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More troubling to some conservatives is Mr.Gates’ willingness to begin a steady decline in defense spending starting in 2011. Mr. Bush’s core defense spending went up 40 percent over eight years, after inflation.

Mr. Gates terminated the ground-vehicle side of the Army’s all-encompassing Future Combat System, froze buys of the Air Force’s futuristic F-22 at 187, ordered the retirement of 250 fighter jets in one year alone and put the Navy on notice to reduce carrier battle groups from 11 to 10.

To the Air Force fighter community, Mr. Gates is sacrificing air superiority - the military operation of capturing the sky from the enemy - should there be a future war against China or Russia. The Air Force had wanted more than 300 F-22s but would have settled for 240.

“He has decimated the Air Force for the future,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who flew hundreds of combat missions in Vietnam. He calls Mr. Gates “the most dangerous secretary of defense we’ve ever had.”

In addition to ending the F-22 production line, Mr. Gates canceled a next-generation long-range bomber and the Air Force’s new combat search and rescue helicopter.

“He is focused on irregular warfare to a fault,” said Gen. McInerney. “Not one of the six Joint Chiefs knows anything about air superiority or has had any combat experience in it. Yet the number one military requirement of military operations is air supremacy. You cannot conduct ops if you don’t have it.”

Most of the retired tactical aircraft will be F-16s. To begin to fill the gap, the defense secretary is accelerating buys of the F-35, the next-generation all-purpose fighter. However, the single-engine F-35 is considerably slower and carries fewer missiles than the F-22.

Despite the criticism at home, Mr. Gates has defenders in the field.

“I absolutely love the slash and burn of the big programs that we don’t need today,” said a military intelligence officer who did time in Afghanistanbut asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. “We might need some of the stuff tomorrow, but hey, we’re in a shooting war and the troops have far too long gone without the stuff to make their grunt life better and more survivable.”

Other backers add that Mr. Gates should not be judged just on budget cuts, noting that he was a moderating voice inside the administration on Iraq and also pushed for a larger commitment in Afghanistan. Both positions strained the president’s relationship with his liberal base.

“These are important policies in the last three months that Bob Gates has played a big role in,” Mr. Whitman said.