Lotsa Luck

Can This Man Save the Pentagon?

Bob Work is one of the few defense experts in Washington who thinks strategy first and weapons second. Somehow, he’s about to become the Pentagon’s No. 2.

Harry Hamburg/AP

In Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, there’s a scene where one of Mendy’s boys follows Philip Marlowe out of a bar. There might have been trouble, Marlowe says, “if this enormous man hadn’t got out of an enormous car” and thrown the kid one-handed against the wall. “What was that?” Marlowe asks the bruised gangster. “Big Willie Magoon. A policeman. He thinks he’s tough.”

Magoon isn’t that tough, as he finds out when Mendy sends a few more guys to remind him as much.

Pentagon leadership can be like that. It’s easy to talk about change. But the military services, industry and Congress are all in favor of change as long as it doesn’t threaten their interests, and are ready to hand out a beatdown to anyone who does not grasp that fact.

But if you believe that technology can help solve the problems of national security, and that we can do better at applying it than we have done for the past 30 years or so, there is cause to raise a ragged cheer for the confirmation of Robert O. Work as Deputy Secretary of Defense, an event that—barring unexpected accidents—should happen within days.

What makes Work an unusual nominee at his level is that he arrives with a record of thinking about strategy, in the sense of matching goals to resources. In his time at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), before his four years as deputy Navy secretary, and his tenure as head of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Work led and supported studies that came to specific conclusions about new opportunities and challenges for the U.S. and its allies.

One area where his views could have an early effect is on the battle over the Navy’s next-generation drone, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), should look like. It pits the advocates of a stealthy and offensive aircraft against those who support something that poses less of a threat, whether to well-defended adversaries or their own pet programs. At CSBA, Bob Work co-authored a 2007 paper that advocated long-range, very stealthy unmanned aircraft, as a way to boost the reach and strike power of the carrier. The decision on the UCLASS requirements document has been delayed, perhaps not coincidentally, until his arrival.

Work has expressed more skepticism on the Pentagon’s biggest weapons-buying program, the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, than anyone even close to the level of his new job. He pointed out in 2010 that the likely proliferation of guided rockets and mortars could make it risky to put expensive F-35Bs into improvised forward bases. As deputy Navy secretary, he directed Navy and Marine commanders to identify lower-cost aviation options and to come up with hard comparisons between the F-35 and an upgraded F/A-18. At CNAS, Work oversaw a study published in January that warned of new threats to F-35-level stealth—particularly, VHF radars cueing high-power tracking radars —and advocated a balance of stealth and electronic attack in future plans.

Work has been influential in developing the Air Sea Battle concept —the Navy’s notion for permitting sustained operations in highly contested environments. “He has been a strong supporter of fielding new undersea systems for land attack, a new Navy laser and unmanned air and undersea capabilities,” a colleague notes.

Air Sea Battle support indicates that Work’s enthusiasm (or lack of it) for individual programs is rooted in strategy, not favoritism. An official who has worked closely with him notes that “nobody ties strategy to technology to programs better.”

Work is a Marine and a naval-studies expert by background but that some of his strongest supporters are airpower experts. “Work probably understands what each of the services is up to better than anyone in DC,” says one of the industry’s more astute observers. He’s a Marine and sees great value in the Corps, but he totally gets airpower and its primacy in Pacific geography. Most of all, he’s not sucked in or bamboozled by any of the services, and he will stand against the ‘boots on the ground’ drumbeat.”

But anyone in Work’s job faces “a Byzantine morass of bureaucratic and political challenges,” one Air Force official notes, in a tough budget environment to which too many people have responded with denial. His background is lighter in industrial and economic areas, which are crucial today. And—like anyone who wants to make change—he will have to balance the desire to move fast with a realistic sense of the defense complex’s colossal inertia.

Washington can indeed make you want to pick people up and throw them against a wall. But (as any materials scientist will tell you) you need some flexibility if you want to do more than look tough.

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This column also appears in the April 7 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.