WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Robert Gates is moving to replace virtually all of the top political appointees at the Pentagon, and a number of centrist Democrats are expected to take their places.

Officials familiar with Gates’ thinking say he is planning to keep on only a few of his closest personal aides — no more than a dozen or so. But the Defense Department’s plum jobs — secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, along with dozens of deputy and undersecretary positions, will be up for grabs.

Those slots will be filled by Democratic stalwarts, with some announcements expected as early as this week. Among the names circulating as top defense officials are Obama transition team co-chairwoman Michele Flournoy — possibly for policy undersecretary; Raytheon executive Bill Lynn, and former Clinton administration Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.

Other prospects being mentioned for the service secretary positions include former Air Force Secretary Whit Peters; retired Marine Corps Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, who recently chaired a commission on the National Guard and Reserves, and Kurt Campbell, a former senior policy adviser at the Pentagon.

A link between several of the potential appointees is their involvement in the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, which advocates a centrist national security strategy. Flournoy and Campbell founded the organization.

It is expected that Army Secretary Pete Geren, Navy Secretary Donald Winter and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley will leave. But since the deputy secretary in all three services has either moved on or is preparing to leave, those three top officials could be asked to stay on for a brief time until their replacements are on board.

Gates signaled their departures last week, telling reporters that while a few political appointees may hold over a bit to ease transitions, most will not stay on.

“Virtually every political appointee in the Department of Defense before yesterday assumed he or she would be replaced on Jan. 20 or soon thereafter,” Gates said. “That assumption remains as valid today as it was before.”

Four of the most coveted slots are the three service secretaries and the deputy secretary of defense. The civilian heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force are the public faces of the services and help set policy and priorities.

But while they occupy a prime seat at the table, they often can be overshadowed within the defense community by the four-star military chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

As Obama looks to fill those key spots, as well as the deputy secretary of defense — the Pentagon’s second in command — he also may look at executives from the aerospace community.

Ray DuBois, a former acting undersecretary of the Army and manpower adviser under former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said it would be wise to keep the current service secretaries until replacements are named. Because there will be no deputies in place by then, he said, the military service chiefs would take on the roles of acting secretary.

Doing that would give control of the services to the military, bypassing civilian control.

DuBois also took aim at earlier chatter that Danzig would come on as deputy secretary on a temporary basis, until Gates leaves and Danzig can take over the top job.

“That is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” DuBois said. “Those are two completely different jobs.”

Historically the deputy has handled the day-to-day operations of the vast department, concentrating on acquisition programs, the budget and other business, while the secretary focuses on broader policy.

Overall, a very tiny percentage of the roughly 17,000 Pentagon employees are subject to the shifting political winds — as Obama’s democratic administration takes over and replaces the Republican appointees with those from his own party.

There are a little more than 200 political appointees, ranging from the top secretaries and their deputies to senior staff positions such as speech writers and personal assistants. Those 200, however, include top advisers on everything from the Pentagon’s half-trillion-dollar budget to policy gurus on critical issues involving the Middle East, Russia, China, Korea, missile defense and cyber-warfare.

And while Obama’s views on the war in Iraq differ sharply from the current Bush administration, he will continue to get guidance from the same cadre of military advisers. Sitting around the table in the Pentagon’s vaunted Tank — the secure room where the Joint Chiefs of Staff gather — will be the same four-star generals and admirals who are there now.

Obama already has reached out to Adm. Mike Mullen, joint chiefs chairman, and he has professed respect for Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, who is in charge of military matters in the Middle East.

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