President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Navy and Marine Corps resolved to restore what he says is a "tarnished culture" in the wake of deadly ship collisions, high-profile legal battles and a controversial firing.
Kenneth Braithwaite, who's currently serving as the U.S. ambassador to Norway, said during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday that the Navy Department is in troubled waters due "primarily the failings of leadership."
The retired Navy rear admiral cited several controversies dating back to the Fat Leonard corruption scandal, in which several uniformed personnel took cash and gifts in exchange for classified information on U.S. ship movements.
"Whether Glenn Marine Defense, ship collisions, judicial missteps or the crisis on USS Roosevelt, they are all indicative of a breakdown in the trust of those leading the service," Braithwaite told senators.
He appeared to take issue with former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly's handling of the firing of Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The ambassador said he, as secretary, wouldn't insert himself into personnel matters.
"I believe that the men and women in uniform at all ranks should have the opportunity and should have established the ability to ensure that they are making the decisions to lead their men and women appropriately," he said.
Braithwaite was formally nominated last month to take over the Navy and Marine Corps' top civilian leadership spot. The position has been vacant for more than six months when Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer resigned after trying to make a deal with the White House on how to handle the case of embattled former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher without the defense secretary's knowledge.
Spencer's No. 2, Modly, served in the spot until April when he, too, resigned over his handling of Crozier's relief. Crozier was accused of sending a letter to people outside his chain of command warning leaders of a coronavirus outbreak on his ship. The letter was later published by the San Francisco Chronicle, and Modly fired the captain before the investigation into the matter was complete.
More than 1,100 crew members on that carrier have since tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. One of those sailors died.
"Whenever you're confronted with a challenge like this, it's best to pause, consider all the facts and then make the right decision," Braithwaite said. "I learned in flight school as a young naval aviator that, whenever any bell or whistle went off in your cockpit, the most important thing to do was sit on your hands for two seconds ... because then you can assess the problem correctly before shutting down the wrong system."
If confirmed, Braithwaite said his No. 1 priority as secretary will be to "restore the appropriate culture in the United States Navy."
"I won't say it's broken," he said. "I think it's been tarnished. I think the events over the last several years have helped see that to occur. And if I'm confirmed, I will make sure that I get at that again."
Braithwaite said he'd set the tone from his position as Navy secretary, promote good order and discipline, and empower people at all levels in the chain of command. He pointed to leadership lessons he learned as a young officer in his own Navy career that shaped his approach.
"Sadly, I have witnessed crisis in the Navy before," Braithwaite said. "In 1989, I was aboard the aircraft carrier USS America sailing with the battleship Iowa when an explosion killed 47 sailors. That was followed by the Tailhook scandal. These were some dark days for the department."
The Naval Academy graduate's nomination was reported to have been held up by possible ties to Cambridge Analytica, a now-shuttered British consulting firm that gathered personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent. Braithwaite has denied the claims and didn't face any questions from senators about the relationship during his hearing.
He pledged to increase the size of the Navy's fleet, saying 355 ships is the minimum.
"Hopefully, we build beyond that," he said.
Braithwaite also said that, under his leadership, the Navy Department would continue working to end deferred maintenance on ships and aircraft. The Marine Corps had to dig out of an aircraft maintenance hole in recent years after overuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. Navy deployments have also been extended over ships being held up in maintenance.