In the mid-1970s, when Donald Rumsfeld first served as defense secretary, a little-known group of iconoclastic military thinkers was toiling away in the obscure Office of Net Assessment on the Pentagon's A-ring.
One of those early mavericks, a Navy captain named James Roche, is emerging today as one of Rumsfeld's most favored and powerful agents for "transforming" America's military.
This month, the White House tapped Dr. Roche, who has served two years as Air Force secretary, to become the new secretary of the Army. Roche's expected nomination comes at a critical juncture for the 228-year-old service: The Army's senior leadership is in considerable upheaval, and relations between the Army and Rumsfeld appear tenser than ever. The Army, moreover, is experimenting with sweeping changes to its organization, weapons systems, and personnel structure.
Few doubt Roche's qualifications, say officials and analysts on both sides of the Rumsfeld-Army rift. A former Northrop Grumman Corp. executive with a Harvard Business School doctorate, Roche has shown a knack for successful corporate turnarounds. He has a broad range of defense experience - as a career Navy officer, congressional staffer, Pentagon analyst, and most recently Air Force secretary. Add to this a keen intellect, taste for sleek cars and exclusive clubs, and self-described "boundless ego," and Roche, according to those who know him, is a force to contend with.
Still, Roche's effectiveness in the job will depend at least as much on how he handles the bad blood between Rumsfeld and top Army brass as it does on his intellect and connections to the Pentagon's inner circle, say defense officials and analysts.
"Obviously, he [Roche] will have to reach out to the senior Army leadership and make the point that he is there to help the Army with its transformation," says Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a friend of Roche. "But again, a lot of it has to do with how the Army views him."
For their part, Army officials suggest that relations with the Rumsfeld team are at rock bottom and have nowhere to go but up. Especially troubling is what they view as Rumsfeld's clashes with former Army Secretary Thomas White, who departed abruptly May 9, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who retires next month.
"When the Army sees its leaders regularly disrespected by the Secretary of Defense, you have to assume he has it in for you," says an Army official. "Look at how he fired [Secretary] White. ... That was just an ambush." The Pentagon announced White's resignation on April 25, but officials say privately Rumsfeld made it clear he wanted White out. White, a former cavalry officer, had lobbied to retain the Army's Crusader artillery system, which Rumsfeld canceled.
Rumsfeld denied that he's at war with the Army. "It's just not true," he recently told reporters at the Pentagon.
In February, however, the Rumsfeld team criticized as "wildly off the mark" General Shinseki's estimate that hundreds of thousands of US troops might be required to occupy postwar Iraq. So far, no replacement has been announced for the outgoing Army chief of staff. Two leading candidates, Gen. John Keane and Gen. Tommy Franks, have declined the post, defense officials say. Meanwhile, a large number of the three-star generals from Shinseki's staff are either retiring or changing jobs this summer.
"It looks like it will be a rocky transition," says an Army official, who requested anonymity.
Still, Roche's tenure as Air Force secretary suggests that, while he clearly embraces Rumsfeld's vision of transformation and joint war fighting, he can prove a strong advocate for an individual service, analysts say.
"Everyone thought his relationship with the Air Force would be terrible, that the Air Force would be merged into the Navy - those were the jokes at his swearing-in ceremony," says aerospace and defense attorney James McAleese, who has worked with Roche.
Instead, Roche has aggressively promoted priority Air Force programs such as the F/A-22 fighter jet, despite cost overruns, and has backed a controversial plan to lease 100 refueling tankers from Boeing to supplement the stretched fleet.
Similarly, Roche would be expected to support ongoing initiatives aimed at building a more agile, more lethal Army. These include the creation of six new Stryker brigade combat teams, the first of which is now undergoing its final operational test, as well as the multibillion-dollar future combat systems, which is expected to be fielded beginning in 2012.
Less clear is where Roche would stand on other pressing questions, including the balance between light and heavy infantry within the Army's 10 active divisions, the recapitalization of existing systems such as the Abrams tanks that proved their worth in Iraq, and the retention and rotation of Army personnel.
"The tension Roche faces is to be able to articulate his shared vision with Rumsfeld, and at the same time understand the very basic lessons [from Iraq] ... that Army forces need a certain amount of armor and artillery," says Larry Wortzel, a retired Army colonel and director of the Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1939 as what he calls a hospital "charity case," Roche earned a bachelor's degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1960, a master's degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1966, and a doctorate from Harvard Business School in 1972.
A 23-year Navy veteran, Roche commanded the USS Buchanan guided missile destroyer and was awarded the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy for the Navy's most improved combat unit in the Pacific in 1974. He retired as a Navy captain in 1983, and often playfully calls himself a "dumb sailor."
People who have worked with Roche describe him as a highly intelligent man with a quick wit and sometimes quirky managerial style. "He's a detail man as opposed to just a big thinker. ... [H]e seems more like an engineering geek than a military leader," says Chris MeCray, a defense analyst at Deutsche Bank in New York who spent time with Roche during the secretary's 17-year career at Northrop Grumman.
Roche required the Northrop senior managers to perform Shakespeare plays on weekend retreats that served as a kind of bonding exercise, Mr. McAleese says. He also took them on tours of Civil War battlefields to help them appreciate the timeless concerns of men in combat.
Career history: 23-year Navy veteran; Democratic staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee; senior executive at the Northrop Grumman Corp.; Secretary of the Air Force
Education: Bachelor's degree from Illinois Institute of Technology; master's from the US Naval Postgraduate School; doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration
Hobbies: Cars, jazz, and military history
Self-described: As having a "boundless ego" and, playfully, as a "dumb sailor"