Robert Work, right, has been nominated to become the US deputy defense secretary, while Christine Wormuth, left, is seeking to become the Pentagon's policy chief. Both appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama’s picks to fill two top Pentagon jobs declared the US shipbuilding industrial base “under pressure” and acknowledged al-Qaida affiliates are spreading.
Robert Work and Christine Wormuth, tapped to become deputy defense secretary and Pentagon policy chief, fielded tough questions Tuesday on the Obama administration’s 2015 budget plan, weapon programs and terrorism policy.
Work was questioned on the Pentagon’s plans for a new Air Force combat rescue helicopter and the Navy’s littoral combat ship plans.
On the former, he told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that senior Air Force leaders have said they are working “hard” to finalize program plans. The Defense Department might come to Congress soon with revised plans for that program, Work said.
On LCS, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., roughed up Work more than any other Senate Armed Services Committee member. Work told McCain he believes the LCS program “is on solid ground.”
“So you’re in direct contradiction to the GAO,” McCain shot back, referring to the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ auditing arm.
On shipbuilding, Work told the committee he believes the US shipbuilding industrial base is “solid” but “under pressure” as annual Pentagon budgets shrink.
Work defended the outlines of the Pentagon’s 2015 spending plan described by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday.
The deputy secretary nominee made clear that senior Pentagon officials are ready to close bases and shrink headquarters staffs around the world to slash the military’s budget.
Work said the Pentagon needs to “preserve and extend” its investments in “space, cyber, special operations and intelligence” and ISR systems. His written testimony called for a more “balanced force” in several places, but offered few specifics in terms of weapon programs that should be protected from cuts — or cut.
Wormuth took some heat on her view of al-Qaida.
Under questioning from several GOP senators, Wormuth aligned herself with comments from senior intelligence officials during their Hill appearances last week.
She said she believes al-Qaida’s “core” in Pakistan has been degraded, but cells like ones in Yemen and elsewhere are “metastasizing.”
Wormuth did not bite when GOP senators pressed her to go on the record with a US troop-level size for Afghanistan beyond 2014. She did endorse a force large enough to conduct counterterrorism missions and support Afghanistan troops in several ways.
She said Obama is mulling the proper size of the residual force, and that the administration should reach “some decision points” in the spring or summer.
To that end, the Pentagon put out a statement a few hours later saying it is planning for a scenario under which all US forces would leave by late December.
The department had recently avoided saying it was planning for the so-called “zero option,” which would occur if Afghanistan leaders refuse to sign a bilateral security pact with Washington setting, among other things, the terms for American forces remaining there.
“At President Obama’s direction, and with my strong support, the Department of Defense will move ahead with additional contingency planning to ensure adequate plans are in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” Hagel said in a statement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign the pact, and US officials are deciding whether to wait on his successor to take office this year or simply walk away from the 12-year-old mission.
Hagel said planning for the “zero option” is a “prudent step given that President Karzai has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would provide DoD personnel with critical protections and authorities after 2014.
“As the United States military continues to move people and equipment out of the Afghan theater, our force posture over the next several months will provide various options for political leaders in the United States and NATO,” Hagel said. “And during this time DoD will still continue planning for US participation in a NATO-led mission focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces, as well as a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters he believes the administration should cease trying to convince Karzai to sign the pact.
“We need a president’s signature,” Levin said, “not his.”
?“His signature is not that reliable,” Levin said. “He can sign something and then change his mind, just the way he has not signed something after he has agreed to something.” ■