WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has been preparing for months for the first wartime change of presidents in 40 years, a period of heightened vulnerability that, if history is a guide, US adversaries will try to exploit.
"We will all be on heightened alert given that historically our enemies have tried to take advantage of that time around an election, either before of after," Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, told AFP.
After the November 4 elections, the baton will be handed to the incoming administration in an awkward transition that typically continues for months after the swearing-in of a new president on January 20.
History overflows with examples of major incidents in the period before and after the elections, as evidenced by a chronology drawn up by the Joint Staff.
Three months after his arrival in the White House, John Kennedy was beset by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which set in motion a confrontation with Havana that led to the Cuban missile crisis the following year.
The fall of Saigon occurred eight months after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency. Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt just weeks after he took office.
Only a month after Bill Clinton was sworn in, a bomb struck the World Trade Center in New York, and eight months into George W. Bush's presidency hijacked airliners toppled the twin towers and struck the Pentagon.
With the United States engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for detailed preparations may be even more critical this time.
"It takes an administration, any administration, a good six months to a year to get their feet on the ground and really be running," Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned earlier this month.
For months, Mullen has had a team of about a dozen people on the Joint Staff actively focused on the issues raised by the transition.
"The idea is to keep the military in a state of heightened awareness as we move through this vulnerable time," said Captain John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen.
Their mission: "Make sure the military stays ready for any contingency and to actually prevent, to the degree we can, that kind of a crisis," Kirby said.
Their job also it is to "make sure that the chairman is prepared to give his best military advice to the next president on the top security issues on which the administration needs to focus," he said.
Among the hottest issues is a new strategy now being devised for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the changing situation in Iraq, and the impact of the financial crisis on the US defense budget, said a senior military officer, who asked not to be identified.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates also is intent on make sure the transition goes as smoothly as possible.
"He has made it clear that everybody and anybody in this building who can help in that effort must," said Morrell.
The arrival of a new administration will bring an unsettling whirl of nominations to key positions in the Pentagon and elsewhere.
"Gates wants to figure out a way for us to get the incoming team security clearances as quickly as possible to the key members so that they can even begin sitting in on his conversations with the commanders," Morrell said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon chief has asked his staff to stay on for a few extra months until their successors can be confirmed by Congress.
Gates himself has been coy about whether he might stay on in a new administration, as some have suggested.
The campaign teams of Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain insist they are braced for the change.
"It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy," said Senator Joe Biden, Obama's running mate. "Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."