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Edward Aldridge

Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge trained as an aeronautical engineer, starting at Texas A&M University. Throughout his 42-year national security career, which included 18 years at the Pentagon and a penultimate stint as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, Aldridge left grand strategy and geopolitics to others. He has been more concerned with the practical questions of making things work - a missile, an airplane, a multi-billion-dollar budget, and in retirement, a strawberry-red 1962 Corvette with a black interior.

Aldridge took his like of flight to Texas A&M University in the 1950s. "When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go to A&M, and I knew I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer," he says. After graduation, the newly fledged Aggie turned down a graduate-school scholarship at Georgia Tech when he was offered a job at McDonnell Aircraft, only to be forced to ask the Atlanta institution to disregard his earlier telegram when McDonnell withdrew the offer.

Graduate school and marriage took Aldridge out of the cockpit. He only soloed as a student pilot before he ran out of flight school money, but he learned enough to take over the controls of some of the most advanced aircraft ever produced later on, when he was secretary of the Air Force. And his training at Georgia Tech prepared him for his first job at a time when aerospace jobs were a little hard to come by. Clearly the recruiters at Douglas Aircraft who gave Aldridge that job knew what they were doing, given the caliber of engineers they were hiring in those days.

Aldridge and his colleagues worked on missiles with names like Thor, Nike Zeus and Harpoon. That changed in 1965 when an assignment to support the marketers at the Douglas office in Washington sent him on the first round of a bi-coastal odyssey that continued throughout his working career. 

Aldridge stayed in Washington after Douglas and McDonnell merged in 1967, entering government service as one of Robert McNamara's whiz kids in the Pentagon's Office of Systems Analysis. His primary focus was ballistic missile defense, and he wound up writing the decision paper McNamara took to the White House laying out the deployment scheme for the Sentinel Anti-Ballistic Missile system adopted by President Johnson.

When President Nixon took office, Aldridge helped shift the ABM emphasis from protecting cities to the "Safeguard" approach aimed at guarding the Minuteman missile fields against a Soviet first strike.  After the ABM Treaty was signed in 1972, Aldridge accepted a job offer from Augustine to run the advanced concepts operation at LTV in Grand Prairie, Texas. Among the concepts he studied for his old colleague were unmanned aerial vehicles, and the "hit-to-kill" approach to missile defense as an alternative to the nuclear warheads carried in the Safeguard interceptors. But it wasn't long before he returned to Washington for a year-long hitch in the White House Office of Management and Budget - one of his few forays outside the national security realm.

Next Aldridge moved back to the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategic programs in the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E), under Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. Purchase of the B-1 Bomber, Minuteman modernization and survivability, Trident submarine issues and transfer of the Air Force tanker fleet to the Air National Guard were among the issues he handled.

In 1975, President Ford replaced Schlesinger with his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, who asked Aldridge to take over the PA&E shop as assistant secretary. In 1977, with Democratic President Carter in the White House, Aldridge went to System Planning Corp., a Virginia-based consultancy, as vice president. There he continued to work on many of the same strategic issues that had occupied him in the Pentagon, including cruise missiles, finding ways for B-1 to penetrate Soviet air defenses and ballistic missile defense. The work kept him sharp for his return to the Pentagon for the defense buildup launched by President Reagan in 1981.

Aldridge accepted an offer to become the under secretary of the Air Force and director of the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office). It was the right job for Aldridge and he made his mark on the U.S. space program there. In 1986, he was named Air Force secretary, a job he held until 1988 while retaining the NRO directorship for a record-setting eight years. 

At the Air Force, Aldridge rolled out the B-2 bomber and unveiled the F-117.  He also got to do some more flying, including an unforgettable run in an SR-71 Blackbird that took him to Mach 3 and 80,000 feet. Nonetheless, it was Aldridge who made the decision to terminate the SR-71 program to pay for two tactical fighter wings. The $350 million a year it cost to operate was better spent elsewhere because the NRO's space systems could provide the overhead intelligence in ways that still amaze Aldridge.  

"I can't talk about anything that went on, but there were some absolutely mind-blowing religious experiences during that time," he says. "It's probably the most fun job anybody could ever have."

After the Air Force, Aldridge spent four years as president of McDonnell Douglas Electronic Systems Company, a job he says he essentially recommended be abolished in a reorganization scheme he drafted for company Chief Executive John McDonnell. Then came a nine-year run as president and CEO or the Aerospace Corp., the federally funded Research and Development Center that advises the Air Force and other government agencies on space operations. As an engineer, he found it a "terrific" job.

Nothing lasts forever, and early in 2001, Aldridge and his wife were on a cruise around South America when the news came that President Bush had picked Rumsfeld for a second term as defense secretary. "The phone was ringing when I got home," Aldridge says. So began a final tour in the E-ring, first as defense under secretary, and at the end as a special adviser to Rumsfeld for one final task. 

These days, Aldridge says he's spending 40-50% of his time serving on the boards of three companies - Lockheed Martin, Global Crossing and Alion Science and Technology. He and his wife keep track of their four children and six grandchildren scattered across the country. 

-Information taken from Aviation Week's Spotlight article "Pete Aldridge: From Missle Defense to Mars" by Frank Morring Jr.