McCain Won’t Block Defense Nominee in Over Littoral Ship

Senator John McCain says he won’t attempt to block the nomination of former Navy official Robert Work as the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian over his unstinting support for the service’s $34 billion Littoral Combat Ship.

Work defended the program, including the Navy’s decision to begin production “before the design was stable,” in an eight-page letter to McCain dated March 5. The ship, lightly armed and intended for missions in shallow waters close to shore, “remains a special case,” Work wrote.

“While Senator McCain was disappointed by some of Mr. Work’s answers” to questions posed during and after his Feb. 25 confirmation hearing, the Arizona Republican “will not be holding his nomination” as deputy defense secretary, spokeswoman Rachael Dean said in an e-mailed statement.

Work has been a leading advocate of the ship being built in two versions by Lockheed Martin Corp. based in Bethesda, Maryland, and Austal Ltd., based in Henderson, Australia. Pentagon officials continue to grapple with concerns about the vessel’s rising costs as well as its mission, survivability and utility after the passage of 10 years and congressional approval to spend more than $12 billion.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a Feb. 24 memo that “considerable reservations” led him to bar negotiations for any more than 32 of the vessels, 20 fewer than called for in Navy’s program. He ordered a study of potential options that would be “generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate,” including a modified version of the Littoral Combat Ship or a new vessel.

‘Solid Ground’

Work, who wrote an extensive defense of the ship’s performance when he was Navy undersecretary in 2012, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee the next day that “the program is on solid ground and is meeting its cost targets.”

During and after the confirmation hearing, McCain questioned whether Work could dispassionately oversee Hagel’s directive. Work also said at the hearing that he hadn’t read a July report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that recommended slowing vessel production in favor of more testing.

“Wow!” said McCain. “I’m stunned that you haven’t.”

“This again makes me wonder about your qualifications because the one thing we are plagued with is significant cost overruns and lack of capability,” McCain said.

In his March 5 letter, Work wrote, “I wholeheartedly endorse Secretary Hagel’s conclusions and direction” because “improving the survivability, lethality and mission capability of the Navy’s force of small warships is a good thing to do, especially considering China’s increasing naval power and the proliferation of advanced anti-ship weaponry around the world.”

Work’s Regrets

Work expressed regret for not reading the GAO report, which was published four months after he left office in March 2013. He disagreed with its primary conclusions, including that the vessel’s “anticipated capabilities have degraded over time.”

Michele Mackin, who oversees the GAO’s Littoral Ship assessments, said in an e-mailed statement responding to Work that “the bottom line is that the expected capabilities have in fact lessened over time.”

It changed “from a ship that would be employable and sustainable throughout” a battle zone regardless of the threat “to a ship that is not to be employed outside a benign, low-threat environment unless escorted,” Mackin wrote.

Work also disagreed with the GAO’s view the program should be slowed to reduce the amount of overlap of development and production -- an approach called concurrency that’s also used in the Pentagon’s largest program, the F-35 jet built by Lockheed, the largest U.S. contractor.

Mackin said “the degree of concurrency in this program could lead to the Navy risking taxpayer investments of over $34 billion in systems that may not provide the expected capability.”