decisions will be popular with the big defense contractors, such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing, nor will they be popular with lawmakers whose districts house weapons production plants and all the jobs that support them. Thus, Gates acknowledged that while today's announcement represents an end to months of internal Pentagon debate, it's only the opening salvo in the budget battle that will play out across Washington in the coming weeks.
Sec. GATES: My hope is that, as we have tried to do here in this building, that the members of Congress will rise above parochial interests, and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole.
KELLY: Even before Gates' press conference today had finished, members of Congress were busy emailing reporters with their reactions. Democrat Ike Skelton, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, called the new budget, quote, a good-faith effort. But Skelton noted pointedly that the buck stops with Congress, which quote, gets to decide whether to support these proposals. It does look as though Secretary Gates will have at least one committed and powerful ally, Senator John McCain. McCain is the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's calling the Pentagon plan a major step in the right direction.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.