BY GORDON LUBOLD
After months of feverish speculation about who would succeed Ash Carter as the Pentagon’s No. 2, former Marine colonel and current think tank chief Bob Work appears to have won the job and gone into pre-nomination mode, declining invitations to give speeches or take part in other public events — a sure sign in Washington that someone’s about to get the nod.
Work, the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, will be nominated by the White House as the new deputy secretary of defense by the end of the week, possibly Thursday, U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. That will leave Work with one of the most difficult jobs imaginable: slashing the Pentagon’s bloated budget and pushing back against the powerful lawmakers and senior military officials who will do all they can to preserve the status quo.
Work will have three things on his plate, said Jim Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral who now serves as the dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School: “The budget, the budget and the budget.”
Work has earned a reputation as a careful analyst and a hands-on manager who is well suited to running the day-to-day operations of the Pentagon during a time of fundamental changes to its missions and resources. He has shown a willingness to make controversial decisions like supporting the killing of an advanced vehicle cherished by his fellow Marines.
At the same time, those who know him say Work can be quick to cut off debate and resistant to hearing opposing views. At CNAS, which has long prided itself for being staffed by strong personalities who enjoy intellectual jousting, Work has been seen as ponderous and occasionally closed off from his staff. As one individual who knows Work put it: “He’s boring even as a defense nerd.”
Work left the Pentagon last year after serving as the Navy’s No. 2 civilian, which put him in charge of overseeing the Marine Corps and the Navy’s ships, aircraft, and personnel. He’ll now need to do that on a much broader scale and at a much more difficult moment. Work’s primary mission will be to take a Pentagon budget that has been on a wartime footing for more than a dozen years and transform it into a leaner force without losing fundamental military capabilities. Generations of defense leaders have talked about doing just that. This time around, with the Pentagon budget facing serious cuts, Work will actually have to put that mantra into practice.
Work’s extensive paper trail may make for some interesting exchanges during his confirmation hearing, possibly as early as next week. During his long career, Work has taken clear positions on a variety of controversial weapons systems, leaving him with potential adversaries on both sides of the aisle.
Work, for example, has long been a strong advocate of the troubled Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, which, according to leaks to the media ahead of the budget release next month, will be slashed from 52 ships to 32. He will have to essentially defend a cut he didn’t make — and may not even support.
“The only thing standing in the way of success for LCS would be a lack of imagination and hard work,” Work wrote in the study, The Littoral Combat Ship: How We Got Here, and Why. “After fleet operators get their hands on the ships and refine old operational and logistical support concepts and develop new ones, there is little reason to think the ship will not be an important contributor to 21st century Total Force Battle Network operations.”
He has also been critical of the controversial Joint Strike Fighter, another controversial program whose costs have skyrocketed even as its mission and exact capabilities remain unclear. Like the LCS, the warplane has vocal supporters across Capitol Hill who will likely do all they can to save it from further cuts.
Work was commissioned as a Marine officer in 1974 and spent 27 years in the Corps before retiring and becoming an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, where he specialized in maritime defense issues. The Obama administration brought him back to the Pentagon as the undersecretary of the Navy, one of the most powerful positions in the Defense Department.
Work quickly won a reputation for doing careful, methodical analysis of the biggest issues facing the service, but wasn’t afraid to cut inefficient or unpopular programs. Although then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates is credited with cutting the Marines’ cherished Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, or EFV, Work was seen as one of the prime advocates for eliminating the amphibious truck. The former Marine colonel was then effectively in a “joint” job, and some believed he made too much of a point to establish his independence from the Marine Corps.
“He spent a lot of time making sure no one thought he was a former Marine,” one officer quipped to FP.
Work will also have to help guide the Pentagon as it reevaluates its exact needs after more than 12 years of war — and looks to a future likely to be dominated by drones, robots, and other advanced weaponry.
Fortunately for the department, it’s an issue he has already thought about. Work co-wrote a recent study with CNAS colleague Shawn Brimley, a former senior Pentagon official, on the future of warfare. The report, 20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age, argues that the nature of warfare, the cost of personnel, and the threat from non-state actors like al Qaeda will require the U.S. to rely more heavily on unmanned and robotic systems.
At one point, citing Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over: America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, the two write: “Cowen observes that we take as a matter of faith that computers will beat humans in games of knowledge and insight. Cowen points out, however, that the most successful chess champions are not machines or humans but rather human-machine teams working together in what is called ‘free play’ chess.” They continue: “In a future war-fighting regime dominated by guided munitions and unmanned and autonomous systems, those who master ‘free play’ combat by harnessing the relative cognitive advantages of both humans and machines will likely dominate the battlefield as well.”
To some, Work is known for being an unflappable analyst and project manager who has a reputation for soberly studying an issue before making a final decision, those who know him told FP. And he does, Stavridis said, without ever raising his voice. “Bob Work is steady, he’s calm, and he’s analytic,” Stavridis told FP.
Stavridis and Work served together as aides to then-Navy Secretary Richard Danzig in the late 1990s; Stavridis was the Navy aide and Work was the Marine one. The two have known each other since 1989. Danzig, meanwhile, served as the chairman of the CNAS board until recently and was instrumental in Work’s appointment to run the think tank.
“[Work] does not operate on emotion, he operates on the numbers and then he applies his own intelligence to the numbers to make, I think, excellent recommendations,” Stavridis said.
Work’s named leaked out for the Pentagon slot weeks ago, but the nomination has taken far longer than had been expected. That fueled speculation inside and outside the department that the administration had chosen to delay his nomination until after Christine Fox, now filling the deputy job on a temporary basis, could complete much of the number-crunching and program-cutting before the rollout of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first defense budget in March.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said she “doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses for anyone in this town” but sees Work as a good choice for the job. Eaglen said the position shouldn’t go to anyone with a strong partisan background, but said she felt confident that Work wouldn’t use the job to advance a political agenda. “He’s incredibly smart, he’s proved himself to be very capable,” she toldFP.
There will be inevitable growing pains as Work settles into the job as Hagel’s deputy. Carter, who left the Pentagon in January 2014, had been given a long leash by his first boss, Leon Panetta. Panetta was seen as a hands-off manager, and he encouraged Carter to play a larger role. When Hagel arrived in February 2013, by contrast, he returned Carter to the much more conventional deputy’s role of running the Pentagon’s day-to-day operations. Defense officials have said Hagel has been increasing latitude to pick his own people for top jobs. Work, unlike Carter, will be a personal Hagel choice.
Work will likely receive a warm reception on Capitol Hill. Rep. Randy Forbes, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, welcomed the “rumor” that Work would be nominated while acknowledging the White House hadn’t formally done so.
Work has “proven himself to be one of the country’s most thoughtful strategists and defense thinkers,” Forbes, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement to FP. “His leadership on numerous issues, including the future structure of the Navy and Marine Corps and the impact of game-changing technologies, is well-known and respected.”
Juan Garcia, the assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs, has seen a different side of Work. The two men agreed one of them would visit the wounded at Bethesda Naval Hospital at least once a month. Work, Garcia said, also had another passion.
“He’s also a guy with a true appreciation for bad B-movie action flicks,” Garcia told FP in an e-mail, citing 2011′s Battle: Los Angeles as an example. “I look forward to having him back in the building.”