Robert Work can blame the snowstorm for this.
President Obama’s pick for deputy Defense secretary was slated to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, but the snow blanketing Washington that day canceled the hearing. So Work took the hot seat just one day after his soon-to-be boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, unveiled the Pentagon’s request for next year’s budget — and a list of controversial cuts.
The unfortunate timing meant that lawmakers peppered Work with questions about budget programs on the chopping block that he was not prepared to answer — and asked him to make commitments he was not yet in a position to make.
Lawmakers, as expected, were riled up about the Pentagon’s request for a round of base closures. “I would like a commitment [the Defense Department] will not undertake BRAC without approval of Congress,” New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said. She was “troubled” by Hagel’s veiled threat to find other ways to reduce infrastructure if Congress keeps blocking his requests.
“Will you give me that commitment?” Ayotte asked.
Work, a former Navy undersecretary and current think-tank CEO, was vague. He alluded to other “authorities” the department could use to close bases over Congress’s objections but said he does not know specifically what they are. Work promised to get back to her if confirmed.
“I take that as a lack of commitment,” Ayotte fired back. “That troubles me.”
This is just a taste of what Work, a shoo-in for his new role, will contend with once he becomes the Pentagon’s No. 2.
He may be able to dodge these questions until then, but soon he will be forced to defend these very cuts, and many more, as the Pentagon slashes hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget in the coming years. Once Work, known as a meticulous analyst and coalition builder, takes up his position as Hagel’s right-hand man, his key mission will be guiding the military’s transition from an era dominated by two wars and then managing a garrison force during a drawdown.
That mandate, of course, is contentious, especially when Congress has personal interests at stake, and especially during an election year.
Already, Republican Sen. John McCain is blocking Work’s nomination because the nominee was not intimately familiar with a critical government report detailing cost overruns from the Littoral Combat Ship program. (McCain is also holding Obama’s pick to be undersecretary of Defense for policy, Christine Wormuth, for being unclear about the threat al-Qaida poses and refusing to answer his questions about the terrorist group’s spread.)
Some budget battles are already emerging. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, wanted to know how Work felt about Hagel’s proposals to cap pay raises at 1 percent; freeze pay for general and flag officers for a year; scale back tax-free housing allowances; and shrink the Army to its lowest force size since World War II. Cuts to military personnel accounts are especially controversial on Capitol Hill, but Work, a former Marine Corps officer, held true to the party line.
“We want to compensate our men and women for everything that they do for their nation,” he said, “but we need to slow down the growth of compensation so we can spend more money on readiness and modernization.”
While in sync with Pentagon officials, Work’s testimony did not reveal his hand. But the chief of the Center for a New American Security has created a significant paper trail outlining his budget predilections.
For instance, Work has been a strong advocate of the Littoral Combat Ship — a historically controversial program plagued by delays and cost overruns, with some staunch backers on the Hill. He pushed back against skeptics of the program in 2012 by insisting, “This ship is the right ship at the right time for the right fleet design, and this will be the best U.S. battle force that history has ever seen.”
This is one instance where, in his new position, Work may have to toe the line between his personal priorities and those of the Pentagon, which instructed the Navy to scale back its planned purchase of 52 ships down to 32. Work on Tuesday defended the program that he said “is on solid ground and is meeting its cost targets” in response to McCain’s assertion the ship “still [does] not have a clear mission.” But the discussion will surely not end there.
Work is also known as a forward-looking thinker; he coauthored a recently released report outlining how the future military will become more and more reliant on “increasingly capable and autonomous” robots and unmanned systems. In his testimony, Work said the Pentagon should “deliberately prioritize our long-term needs” and “carefully allocate funding to key programs and potential game-changing technologies.”
Work’s think tank also recently participated in a budget-cutting drill ahead of the fiscal 2015 budget request. All teams slashed the civilian defense workforce; shrank the size of the Army; reduced the number of aircraft carriers and destroyers; nixed the active-duty A-10 Warthog aircraft, and authorized base closures. Considering that many of these items showed up as winners and losers on Monday, Work appears primed to take on the senior post — and is well aware of the issues at stake.
“The name of the game in the next few years is going to be figuring out how to use the budget pressure as a burning platform to reform the Defense enterprise, how the department does business,” says Michele Flournoy, a former Obama administration Defense undersecretary for policy who also cofounded the CNAS think tank.
“Going after excess overhead, excess infrastructure. Reforming things like health care to deliver better outcomes at lower cost. Continuing down the path of acquisition reform, to get better value for the taxpayer,” Flournoy continued. “All those are really where there’s significant opportunity for cost reduction, but they’re all very tough areas politically.”
Work has a reputation for being, essentially, a defense budget wonk, which could prove useful as the department downsizes. He “is first and foremost an analyst,” said retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former top military commander of NATO, who “knows the budget inside and out.”
Stavridis, the dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, has known Work since the late 1990s, when they served together as assistants to former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. “[Work] is better than anyone I know at taking huge amounts of data and boiling them down and drawing coherent conclusions,” Stavridis said.
Work will also be good at organizing coalitions both within the Pentagon and in Washington’s other power corridors, including Congress — a necessary skill when trying to convince people to get on board with tough budget cuts, Stavridis said. Work’s nearly three decades in the Marine Corps will give him “superb credibility with the uniformed side of the building,” the retired admiral predicts. “He’ll be a consummate inside-the-building operator.”