President Obama's choice for the No. 2 job at the Pentagon faced tough questioning on the Littoral Combat Ship and sexual assaults in the military at his Senate nomination hearing Tuesday.
Robert Work, the pick to become Deputy Secretary of Defense, fielded the brunt of the questions as he led a total of six nominees representing a major changeover in the Pentagon's top management and policy teams before a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime opponent of what he has called the "over budget, behind schedule" LCS, ripped Work for being unfamiliar with a Government Accountabilty Office report that said the Navy was buying the shallow-water ships without knowing how they would perform.
"You haven't read it? Wow. That makes me wonder about your qualifications," McCain said.
As the former Navy under secretary from 2009 to 2013, Work lobbied Congress for their support of the LCS as he was one of the ship's largest supporters.
Work said "I believe the program is on solid ground and meeting its targets," but he agreed with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's plan announced Monday to cut the LCS program back from 52 to 32 ships.
Work had an even harder time with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the lead sponsor of a bill that would take sexual assaults in the military out of the chain of command. Under her proposal, the authority to refer cases to courts martial would be given to independent military prosecutors.
Gillibrand pressed Work for his position on cases where the investigating officer in an Article 32 hearing on whether a case should go to court martial recommended prosecution but was overruled by a commander.
Gillibrand asked "what possible reason could there be for a commander to disregard the facts and the evidence?" She said that cases should "not be based on politics, not be based on who you like," and it should not matter whether the accused was "decorated or a great soldier."
Work sought to sidestep, saying that Gillibrand was posing a "hypothetical question," but said he would get back to Gillibrand with a count of the number of cases in which a commander overruled the recommendations of an Article 32 hearing.
In his earlier responses to written questions from the Committee, Work said that he supported Hagel's position "on the importance of retaining the chain of command as an integral part of an effective response to sexual assault."
"Commanders make countless important decisions every day, both in and out of combat," Work said, and "having a defined role in the administration of justice helps commanders carry out these critical responsibilities."
Despite the occasional tough questions, there was no indication from any of the senators that the nomination of Work and the others would be blocked.
In the course of the hearing, several Senators expressed views suggesting that Hagel's proposals in the Fiscal Year 2015 defense budget to begin a new round of base closures and to rein in the growth in military pay and benefits would face tough sledding in Congress.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., took issue with Hagel's plan to revive the Base Re-Alignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) in 2017 to recommend shutting down stateside facilities. Hagel also suggested that the Defense Department might look for ways to shut down bases on its own if Congress failed to go along.
"Congress should be in a position of approving BRAC and we should not be getting the runaround," Ayotte said. "It's not for the Department to take this step on its own initiative."
The hearing also considered the nomination of Michael J. McCord to be Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), replacing the retiring Bob Hale as the chief financial officer at the Pentagon.
Other nominees at the hearing were Christine E. Wormuth for Under Secretary of Defense for Policty, Brian McKeon for principal Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, David B. Shear for assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs, Eric Rosenback for assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com