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The military candidate?

Times Staff Writer

For decades, the nation’s military officer corps has identified steadfastly with the priorities and values of the Republican Party. So the brass should be reveling in the presidential campaign of John McCain.

Yet, in a culture that typically prefers one of its own, many are wary of the Vietnam War hero.

McCain, a former Navy officer and prisoner of war, would arrive in the White House with more military experience than any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. But he also would bring a long congressional career as an outspoken critic of the Pentagon -- prone to harsh assessments of its spending practices, weapons programs and military leaders.

As a result, defenders of some of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons systems are worried that if McCain is elected, he will order sweeping changes, killing a number of big-ticket programs. Perhaps unlike other civilian leaders, McCain would be able to draw on his experience and knowledge of the military to reject the advice of generals and admirals.

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“He is more feared in the Pentagon because he is impervious to the usual methods the military uses to roll the civilian leadership,” a senior Defense official said.

Past presidential hopefuls have pledged to reorder military spending and alter war preparations. But McCain “knows where the bodies are buried,” the senior official said, referring to the Republican nominee’s understanding of weapons programs.

The range of views within the Pentagon about the GOP candidate is surprising and shows a complex culture struggling with the effects of waging two protracted wars while grappling with rivalries among the military branches.

Some top officers are disillusioned over how President Bush has used the military, and they cheer the prospect of the sweeping reforms McCain might bring. Others are skeptical, believing that the former Navy fighter pilot would show a bias against the Air Force. They wonder whether Democrat Barack Obama would be a safer choice.

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“People are weighing who would be the lesser of two evils,” one military officer said.

Most of the personnel interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that their names not be used, citing the advice of senior military officials who cautioned against appearing to take sides in the political campaign.

But for all the admonitions about remaining apolitical, the presidential race is a topic of daily conversation at lunch tables around the Pentagon.

Some officials privately express a degree of enthusiasm for Obama, hoping for better relations with allies and an improved U.S. image in the Muslim world. Toward that end, they said, the Democrat is more likely to appoint Pentagon leaders who would actively engage potential adversaries, as well as allies.

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“We need some folks in here who are not responsible for getting us where we are today,” a senior Army official said.

Fans of McCain -- and there are many, especially within the Navy -- believe he is best-equipped to reform the business of the Pentagon, changing how weapons systems are selected and paid for. “I don’t see him as coming in and cutting programs,” a military official said. “He sees how this building gets taken advantage of by contractors, and [he] is troubled.”

But others expect that McCain would insist on changes in the way the military chooses and builds airplanes, ships and tanks. “He has a deep love for the military and understanding of the culture,” an officer said. “But he is not at all afraid to be critical of how we spend our money.”

People close to McCain’s campaign have said repeatedly that Pentagon reform would be a top priority for him, although there have been few specifics.

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The next president will face two crucial defense issues early on: whether to go forward with the Army’s controversial Future Combat Systems program, a decision due in February, and whether to purchase additional F-22 fighter planes or shut down production.

McCain has been a critic of the Future Combat Systems program -- a collection of next-generation tanks and troop transports being developed by the Army -- and Defense officials believe he would order a close look.

“It’s one of the first opportunities of the next president to put his fingerprints on the Pentagon,” the senior Army official said. “If he wants to step in swinging, he may take a whack at FCS.”

The decision on the F-22 could signal whether the new president will focus on building up America’s conventional military power or continue the shift toward weapons systems suitable for smaller wars and counterinsurgency efforts.

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Eisenhower -- a five-star Army general who as president warned of the rising power of the military-industrial complex -- shifted military spending dramatically, moving money into the Air Force to build up its strategic bomber wing and air-refueling capabilities.

Some officials have speculated that McCain would likewise try to reshuffle funding -- but with the Air Force coming out the loser.

In 2001, McCain was highly critical of the Air Force over what he said was a wasteful deal to lease refueling tankers from Boeing Co.

The Pentagon canceled the contract, and a new bidding competition has been put on hold. But some Air Force officers fear that a McCain presidency would punish them over the tankers and other controversial aircraft programs. They also worry that the former Navy pilot could favor that military branch.

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But Thomas G. McInerney, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, said he did not believe the service should be nervous about McCain. “He was hard on the Air Force leadership,” McInerney said. “He was hard on the Air Force acquisition system. But I don’t think he was hard on the Air Force per se.”

Publicly, most active-duty officers are taking a rigorously neutral view of the presidential campaign. Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, said that any incoming president would question preexisting priorities. But, he said, it’s wrong for military officials to try to “game” how the election’s outcome will affect their preferred weapons systems.

“I have to say, ‘This is what I believe we need.’ I have to make the case, and the commander in chief will decide,” Roughead said. “There will be a questioning of our perspectives, priorities, intentions. It happens with every transition. That is the prerogative of the commander in chief.”

As president, McCain might have a better idea than most about how the military works. But uniformed officers can still act as a brake on changes they believe are unwise.

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“The Bush team came in and said, ‘We don’t do nation-building.’ But the Defense Department view was, ‘Let’s not get carried away,’ ” the senior Army official said. “We don’t like doing it either, but sometimes you have to. And look at the last seven years: We have done a fair bit of nation-building.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com


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