War Stories

Rumsfeld’s Man

Why generals will fight the new secretary of the Army.

It was thoroughly predictable that, after the swift victory in Gulf War II, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would wage his next war against the hidebound generals of the U.S. Army. Now that war has begun.

Rumsfeld fired his first shots last Thursday night when he let it be known that a man named James G. Roche will be his new secretary of the Army.

Roche is an extremely intriguing—and, to any senior Army officer, an equally shocking—candidate for the job. First, he’s a 23-year veteran, and retired captain, of the Navy. Second, for the past two years, he’s been secretary of the Air Force. It’s unusual enough for Rumsfeld to appoint a service secretary who’s had no experience with the service in question. It’s a blatant poke in the eye to pick someone who comes from a rival service. It’s a poke in the eye and a kick in the groin to name someone who’s built up years of allegiance to two rivals.

The Washington Post and Washington Times both highlighted the insult when they broke the news in Friday’s editions. However, neither paper noted another fact about Roche that makes his appointment not merely a symbolic slash but a profound and substantive statement on the Army’s future direction. For several years, Roche has been closely associated with a group inside the Pentagon that the Army top brass deeply abhors. This group advocates remaking the military—and especially the Army—into a lighter, faster fighting force.

The key figure in this group is a little-known—but, within the Pentagon, highly controversial—official named Andrew Marshall. Marshall is the director of Net Assessment, a position created by then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger in 1973. Even though it was a politically appointed post, Marshall has cultivated the bureaucratic savvy to remain on the job ever since.

From 1975 to 1979, while he was still in the Navy, Roche was Marshall’s chief military assistant.

Through these past 30 years, Marshall has been exceptionally adroit at carving out special projects—taking small strands of ideas scattered in various bureaucratic corners and stringing them together into coherent programs that would otherwise not have come into existence. For the past decade, Marshall’s main project has been what some call “military transformation” or “the revolution in military affairs.” (For a while, the latter was even ascribed an acronym—RMA.) The premise of RMA is that, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of new technology, it no longer makes sense to keep large military forces permanently positioned in one place, especially not in Europe. Future wars will be in Asia or the Middle East. They will involve precision-guided weapons, which make heavily concentrated forces sitting ducks. They will be lightning wars, they could break out in any number of possible places, they might start with little warning, and they must be fought with great agility. One implication of this vision was that the U.S. military should focus more on buying missiles, long-range aircraft, unmanned drones, and “smart bombs.” Another implication was that ground forces would play a smaller role and that the Army must be reformed, made lighter and lither, so it can be transported more rapidly and supported on the battlefield with shorter, less vulnerable supply lines.

In the years when Roche worked with Marshall, the RMA concept hadn’t yet been fully hatched. But, according to associates of both men, they have stayed in close touch ever since. Roche also has a long association with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Both worked in the State Department’s policy-planning staff in the early ‘80s and have remained good friends. Wolfowitz too is a strong RMA advocate.

After retiring from the Navy in 1983 and serving a brief stint as Democratic staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roche went to work for the analytic center of the Northrop Corp. (which later became Northrop Grumman). Over the next 17 years, Roche (who, years earlier, had also earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School) rose through the corporate ranks, knocking once-moribund outfits into profitable shape at each step. Finally, he took charge of its defense electronics and systems sector. It was a position that gave him firm grounding in an important dimension of “transformation” theory—the idea that the electronics inside, say, an airplane are more important than the airplane itself. It was from this position that Rumsfeld recruited Roche to be secretary of the Air Force, in May 2001.

Around this same time, Rumsfeld—having taken the Pentagon’s helm just a few months earlier—started conducting a comprehensive review of the entire U.S. military. Rumsfeld had known Marshall from 25 years earlier, when he briefly served as secretary of defense under President Ford. Now he put Marshall in charge of a major swath of the review. To no one’s surprise, the review took on an RMA flavor.

The Army establishment hated Rumsfeld’s review, and many generals openly rebeled against it. After a yearlong fight, the culture of the Pentagon—where defense secretaries come and go, but four-star generals stay forever—proved too strong. Rumsfeld had to retreat, notching up just one significant budgetary victory (the cancellation of the Army’s Crusader artillery gun, which Rumsfeld had fingered as too big and bulky for the swift and mobile military of the future).

The Army generals who fought Rumsfeld on the Crusader and other issues two years ago were, in many cases, the same generals (and retired generals) who openly criticized his war plan two months ago during the heat of battle in Iraq. Some of these generals used their critique of the war plan to reinforce their long-standing campaign against the RMA school’s advocacy of a lighter Army. They said Rumsfeld’s war plan called for too few troops and tanks; it was too light. Then, to the surprise of many and for reasons not yet not understood, the critics were proved wrong.

Now, with his postwar political favor riding high, Rumsfeld is turning the tables, using the triumph of the “light” force in Iraq as a weapon—the rhetorical equivalent of heavy artillery—in his renewed battles against the Army brass. And in that battle, James Roche will be the wedge that breaches through the line.

Rumsfeld signaled his intentions a few weeks ago, when he told the Army secretary, Thomas White, that he wanted to replace him with someone new. Then, after White marked June 9 as his date of departure, Rumsfeld had Wolfowitz call White to tell him to move out by May 9. Already, Rumsfeld had made it clear that he would accept the resignation of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, with whom he had tangled several times, most recently when Shinseki told a congressional committee that “hundreds of thousands” of U.S. troops would have to stay in Iraq after a war, a view that Wolfowitz was called out to denounce in harsh terms. (The new chief of staff is likely to be Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of Centcom, who directed Gulf War II and remained loyal to Rumsfeld throughout.)

Civilian service secretaries are often figureheads, but they have enormous statutory authority, and Roche is likely to exercise that authority with Rumsfeld’s blessing. Eliot Cohen, the author of Supreme Command and an experienced military consultant, notes, for example, that service secretaries have enormous influence over the appointments of new generals. A key ingredient of “military transformation” is the grooming of new military leaders, and Roche will take a hand in that. “If I were a creative Army captain, I’d find Roche’s appointment kind of exciting,” Cohen said. “If I were a three-star general, I’d be very scared.”