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Air Force's Roche Is Offered Army Secretary Post, Sources Say

Pentagon insiders claim a reform-minded Rumsfeld has tapped the turnaround specialist to replace the recently fired Thomas E. White.

May 02, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has offered the Army's top civilian job to Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, Pentagon insiders said late Thursday. He would replace Thomas E. White, who Army officials said had been fired in a move that brought relations between the oldest military service and Pentagon managers to their lowest ebb in recent memory.

The news that Roche had been offered the position was unexpected because he oversees another branch of the military and has no Army background. However, a Pentagon insider said Rumsfeld views the Army as so backward that he is willing to incur the wrath of top Army brass by naming an outsider to oversee what he hopes will be a revamp of the service.

Roche served in the Navy for 23 years, retiring as a captain in 1983, and then became a top executive at Northrop Grumman, a military contractor, where he became known as a turnaround specialist.

Roche had been widely expected to leave his Air Force job in the near future. The Ferrari-driving millionaire has been credited with preparing the Air Force for 21st century styles of warfare, in which satellites and laser-guided "smart" bombs replace the gravity bombs of the Vietnam War era.

"Roche has a reputation for turning around broken organizations," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based defense research organization. "The view within the Pentagon is that the Air Force has emerged as the lead service in terms of transforming the military."

The strain between the Army and Rumsfeld has occurred largely over Rumsfeld's military transformation plan and his treatment of Army leaders. That plan, which envisions a smaller and faster force, threatens the Army's traditional reliance on large numbers of troops. The plan's reliance on air power to protect ground soldiers goes against the grain of a service that prefers to protect itself.

Rumsfeld most recently described his transformation plan at a town hall meeting in Iraq on Wednesday.

"We have a long way to go for this defense establishment of ours to get itself fixed so that it can deal with the kinds of problems we're facing in the 21st century. We do need to be quicker on our feet," Rumsfeld said. "We need to be able to do things with somewhat smaller footprints."

One Army official translated that as: "The long knives are out" for the Army.

What was described Friday as a resignation came after Rumsfeld asked White to leave, saying he wanted to create a new team, Army officials said. The firing, which an Army official said has poisoned an already "oppressive atmosphere" at the Pentagon, frees Rumsfeld to appoint both the civilian secretary and the Army's chief of staff -- Gen. Eric Shinseki, currently in that position, retires in June.

Now that the war in Iraq is over, Rumsfeld is said to be poised to force more change on the Army, which already has seen some of its weapons programs slashed in favor of special forces budgets and high-tech weaponry.

"Assuming the plan is to reduce the Army by two divisions ... he can pick the chief of staff and the secretary of the Army and presumably get their complicity prior to the appointments," an Army official said.

Army officials expressed outrage at White's dismissal.

"At some point during the meeting, Rumsfeld told Tom that he wanted a fresh start and he didn't think that White was part of the team. And White said, 'Fine, I resign,' " an Army official said.

"The Army staff is really on the verge of breaking now, because firing Tom White is one thing, but insulting the institution is another," the official said. "Clearly this has got to come to the breaking point, and the breaking point will be when the president gets involved."

Army officials expect Rumsfeld to press new leaders to accept cuts of two of the Army's 12 divisions as part of his plan to transform the military into a lighter, nimbler force.

The outgoing Shinseki angered Rumsfeld by telling members of Congress that "hundreds of thousands" of troops would be needed to keep the peace in a postwar Iraq, and White infuriated Rumsfeld by refusing to contradict the general, senior defense officials said.

Apparently wary of firing the Army's top official as soldiers were engaged in combat in Iraq, Rumsfeld made the announcement shortly after major hostilities ended.

Despite repeated calls for White's resignation because of his previous job as an Enron executive and the Army's failed effort to save a weapons system cut by Rumsfeld, the Army secretary had insisted he would not quit unless asked to do so.

Rumsfeld and White agreed Friday that White would leave June 11, but Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz phoned White on Wednesday to say he would have to leave a month earlier, on May 9, the Army official said.

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