In eyeing Mr. Donley as the next secretary, Mr. Gates would depend on a nuts-and-bolts administrator whose current job is to make sure the world's largest office building runs on time.
Mr. Donley is now the Pentagon's director of administration and management - a title often shortened to "the mayor of the Pentagon." It is Mr. Donley who makes sure there is heat, cooling, office space, furniture and the myriad other things that make the place hum.
Plus, Mr. Donley has done the job previously. He was acting Air Force secretary in 1993, in the waning days of the administration of the first President Bush.
Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who was the Air Force's No. 3 officer during Mr. Donley's brief tenure, calls him "well qualified" to run the service for the last eight months of the second Bush administration.
"He knows the building in its current form from his current job and he will be able to execute what the secretary of defense feels is required," Mr. McInerney said.
Mr. Donley, a beefy ex-Army soldier, would replace Michael W. Wynne, whom Mr. Gates fired on Thursday because of two episodes of the service's lax control over nuclear weapons and components.
Mr. Donley boasts a long government and private sector resume. He served on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration after working for the Senate Armed Services Committee. He also did a stint at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a Pentagon-funded research organization.
In the early 1970s, he served in the Army's 18th Airborne Corps and the 5th Special Forces Group, an element of the Green Berets.
He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in international relations from the University of Southern California.
It remains unclear whom Mr. Gates will recommend to replace Gen. T. Michael Moseley as Air Force chief of staff.
Gen. Moseley was also fired Thursday in the shake-up that Mr. Gates said was required to ensure that the service improves its standards and performance in safeguarding its nuclear weapons and the sensitive components associated with the strategic arsenal.
Mr. Gates said the double firing was motivated by the report from an investigation into the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four Air Force electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads.
The report, which is classified but summarized by Mr. Gates, found a "lack of a critical self-assessment culture" in the Air Force.
The defense secretary also pointed to the flight last August of a B-52 bomber that was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
The report said the Air Force's nuclear standards have been in a long decline, a "problem that has been identified but not effectively addressed for over a decade."
*This article is based in part on wire service reports.