WASHINGTON– New capabilities, which are playing a greater role in America’s defense, are an integral part of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ recommendations for the fiscal 2010 budget request.

Gates discussed some of these capabilities and his budget recommendations at a Pentagon roundtable this afternoon also attended by Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

To start, the secretary is recommending the Air Force retire 250 of its oldest aircraft next year and halt production of the F-22 Raptor at 187.

Part of the reasoning behind this is that the Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles are coming on line. These UAVs are starting to supplant some of the mission space that manned aircraft once dominated.

“Heretofore, they were not put into the missions that the F-18, F-16, F-15 occupied,” Cartwright said. “Now you start to bring that capability on, especially with the Reaper.”

The Reaper is like a Predator UAV on steroids. The aircraft can carry up to 1.5 tons of weapons and stay aloft for hours.

“Given that the conflicts that we are in or likely to be in in the next couple of years, are conflicts where being on station for extended periods of time and not carrying maximum loads every sortie — those platforms really do give you a qualitative edge,” the general said.

The secretary called the UAVs new pieces of the defense equations. “These are not just the Predators doing strikes; it is long distances and long dwells,” he said. “An F-16 has a range of about 500 miles. The Reaper has a range of about 3,000 miles. This is going to be an increasing part of the Air Force arsenal.”

On the F-22 Raptor, the secretary decided to halt the build at 187 — a number the Air Force and combatant commanders agree on, Gates said. The emphasis will go to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. He said he does not see a risk in the decision.

“The intelligence I’ve gotten is the first [initial operating capability] for anything like a fifth generation fighter in Russia is 2016,” Gates said. “In China it’s about 2020.”

The Army’s Future Combat System was the last and toughest decision he made, Gates said. There is no argument that the Army needs new weapons systems.

“At the end of the day, the principal concern I had was that a program first designed nine years ago had not fully integrated the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan into the vehicle part,” he said.

The FCS infantry fighting vehicle has a flat bottom and is 18 inches off the ground. The mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, called an MRAP, — which has arguably saved many lives — has a V-shaped hull and is feet above the roadbed.

“We needed to stop, take a deep breath and look at this thing freshly with an eye toward what we had learned,” Gates said.

Cartwright said commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have three sets of vehicles at their disposal — Humvees, Bradleys and MRAPs. “The question is, can one vehicle really cover that span?” the general said.

“I didn’t think the program had integrated the operational experience that we have had in Iraq and Afghanistan where the commander has a menu of vehicles he can draw on in any given unit depending on what the mission is,” Gates said.

Gates’ decisions are meant to fill the gaps between capabilities. He said there are enemies who field a terrorist with an AK-47 assault rifle, but he is backed by a ballistic missile.

“One example is Hezbollah,” Gates said. “Hezbollah has more missiles and rockets than most countries and some pretty sophisticated equipment to go with it. And yet, they also have a basic terrorist and irregular warfare capability.”And in Iraq, low-tech terrorists plant sophisticated explosive penetrating devices.

The secretary’s recommendations recognize the increasing lethality of all portions of the combat spectrum. “It’s not so much the specific capabilities of this budget, but the recognition that the irregular side of this threat has to be in the base budget along with the programs to deal with the more modern kinds of systems which has been in the budget forever,” Gates said.

“I think there has been a lot of discussion between the nexus between an extremist organization and weapons of mass destruction, and the proliferation of that WMD in ways that, in the past, only sophisticated nation states could hope to field these kind of weapons,” Cartwright said. “That time is coming to an end.

“What we acknowledge here is that the entire span of military operations is extremely lethal,” he continued.

Gates said any procurement change has to begin with a professional acquisition cadre in the services and at the defense level. He has recommended hiring more government employees to oversee contractors, because “oversight of the acquisition process is inherently governmental,” he said.

Gates said he believes his recommendations have a good chance at passage. “I am an optimist,” he said.

The secretary said there is support for acquisition reform on the Hill and the package of changes needs to be seen as a whole rather than as parts.

“I think we will have a productive dialogue of the next couple of months, and I’m optimistic,” he said.

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