In naming a "procurement czar" to tame the Pentagon's runaway weapons acquisition program, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger selected a man known more for crafting consensus than making the sweeping reforms expected of his new position.
James P. Wade Jr., a career Pentagon official who became assistant defense secretary for acquisition last week, is known as a consummate survivor, a team player who has managed to bridge five administrations since 1967 by mastering complex issues, deferring to superiors and, above all, carefully sidestepping controversy.
In his new post, however, Wade finds himself in the eye of a storm. As chief troubleshooter in the Pentagon's most troubled reaches, he has an urgent mandate to knock heads in the pursuit of reform.
Wade, 54, made clear in his first interview as procurement chief that although he prefers solving problems quietly, "I certainly see myself as willing to break the crockery or the glasses" if necessary to bring order to the process of buying and maintaining weapons.
"Where necessary," he said, "you've got to hardball a problem and I'm not afraid to do that."
When Weinberger recommended in January that the new post be created, he prescribed just such a commitment. In the past, he said, with procurement responsibilities lumped into the same office as weapons research and engineering, the Pentagon was not effectively managing the nation's rearmanent and its $100-billion-a-year budget.
The reorganization reflects Weinberger's larger concern: shielding President Reagan's consensus on defense from such embarrassing scandals as Navy purchases of $659 aircraft ashtrays and defense contractor bills for boarding an executive's dog.
Wade, who has served as deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering since 1981, says he considers his primary challenge is to regain public confidence in weapons acquisition.
"We have a long way to go, particularly in the eyes of the American people," he said. "Part of the problem is getting the recognition that the program is being managed correctly and efficiently so that they can provide the support we need for defense."
To some of his Pentagon associates, Wade is a tireless technician who is skilled at bureaucratic politics and the art of compromise. But they are uncertain how he will perform in a role requiring strong advocacy of reform and hard choices for distributing limited financial resources among vying services and weapons systems.
"Jim is not a risk taker," said a senior defense official. "He's never really angered anyone in the defense community. If he's doing his new job, he'll have to step on some toes."
A West Point graduate and physicist who has dealt with different phases of weapons acquisition throughout his career, Wade said he plans to emphasize "front-end planning," where officials can decide to buy standardized components rather than have special parts designed in small quantities but at high costs.
"That's how you end up with $600 ashtrays," he said.
Wade also said he plans to improve the training of procurement officers and to promote cooperation between the military services to streamline purchasing and avoid redundancies.
He said abuses by defense contractors have been limited, but a few cases have been "quite serious" and "devastating" in their impact on public perception. He said the industry has not been "sensitive early enough" to this problem, and the Pentagon should work with contractors to restore public confidence.
No stranger to bureaucratic obstacles, Wade said that while considering reforms for spare parts acquisition in recent years, he read a 1982 report by the General Accounting Office and compared it with a GAO study written in 1961.
"One could almost believe they were the same report," he said. "Over years and years, there have been a series of very difficult problems. It's just going to take time to root out."