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Omaha World-Herald November 29, 2001

StratCom's next chief wins praise Swearing-in ceremony

By Joe Dejka

He's more familiar with zoombags than poopie suits. But don't hold that against him. Unlike previous commanders in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. James O. Ellis Jr. has not climbed a career ladder that required him to maintain, protect and target nuclear weapons. When he takes over as StratCom commander on Friday, Ellis will be responsible for all three tasks. Three military experts and two U.S. senators say, however, that Ellis has the credentials and demeanor to take control of the nation's nuclear deterrent force of missiles, bombers and submarines in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Ellis, 54, will become the first former Navy fighter pilot to lead StratCom and the third admiral since the command was formed in 1992.

The first two admirals to oversee StratCom had served on ballistic missile submarines. Navy pilots call their flight suits zoombags. Poopie suits are what submariners call their blue coveralls.

Ellis will take over at a time when President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are acting like old school chums, and most Americans are more fearful of Osama bin Laden than a hail of Russian missiles.

The Spartanburg, S.C., native will need a pilot's quick reflexes to face the difficult task of implementing Bush's sharp warhead reductions while maintaining a credible force to deter an attack on America or its allies.

"He definitely has an outstanding resume," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that seeks to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. "He has gotten his ticket punched doing just about everything imaginable," Pike said. "He's had command responsibility in two full-scale wars and several contingency operations. He's been a test pilot and a lobbyist."

U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who served as a foot soldier in Vietnam, said the admiral's experience as a commander at sea will be useful. "I think he's superbly qualified and well-rounded," Hagel said. The Senate confirmed Ellis' appointment Sept. 25.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said he sat down with Ellis for about an hour after Ellis was appointed. Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Ellis seemed well-acquainted with the fundamental tenets of arms control and nuclear deterrence. "He satisfied me that he has a full range of knowledge," Nelson said.

Retired Rear Adm. Stephen H. Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, said Ellis is "about as seasoned a warrior as we have as a four-star."

One key to Ellis' appointment, according to Baker, was his command of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. To hold that post, Ellis had to pass the Navy's demanding and highly technical nuclear-power training school, he said.

"That check in the box was the qualifier for him being eligible" to lead StratCom, Baker said. "It's by far the most comprehensive, hardest, challenging course they can throw at any human being." Ellis commanded the carrier in 1991 and participated in Operation Desert Storm. The ship, then on its maiden voyage, was deployed in the western Pacific and Arabian Gulf.

Baker said he sees no weaknesses in Ellis' resume. Although submariners gain hands-on experience - giving them keen understanding of their deterrence mission - they also can be narrowly focused, Baker said.

The global focus of Ellis' assignments - Europe, the Pacific, the Atlantic, Washington, D.C. - ensures his understanding of U.S. strategic interests, he said. When America launched a bombing campaign to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Ellis was in the thick of things.

At the time, Ellis was commander in chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, headquartered in London, and commander in chief, Allied Forces, Southern Europe, headquartered in Naples, Italy. Ellis has held both positions since 1998.

The air campaign, code-named Operation Allied Force, and the Kosovo Force that followed, involved more than 50,000 personnel and more than 900 aircraft from all NATO nations.

It was Ellis' performance during and after the conflict that impressed Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

O'Hanlon co-authored the book, "Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo," released last year. The book is critical of the Clinton administration's handling of the war. "I'm a big fan" of Ellis, O'Hanlon said.

He said Ellis was "a good soldier" during the war, but afterward wasn't shy about offering constructive criticism on the preparedness of U.S. and NATO forces.

O'Hanlon said implementing Bush's warhead cuts is a clear task for the next leader of StratCom. Equally important, he said, is dealing with the instability caused by Russia's relative weakness.

Ellis, O'Hanlon said, must figure out how to cut warheads and make sure Russia doesn't lose control of its nuclear weapons while protecting against the threat of future bin Ladens.

Ellis declined an interview, but during the Senate confirmation process he expressed his support for the Triad: the three-legged model of strategic defense.

Submarines provide survivability, bombers provide flexibility and intercontinental ballistic missiles provide a prompt response, he said.

Ellis said the country's nuclear-weapons manufacturing complex is old and requires modernization.

He expressed support for "denuclearizing" former Soviet states, to continue to promote weapons stockpile safety and security in Russia and help stem the proliferation of weapons.

In response to written questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ellis admitted that he has some learning ahead, but said, "Thirty-two years of service in the U.S. military have fully prepared me for this position."


Copyright 2001 The Omaha World-Herald Company