A friendly confirmation hearing saw the Senate Armed Services Committee prepare to advance three nominees to senior positions at the Defense Department, including President Donald Trump’s pick for a permanent Navy Secretary.
“This is as strong a panel of nominees as we’ve had before us and I plan to support all of you,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said at the Thursday morning hearing.
Up for consideration was Kenneth Braithwaite, currently U.S. ambassador to Norway, to be Navy Secretary; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities James Anderson to be the deputy undersecretary for policy; and Air Force Gen. Charles Brown to be his service’s chief of staff.
Braithwaite and Anderson would replace officials who left the post prematurely.
Braithwaite answered pointed questions about what is seen as a period of crisis for the U.S. Navy, which lost its last Senate-confirmed secretary, Richard Spencer, in a high-profile dispute with Trump over military justice last fall, and its acting secretary, Thomas Modly, in the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
“It saddens me to say: the Department of the Navy is in troubled waters due to many factors, primarily the failings of leadership,” Braithwaite said during his opening statement, citing “a breakdown in the trust of those leading the service.”
“It is my number one priority, if I’m confirmed, to restore the appropriate culture in the United States Navy,” Braithwaite said later. “I won’t say it’s been broken; I think it’s been tarnished.”
Asked by Kaine if he would intervene down the chain of command, as Modly did in the case of the Roosevelt, Braithwaite said he would not.
“I think the men and women in uniform should have established the ability to lead their men and women appropriately,” he said.
Anderson is currently holding the top policy post at the Pentagon in an acting capacity, filling in for John Rood, who was pushed out as part of a broad purge of officials seen as insufficiently loyal by the Trump administration. He was pressed on the simmering U.S. conflict with Iran as well as the American presence in Afghanistan.
The peace deal in Afghanistan, Anderson said, is showing “mixed results in terms of Taliban compliance.”
“They have been attacking robustly and on an unfortunate level and on an unprecedented level our Afghan partners,” he said. “This is greatly concerning to us.”
On Iran, Anderson said that he believes that the United States has reestablished “conventional deterrence” and that he did not believe more troops would be necessary in the Middle East.
Brown’s testimony drew less focus from lawmakers than his two counterparts seated in the sparse, socially-distanced hearing room. He called for a new roles-and-mission study that could “potentially assign the Air Base Defense role to the Air Force” and cited possible budget constraints related to COVID-19 as his greatest challenge as incoming chief.
“I might have given you a different answer a few months ago, but as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, I see an emerging challenge where our strategic aspirations and our resources available may be on divergent paths,” Brown said.