WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Monday outlined the most sweeping changes in military spending priorities in decades, proposing the elimination of a long list of big-ticket programs to save billions of dollars and swing the Pentagon's emphasis from conventional conflicts to irregular warfare.
If Congress goes along, the cuts could spell the end for many of the military's best-known weapons programs, including much of the Army's Future Combat Systems, the Air Force's F-22 fighter, the next generation of Navy destroyers and the C-17 cargo plane, which is built in Long Beach. A new fleet of presidential helicopters also would be dropped under the plan.
At the same time, Gates said he wanted to put more money into intelligence gathering and surveillance, as well as into personnel growth in the military services, which he said were at risk of "hollowing" because of tight staffing. He also would pump new spending into medical and psychological treatment.
Gates wants to spend $2 billion more in coming years on surveillance aircraft, including a big increase for armed and unmanned Predator and Reaper drones.
The steps reflect a widely held view among military leaders that the Pentagon must devote more of its resources to small, unconventional fights as opposed to large-scale wars against foes of comparable military strength.
"We must re-balance this department's programs in order to institutionalize and finance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead," Gates said, adding that the Pentagon also needed to remain on guard for larger confrontations.
All of the changes must be accepted by Congress, which frequently overrides the military's efforts to alter the direction of Pentagon programs.
The overall size of the defense budget, $534 billion, had already been announced. But Gates had not outlined his spending priorities before Monday.
Under his plan, 50% of the budget would be used to counter conventional threats, with about 10% going to go irregular warfare and 40% to weapons useful to both types of conflicts.
"I'm not trying to have irregular capabilities take the place of the conventional capabilities," Gates said. "I'm just trying to get the irregular guys to have a seat at the table."
Gates said at a news briefing that he knew his recommendations would be controversial but that he did not take politics into account. He said the cuts in some areas were necessary to overcome dangerous shortages in others.
Winslow Wheeler, a defense budget expert at the Center for Defense Information, said that would be the strongest argument Gates had as he pushed his proposal with Congress.
"There is going to be a very ugly food fight," he said, adding that Gates and President Obama could probably win a congressional showdown "if they make it clear that in terminating the programs we can make ourselves stronger."
Foreshadowing opposition on Capitol Hill, Gates' proposals met with decidedly mixed reactions within the Pentagon. Officials opposed to cuts in programs like the F-22 thought the spending plan placed too much priority on functions such as intelligence gathering. Some Air Force officials said their service would be deeply wounded by the cuts.
But backers of Gates' plan said it would lead to shifts that had been needed for a long time.
Soon after President George W. Bush named Gates to lead the Pentagon in 2006 -- amid flagging U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the Defense secretary criticized spending procedures and priorities.
"He came here to fix the war, but in the process of trying to fix the wars, he ran into institutional hurdles," said one Defense official, who on condition of anonymity agreed to describe Gates' thinking. "He realized to fix the war, he had to fix the institution."
In a finding consistent with such criticism, the congressional Government Accountability Office reported last month that most of the Pentagon's largest weapons programs were over budget in 2008, amounting to nearly $300 billion in extra spending.
Many experts said the proposals presented Monday contained few surprises because Gates had consistently signaled his views.
"Overall, it is clear the things he has proposed are consistent with his strategic intent," said David J. Berteau of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The changes resulting from Gates' proposals could be the most drastic since the 1950s, when President Eisenhower slashed the Army and built up the Air Force and U.S. strategic nuclear capabilities.
Another period of change, the end of the Cold War, resulted in steep spending cuts but did not lead to a dramatic shift in military priorities.
Gates' predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, formulated plans to transform the military into a lighter and more deployable force but was stopped short by the realities of the war in Iraq.