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Rumsfeld, Army leaders in discord

WASHINGTON -- In nearly three years with President Bush as commander in chief, the US Army has led the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the repressive regime in Iraq. But in the halls of the Pentagon, its leaders are losing bitter battles to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld that have broad implications for national security and the future of the nation's half-million soldiers.

Rumsfeld and the Army leadership have clashed on issues ranging from the number of troops in Iraq to the size of the overall force needed to defend America.

Rumsfeld's critics say the skirmishing is taking a toll on the Army, with casualties that include the loss of a prized weapons system last year, the resignation of Army Secretary Thomas White last spring, and, in recent weeks, the retirement of four top generals, with more expected in the coming months.

"You look at Rumsfeld, and beyond all the rationale, spoken and unspoken, he just dislikes the Army. It's just palpable. . . . You always have to wonder if when Rumsfeld was a Navy lieutenant junior grade whether an Army officer stole his girlfriend," said Ralph Peters, a former Army intelligence officer who writes on national security issues.

But other military specialists applaud Rumsfeld's willingness to challenge a staid Army bureaucracy. "The sense that the Army is being made to feel uncomfortable about its future role in war and being made to justify how land power is used, I think that's a good thing," said James Carafano, a retired Army lieutenant colonel now with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

To fix the problems he sees, Rumsfeld has tapped Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, a self-described "loud, boisterous, funny, in your face" former naval officer, as the next secretary of the Army. If the Senate confirms Roche this month, he will bring a military outlook in sync with Rumsfeld. But he also has clashed with Rumsfeld, and could become the kind of ally the Army needs to end the feud.

Either way, Roche has a chasm to bridge. One retired Army general, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he often hears Rumsfeld compared with Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a former auto industry executive who was similarly intent on imposing his own stamp on the military bureaucracy.

"I widely hear the comparison to McNamara, normally with the caveat that he's much worse than McNamara," the general said.

The rupture between Rumsfeld and his top Army generals stems from a combustible combination of clashing personalities and policy differences. The early battle lines were drawn over Crusader, an $11 billion mobile artillery system that Rumsfeld and his allies argued was suited for pounding Soviet armor on the plains of Germany during the Cold War era, but not fighting 21st-century terrorists and guerrilla forces.

In the spring of 2002, the Army rallied its congressional allies in a highly public fight that culminated with Rumsfeld killing the program. Rumsfeld has pushed the armed forces to be able to deploy and move quickly to strike targets of opportunity.

The speed vs. power trade-off surfaced during planning for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, when Army officials argued in favor of battle plans emphasizing heavy armor moving inexorably to victory. Rumsfeld insisted on plans that focused on speed as force, accentuating joint operations where, for example, close air support in many places replaced artillery barrages.

The frictions were exacerbated by personality differences. Rumsfeld places a premium on loyalty, which made the Army's apparent end-run attempt on Crusader all the more damaging. But close observers remain puzzled why Rumsfeld and Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, clashed; dating to the Clinton administration, Shinseki, despite resistance from his service, made transformation the hallmark of his tenure.

Nevertheless, when Shinseki testified earlier this year before a congressional panel that securing postwar Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops, Pentagon leaders publicly called his estimate "wildly off the mark." The absence of anyone from the Office of the Secretary of Defense at Shinseki's June retirement was widely noticed.

Most recently, a handful of Army three-star generals retired, prompting speculation that Rumsfeld was conducting a purge.

"It's a major purge. Blood is flowing out of the Pentagon," said David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel who writes a syndicated column.

An Army spokesman said that the retirements were not unusual and that 13 three-star generals are expected to retire this year.

The truth appears to lie in the middle. "This is not a large number of generals to be retiring," said Loren Thompson, a defense specialist at the libertarian Lexington Institute. "However, it is striking how many of them are out of the weapons purchasing part of the bureaucracy. Either by design or by coincidence, that means that when the Army gets a new secretary there will be very few people in senior positions who have a sense of ownership of the weapons programs."

But the reaction illustrates the antagonism toward Rumsfeld.

Ironically, the low expectations could help Roche. "You lead by being inclusive," Roche said in a recent interview.

Those who have worked with Roche in his career -- 23 years in the Navy, a brief stint as a Democratic staff member on Capitol Hill, 18 years at Northrop Grumman -- say he is suited for the Army job. They say his style involves intellectual rigor and intense questioning, but also applying an open mind and a willingness to make a service's case if it is legitimate.

At Northrop Grumman, Roche opposed building Lockheed's F/A-22 in favor of ordering more Northrop-built B-2 bombers. Last year, when word spread that Rumsfeld's lieutenants were targeting the F/A-22 for cancellation, Roche went to see Rumsfeld and, according to sources familiar with the meeting, delivered an audacious message: Tell me if the fix is in, Roche said, and I'll salute smartly and follow orders -- but if I think it's a bad decision I'll quit.

Roche had gone several rounds with his own staff, rejecting and refining arguments to save the fighter until he had a case he felt was intellectually defensible to make before Rumsfeld. In the end, Roche won the argument: The F/A-22 program continues.

Roche declined to comment on the story, but said: "I agree with a number of Don's rules. One is if no one's yelling at you and if you're not in trouble with somebody, then you're not doing your job. And the other is be prepared to go home on any given day."

Rumsfeld is reputed to be close-minded, but many defense specialists say his intolerance is limited to people who cannot forcefully back up their arguments. Roche is reputed to be the same way -- but with a wit that is not as caustic as that of Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld "respects push-back, particularly from people who know they've got something to lose," said Thompson. "It's an interesting contrast. . . . The Army secretary never confronted the secretary of defense. The Air Force secretary did. These were both over weapons systems. The Army secretary is long gone and the Air Force secretary is destined to replace him."

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com.

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