Sestak Set to Question Admiral Who Ousted Him About Navy Priorities

Posted February 28, 2007 at 5:51pm

Facing off against his one-time superiors — including the man who removed him from his post a year and a half ago — retired Vice Adm. and freshman Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) will press Navy and Marine Corps brass about their budgetary choices at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday.

Slated to testify at the service’s ’08 budget request hearing are Navy Secretary Donald Winter, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Mullen and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway.

They are all familiar faces to Sestak, who spent 31 years in uniform, eventually rising to three-star admiral. Sestak retired after Mullen relieved him from his final position as the Navy’s chief requirements advocate at the Pentagon in July 2005. The removal came suddenly, within a week of Mullen’s swearing-in.

In a statement to CongressNow, Sestak said he will ask whether “our budget [is] realistic in terms of the assumptions that are built into it and the trade offs that have been made in terms of different systems.”

Sestak said his military service “does bring some benefit to the committee, but I also believe there are committee members that have been sitting on the committee for many years that bring enormous benefit to this process.”

A Republican aide said it will be worth watching whether anyone yields their time to the freshman lawmaker tomorrow, especially the more senior Members. If they do, “it would speak volumes.”

Sestak said yesterday he is particularly interested in the Navy’s aircraft, ships, command-and-control initiatives and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

The Republican aide said that additional committee questions likely will address escalating shipbuilding costs; Marine Corps end strength and readiness; plans to purchase and field Mine Resistant Ambush Protection Vehicles; and whether the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system development schedule can be accelerated.

This hearing will not be the first time the retired three-star admiral has had the chance to question Navy acquisition officials.

During a Feb. 8 House Armed Services seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee hearing, Sestak grilled Navy acquisition executive Delores Etter and Rear Adm. Charles Hamilton, the program executive officer for ships, on the service’s rush to develop the Littoral Combat Ship, a project whose budget has spiraled beyond initial estimates.

Sestak probed Etter about why she did not realize that LCS cost growth was ballooning until last fall, given that the contractor, Lockheed Martin, had come forward as early as March 2006 to let the Navy know about funding concerns.

“I think, clearly, we should have recognized it earlier,” Etter responded. “But we did not have people that had all the data together at one time. And that’s part of what we have to change as we look at going forward.”

In total, the Navy has requested $159.8 billion to cover next year’s expenses. From that amount, $139.8 billion is earmarked to cover the service’s basic needs while $20 billion has been identified to cover the Navy’s costs for war and counter-terrorism operations.

More specifically, the Navy is planning to spend $40 billion on operation and maintenance, $39.8 billion on procurement, $39.4 billion on military personnel, $17.1 billion on research and development, and $3.6 billion on military construction.

In the procurement arena, ships are due to receive the largest chunk of money, $14.7 billion, with aircraft trailing behind with a $12.7 billion.

Sestak — who also served as the director for defense policy on the National Security Council in then-President Bill Clinton’s administration and was selected to serve as the first director of Navy’s “Deep Blue” anti-terrorism unit after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — won Pennsylvania’s 7th district seat last fall by defeating 10-term Republican Rep. Curt Weldon.

Weldon was widely considered to have hurt his re-election chances by focusing intensively on national and international military affairs, rather than on the immediate needs of his district.

With his seat on Armed Services, Sestak also appears to be taking an active role in national military policy. But while a national profile as a player on defense could aid Sestak’s fundraising ability, said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant, he’ll be well advised to heed the lessons of Weldon’s loss.

“Defense and the war and foreign policy are a great calling card for Joe Sestak, but that’s not what’s going to keep him in office in Delaware County,” which accounts for the bulk of his district, Ceisler said. “From watching him on the campaign trail, he was passionate about other issues. … The war will be over one day, and he will have to move on to domestic issues.”

Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.