This story has been updated.
Signaling a changing of the guard at the Pentagon, several of President Barack Obama’s top Pentagon nominees sat for one collective Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday morning, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel settles into his second year on the job.
Leading the pack was Robert Work, Obama’s pick to replace Ash Carter in the number two civilian spot as deputy defense secretary. Work, a retired Marine Corps officer and former undersecretary of the Navy, will be tasked to oversee a defining time in the department, presiding over post-war budget cuts and difficult decisions about the size and structure of the armed forces and weapons programs.
Work revealed little about his positions on several topics and generally told the committee he supports Hagel’s initiatives. He said he backed plans to slow the growth of personnel costs in order to preserve readiness and modernization. “There is a direct link” between the two, he said.
Work said he’s in line with Hagel’s list of global threats, telling the committee that his top priorities are the “rising power in the Asia Pacific,”and the “broad problem in the Middle East,” including Syria and Iran. He also said “small-scale contingencies” will continue to dominate the Pentagon’s attention. And cyber warfare and counterterrorism were high on the list, too.
Work is long known as a strong supporter of the littoral combat ship, once billed as the premier Navy ship of the future. Hagel on Monday announced the Pentagon would cap its LCS purchase at 32 ships instead of 52, asking the Navy for new ideas and designs, instead.
After serving 27 years in the Marine Corps, Work became undersecretary of the Navy in 2009, and recently served as chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank whose alumni have populated dozens of key Pentagon posts under Obama. Work is known for being blunt and capable of making tough, unpopular decisions. “Bob Work is steady, he’s calm, and he’s analytic,” retired Adm. James Stavridis told Foreign Policy earlier this month. At Tuesday’s hearing, former Sen. John Warner, R-Va., praised Work. “This man looks into the future and is able to make the tough decisions.” Work is expected to be approved by the Senate and take over from Christine Fox, who is currently acting in the role.
Also testifying was Michael McCord, who is set to succeed longtime Pentagon comptroller Bob Hale, who is retiring. McCord has served under Hale as deputy comptroller since 2009. McCord echoed Hagel’s call to rein in personnel costs. “We are just trying to restrain the growth a little bit,” he told the committee. McCord served for more than 20 years as a staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The harshest questioning was reserved for Christine Wormuth, who is nominated to succeed former Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, who retired in December, as the top Pentagon policy official.
After Wormuth said that al-Qaeda has “metastasized” and was a “nodal threat,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., grilled her on whether al-Qaeda was actually growing or declining.
“What I meant by that is that it’s diffused,” Wormuth said. McCain pressed her for a direct answer, but Wormuth would only say that al-Qaeda was a “persistent threat.” McCain accused her of refusing to answer the question, or not being “well-informed.” Wormuth agreed that elements of the terrorist group are growing, particularly in Yemen.
After the hearing, McCain told reporters that he plans to put a hold on the nominations of Work and Wormuth. “Their answers were not only naive but nonsensical,” he said.
Also up for top posts at the Pentagon are Brian McKeon, as principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy; David Shear, as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs; and Eric Rosenbach, to be assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.