President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the fourth acting or confirmed Navy secretary in the last six months acknowledged a crisis in the service at a Senate hearing Thursday, as some Democratic senators suggested the Navy's problems are largely Trump’s doing.
“It saddens me to say that the Department of the Navy is in rough waters due to many factors but primarily the failure of leadership,” U.S. Ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite, the new Navy secretary nominee, said in an opening statement.
The hearing also covered nominees for Air Force chief and a top Pentagon policy post.
Braithwaite’s nomination came before the panel one month after the resignation of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who had by his own admission mishandled a response to the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier commanding officer’s efforts to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19 on his ship.
Modly had suggested in an interview at the time that he fired the officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, in an attempt to act before Trump might insert himself in the process. Modly also reportedly made the decision to fire Crozier over the opposition of Adm. Michael Gilday, the Navy’s top officer. The Navy is reviewing the case now.
Modly had only stepped into the acting job in late November. At that time, then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer had just been fired for disagreeing with Trump on the terms under which a Navy SEAL who had been convicted of a war crime would retire from the service.
Braithwaite indirectly cited the Crozier case in his opening statement about leadership shortfall. He also noted a recent Navy procurement scandal involving the Singapore-based Glenn Marine Group. He cited, too, a pair of collisions at sea in 2017 that killed 17 sailors. And he brought up what he neutrally termed "judicial missteps," a subject about which senators would shortly question him.
"They are all indicative of a breakdown in the trust of those leading the service," the nominee said.
Democrats highlight chain of command
Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the committee, said “something is wrong” when the Navy secretary is involving himself in an individual officer’s case such as Crozier's.
Braithwaite replied that his “No. 1 priority” is to restore a culture of accountability in the Navy.
Tim Kaine, D-Va., pressed Braithwaite on whether he thinks the Navy secretary or the president should be involved in discrete personnel matters.
Kaine said that if he were a sailor, he would be concerned about any political appointees' involvement in such cases.
“Good order and discipline starts with the chain of command," said Braithwaite, a former Navy Reserve admiral who was a Navy spokesman and before that a pilot.
Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., was pointed in her questioning. She grilled Braithwaite on his views about the law of war and whether he would resign if the president ordered him to do something that violates his honor.
Duckworth quoted Trump, saying: “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill.”
“The soul of the military is threatened” by Trump, she said.
Braithwaite said he would uphold the Constitution and obey lawful orders.
Braithwaite also offered his views in response to questions on less politically touchy topics. These included the backlog of ship maintenance and in shipyard upgrades. Not surprisingly, he backed the Navy's goal of achieving a 355 warship fleet, compared to just under 300 today.
Air Force and policy nominees
Thursday's hearing was well attended by senators, who questioned the nominees for more than two hours. Some senators wore face masks when they were not speaking into their microphones.
Also on the dais was Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Air Force units in the Pacific, the president's choice to be the next Air Force chief of staff.
Brown fielded questions on the acquisition of bombers and intercontinental missiles, on controlling the cost of operating weapons, as well as on aircraft readiness, tensions in the Arctic and more.
In response to questions from New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, Brown said he wants to “build a relationship” with David Calhoun, who became Boeing Co.’s new CEO in January, as the Air Force looks to work through technical troubles that plague a new generation of midair refueling tanker jets.
The committee also received testimony from James Anderson, the nominee to be deputy under secretary of Defense for policy. Anderson is now performing the duties of that office.
Asked about Afghanistan, Anderson acknowledged that the Taliban is stepping up attacks on Afghan targets. He also said reductions of U.S. forces in that country below 8,600 after July would depend on conditions improving. And he averred that U.S. government payments to Afghanistan’s security forces would continue even once most American troops leave the country.
On Iran, he said the U.S. military has “re-established conventional deterrence,” but worries abound, he added, about Iran’s support for Shia militias in the region.