By Emelie Rutherford

Congressional staffer Sean Stackley may be cleared to become the Navy acquisition chief in the near future, because Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is expected to lift a hold he placed on the nominations of civilian Defense Department nominations.

With the hold lifted, Stackley’s and the three other Pentagon nominations–already approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) following a non-contentious June 26 confirmation hearing–can be taken up by the full Senate, assuming no other holds have been placed. Congressional sources said they know of no additional holds.

Senators can place holds on White House nominations to gain leverage on divisive issues. Webb has said he wanted more information from the Pentagon on Blackwater Worldwide, the controversial security consulting firm, and after sending Defense Secretary Gates a letter May 21 was not satisfied with the response he received.

The senator’s office said that is why at the end of June he place a hold on the four DoD civilian nominations–of Stackley to be assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition; Nelson Ford to be under secretary of the Army; Joseph Benkert to be assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs; and Frederick Celec to be assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs.

"Senator Webb’s concern was that the Defense Department failed to answer specific questions that might illuminate the ever-expanding role of Blackwater and other civilian contractors in the direct tactical training of United States active-duty military members," Webb spokeswoman Jessica Smith said.

Webb, a SASC member and former Navy secretary, wrote to Gates seeking information on Blackwater’s contested training facility for Navy personnel in Otay Mesa, Calif. The facility has spurred controversy in California. Despite a legal challenge from the city of San Diego, training of Navy sailors recently started there, according to press reports.

Gates did reply to Webb’s May 21 letter, yet the senator held his questions were not fully answered. Last Friday, though, Webb’s office said it received another letter that better addressed the senator’s query.

If confirmed, Stackley will take the Navy acquisition post John Thackrah has held in an acting capacity since Delores Etter left last November. Stackley’s job steering the Navy through tricky shipbuilding and aircraft acquisition issues might be short-lived, considering the Bush administration’s nearing departure.

Some on Capitol Hill have questioned if Stackley would even want to be confirmed in the post before July 31, when a high-profile House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee hearing on the Navy’s changing plans for the DDG-1000 and DDG-51 destroyer plans is scheduled. Difference of opinion on the correct path ahead for the two ship programs have existed within and between the Navy, Pentagon, and Congress.

Stackley, a retired Navy officer, has been the Republican staff lead for the SASC Seapower subcommittee for more than two years.

The SASC panel and full committee have supported maintaining the Navy’s official DDG-1000 plans, as spelled out in the White House’s FY ’09 budget request. The HASC panel and full House have called for pausing DDG-1000 procurement and either buying more DDG-51s or further developing the DDG-1000.

During his June 26 confirmation hearing, Stackley described his views on the DDG-1000 program to SASC Seapower subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), his boss (Defense Daily, June 27).

"The Navy has done a credible job, a thorough job of establishing the requirements, identifying the risks, and putting together a development plan to retire those risks through a series of engineering development models for the top 10 technology risks for the program," Stackley said at the time, noting the two lead ships are under contract.

"I believe that at this stage proper planning has gone into the lead ships, we are at the front end of execution, we need to maintain discipline in managing the risk to the program, discipline in managing design and requirements so we don’t introduce disruption," he said June 26. "And we need to provide the oversight required, not just in the shipyard, but in the systems development arena to ensure that the risk-management plan holds true to its intentions."

Martinez and SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) praised Stackley during the hearing. The committee members in attendance engaged in no heated debates with Stackley and the three other nominees at the hearing that was filled with family members.

Webb did not attend the hearing. Sources said the senator has no qualms with Stackley.