QUANTICO, Va.– Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that servicemembers and military families were his primary concern when formulating the fiscal 2010 defense budget recommendations. Speaking to a group of 30 students and faculty at the Marine Corps War College, Gates said he and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared the same top priority.

“The chairman and I were in agreement that our first priority should be the people,” Gates said. “If we didn’t get the people part right, none of the rest of the decisions would matter.”

The meeting here was the first stop on the defense secretary’s round of visits this week to each of the military services’ war colleges, where he is expected to discuss the strategy underlying his fiscal 2010 defense budget proposal.

Gates announced his recommendations last week, distributing the funds in accordance with what he characterized as the type of “complex hybrid” warfare he expects will be increasingly common. He allotted roughly half of his proposed budget for traditional, strategic and conventional conflict, about 40 percent for dual-purpose capabilities and the remaining 10 percent for irregular warfare.

In addition to the unique breakdown he outlined, the defense secretary’s proposal seeks to move funding away from supplemental budgets and into the baseline budget. Gates said his suggestions were derived from his experience as defense secretary over the past two years.

“Everything that I found that needed to be done for the warfighter had to be done outside the base budget and outside the regular bureaucracy of the Pentagon,” he said. “It seemed to me strange that the Department of Defense engaged in two wars, had to do all this stuff, in essence, off the cuff and not as part of a regular program.”

Supplemental budgets accounted for the funding required to remedy problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; fielding more mine-resistant vehicles, or MRAPs; providing more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to warfighters; and countering threats from makeshift bombs. These additional, ad hoc, budgets also supported family programs, research and medical care for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, and other quality-of-life programs, Gates said.

“I couldn’t understand why the building was so consumed with preparing for wars in the future and was so incapable of fighting the wars we were in,” he said. “They were being funded in supplementals — they weren’t a part of the permanent budget of the Department of Defense. And so when supplementals went away, they would all be at risk.”

Accordingly, Gates recommended the fiscal 2010 budget include $11 billion to increase the Army and Marine Corps end strength and to allow the Navy and Air Force to stop reducing the size of their ranks.

The other thrust of his proposed budget was institutionalizing the warfighters’ needs by putting more funding in the baseline budgets of the individual services, Gates said.

The secretary recommended increasing funding for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for each service branch, a 5 percent increase in special operations forces, a $500 million increase for helicopter crews, maintenance, and other programs.

“People have said I’m too focused on the wars of today and too critical of those with ‘next-war-itis,’” he said. “And what I tell them is I’m just trying to get the guys who are in the wars of today a seat at the table where the money is handed out.”

Meanwhile, Gates said, the U.S. military needs to adopt a 21st-century outlook.

The days of World War II thinking and Cold War strategy have given way to an era of conflicts that blend conventional and irregular capabilities into a complex, hybrid warfare, Gates said. He cited Russia’s use of special forces and cyber warfare before invading Georgia in August as an example. “They used all these aspects before their ground troops began moving into Georgia,” he said.

Hezbollah also exemplified the concept through its ability to use makeshift explosives and launch small-scale terrorist attacks, all while possessing “more missiles than most countries,” he said.

Gates’ message to students and faculty members here was clear: “The service culture and mentality has to keep modernizing,” he said.

“The Army can’t keep thinking about how it’s going to fight the Fulda Gap or Desert Storm all over again. The Marines have not had a major amphibious landing since 1950. The Navy keeps wanting to fight Midway again. And the Air Force just loves to fly with pilots in the cockpit,” he said.

While no one is proposing a dramatic departure from the past — such as completely abandoning manned aircraft — the United States does need to think about how to combine its various means, Gates said.

“I think trying to figure out how you structure a military that provides you with the maximum flexibility for the broadest range of possibilities of conflict seems to me the challenge that faces the department and the services today,” he said. “Because the kind of traditional conflicts we’ve experienced are, as the kids would say, ‘So 20th-century.’

“And it’s partly a matter of beginning to think about it, and beginning to budget for it,” he added.

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