ARLINGTON, Va. — Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s unprecedented decision to nominate retired four-star general Peter J. Schoomaker as the next chief of staff took many by surprise, the move actually fits Rumsfeld’s agenda, Army watchers said.

Reports emerged yesterday that Pentagon officials formally will announce Schoomaker’s selection later this week, which then would be subject to Senate confirmation.

But rumors that Rumsfeld was considering Schoomaker actually began to surface three weeks ago, after Central Commander Gen. Tommy Franks and Gen. John Keane, the current vice chief of staff, both turned down the job.

The appointment of Schoomaker “makes sense in a number of ways from Rumsfeld’s perspective,” according to John Grady, a former Army officer and spokesman for the Association of the U.S. Army in Washington.

First, Schoomaker is an expert in special operations, which under Rumsfeld has come out of the shadows and into the limelight as the star of Afghanistan, and in a less visible role, Iraq.

And while he was in active service, Schoomaker also was a passionate advocate of transformation — not only Army transformation, but Pentagon transformation.

In his last official appearance, on Nov. 2, 2000, Schoomaker told an Institute of Land Warfare gathering in Washington, “I’m a believer that it is necessary to transform. We have to.”

Schoomaker also told that audience that too often equipment is made out be the most important element in bringing the Army into the future — a comment that probably resonates with Rumsfeld, who is said to believe Cold War thinking, not outdated weapons, is keeping the Army from truly modernizing.

And in retirement, Schoomaker did not cut himself off from his friends in the Army, according to people who know him.

“He’s current on Army issues,” Grady said in a Wednesday telephone interview.

Schoomaker is said to have assisted Franks with the special operations portions of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, a conflict that integrated special operations forces into conventional arms to an extent never previously seen.

If Rumsfeld goes ahead with the nomination, the message to the Army will be clear, one former Army officer said Wednesday: “‘I’m gonna shake things up.’”

The shake-up has been going on ever since Rumsfeld took his own post.

In the past two years, the Army has seen its civilian leader, former Army Gen. Thomas White, fired, and its centerpiece artillery program, the Crusader, canceled.

In May, Rumsfeld announced he was moving in Air Force Secretary James Roche, a former corporate scion and Navy officer, as White’s replacement.

But even before all of this, Rumsfeld forced his chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, into lame-duck mode by announcing Shinseki’s departure 18 months before the position officially expired at the end of June 2003.

The Army held a formal retirement ceremony for Shinseki on Wednesday. Keane temporarily will assume Shinseki’s job until a new chief gets Senate approval, Army officials said.

So what could be in store for the Army that is so tough to swallow that Rumsfeld thinks he needs an outsider to make it stick?

Downsizing is one possibility. Efforts by Rumsfeld’s civilian staffers to gut two of the Army’s 10 divisions got sidelined by major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that plan is now back on the table, Pentagon insiders say.

Meanwhile, the service’s most “transformational” program, the Future Combat System, appears to be on track, but Roche is reported to be planning a major review as one of his first priorities as Army secretary.

Such a review is not necessarily a bad thing, Grady said.

Civilian defense officials “are asking critical questions about the [Future Combat System], but they should be,” Grady said. “It has DOD support, including [Rumsfeld].”

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