Bob Work Can Dodge Budget Questions — for Now

Once he becomes the Pentagon’s No. 2, Work will own these cuts.

Former Undersecretary of the Navy Bob Work speaks at the panel 'What Should the Asia Rebalance Look Like in 2025' during the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on November 16, 2013. 
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Feb. 25, 2014, 10:31 a.m.

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.”

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