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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 19, 2001

Blair candidate to head Joint Chiefs

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Affairs Writer

Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the globetrotting Pacific forces commander whose watch most recently included the successful return of a U.S. spy plane and its crew from China, is in the running for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, military analysts say.

Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair was praised for his responses to the EP-3 and the USS Greeneville incidents.

Advertiser library photo • May 19, 2001

Whether Blair will trade his Hawai'i address for one in Washington will be known in a matter of weeks, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announces his pick for the top Pentagon job.

Blair and at least two other top military brass — Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, head of the U.S. Space Command, and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs — are among the candidates to replace Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, due to retire Sept. 30.

"From my perspective, I think Denny Blair is on the short list," said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, a senior fellow with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.

Blair, 54, reportedly received nods of approval for his handling of the EP-3 spy plane and Greeneville submarine incidents, and has a familiarity with the Pacific region, fast becoming the focal point of a post-Cold War U.S. defense strategy. He commands Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force operations in a region encompassing 100 million square miles and 43 countries.

The admiral also is in sync with Rumsfeld's efforts to bring big changes to the military and create a more efficient fighting force, Baker said.

Baker called Blair a "forward thinker" who "has a vision of what should be going on in the future in the form of a national strategy."

"I think he's more on the leading edge, if you will, of what (the military) is doing in information technology and network-centric warfare — just the need for all our systems to be inter-operational, and I think he understands that better than most," Baker said.

Blair was in Tokyo yesterday meeting with senior military leadership from Japan's self-defense forces.

Selection process secretive

Marine Maj. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command, said the selection process for Joint Chiefs chairman has been a secretive one.

"The process is closely held within the office of the secretary of defense, and we have no further information indicating what Admiral Blair's status would be," Gibson said.

The Joint Chiefs chairman is the top military adviser to the president. Rumsfeld will recommend a candidate for the post to President Bush, subject to Senate confirmation.

Shelton is scheduled to retire Sept. 30 following two two-year terms. Although a chairman can serve up to six years, traditionally, the tenure has been four years.

Pentagon officials yesterday said no decision has been made. But with a confirmation process that saw 11 hearings held over Shelton's nomination, Rumsfeld is expected to make a recommendation soon to the president to fill the position.

Last week, Rumsfeld said he had "sifted (the candidates) down to a handful or so." The last three Joint Chiefs chairmen — Shelton, John Shalikashvili and Colin Powell — were plucked from the Army, and there is speculation the next chairman will be from one of the other services.

Eberhart, in charge of the Pentagon's computer warfare operations, remains a strong candidate because of Bush's emphasis on developing a missile defense shield, Pentagon officials said. Myers, meanwhile, has served as acting chairman while Shelton's duties have taken him abroad.

Expert on emerging threats

Blair would bring to the chairmanship a working knowledge of the Pacific and emerging threats like North Korea and China. Hawai'i has been selected for a new, fast-responding Army brigade prototype, and a recent Pentagon-sponsored study suggested Guam should be developed into a major hub from which the United States could project military power into Southeast Asia.

Pentagon officials also have praised Blair for his handling of the EP-3 spy plane incident, which resulted in China's return of the crew and the aircraft, and of the submarine USS Greeneville's collision in February with a Japanese fisheries training vessel.

Blair assumed duties as commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith on Feb. 20, 1999. He served on guided missile destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, commanded Naval Station Pearl Harbor from 1989 to 1990, and was associate director of central intelligence for military support from 1995 to 1996.

Gibson said Blair spends up to two-thirds of his time away from headquarters. Recently, Blair has traveled to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Guam and Okinawa to meet with military officials and government officials.

"His style is to stay in the region, to stay engaged, and carry the mission of the U.S. Pacific Command," Gibson said.