With his crisp briefings and no-nonsense demeanor, Donald Rumsfeld has won plaudits as a forceful leader of the Pentagon during a time of combat. Now he is attempting something that may be even more difficult: shaping US forces with his personal vision of the military of the future.
Serving as an effective secretary of war is one thing. Handling the job of secretary of Defense is quite another.
Past Pentagon chiefs have found that canceling a major weapon system deep in its development stage is almost impossible, as lawmakers and service leaders rally to its defense.
Thus Rumsfeld's reported intention to do away with the Army's Crusader artillery system could serve as a test of his leadership ability, as well as a portent of whether US forces will soon rip up plans laid during the cold war in favor of an altogether new generation of planes, tanks, and ships.
It's tough to cancel a program that has had time to develop a constituency, admitted Secretary Rumsfeld Tuesday at a Monitor breakfast with reporters.
But "if you are not willing to do that, then it means that anything that has ever been started has to go on regardless ... and that would be mindless," he said.
In recent days, a series of leaks from high officials have portrayed Rumsfeld as determined to pull the plug on the Army's big new gun. Asked about the subject directly, Mr. Rumsfeld demurred from announcing the news.
"The decision on Crusader is being refined at the present time, and an announcement will be made at some point in the days immediately ahead," he said.
When the Bush administration took office, transformation of the military was one of its top national security priorities, along with an emphasis on missile defense. To Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon appointees, that meant taking advantage of new technologies and recent experience to further widen the gap between the US military and all possible opponents.
The incoming Bush team launched a wide-ranging defense review to help implement these changes. But the review took longer than anticipated, as such studies almost always do. And then came an event that was in itself transformational: Sept.11.
Suddenly, personal qualities that had made Rumsfeld seem ill-suited for a peacetime Pentagon became valuable. His blunt situational assessments and evident fondness for sparring with the press made him the chief spokesman of the administration during the initial weeks of combat in Afghanistan.
THE experience of the war also showed the virtues of certain weapons, raising them in planners' esteem. The Air Force used so many Joint Direct Attack Munitions, for instance, that it had to accelerate production of the precision-guided weapons. Armed pilotless drones proved capable of tracking and destroying targets.
Meanwhile, the budget cycle continued apace. And now, as Congress weighs its own spending plans, the time has arrived for crucial weapons decisions to be made. Some big systems considered vulnerable have remained untouched, at least so far. The Air Force's F-22, originally intended as a counter to advanced Soviet fighters, remains on track.
But Crusader, which news reports have identified as a likely candidate to be zeroed out of Pentagon plans, has always seemed an obvious budget-cutting target. Though it is far more capable than the artillery system it replaces it fires 10 shells per minute, as opposed to four it is hard to argue the high-tech virtues of a cannon.
The Army's attempt to lobby for the system behind Rumsfeld's back, via "talking points" faxed to congressional supporters, has if anything hurt Crusader's prospects. And the gun's strongest congressional supporters are from Oklahoma, where it will be assembled. Weapons that resist cancellation attempts often spread work and cash around a number of populous states.
"The pieces may be in place for Rumsfeld to win this one," says Gordon Adams, a professor of security studies at George Washington University and a defense budget official in the Clinton years.
But the old "Iron Triangle" of Congress, contractors, and military services should never be counted out. The Pentagon has already spent some $2 billion on the Crusader system, and that kind of investment can buy a certain inevitability.