Ashton Carter is the deputy defense secretary. (Mike Morones / Staff)
WASHINGTON — Ashton Carter has spent five years at the Pentagon, first as the Pentagon acquisition chief and for the past two years as the deputy defense secretary. Carter is stepping down early next month after an action-packed tenure that included rushing gear to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving greater efficiency, streamlining management and reforming acquisition processes. He has also led implementation of sequestration-level cuts and executed a parallel budgeting process to prepare either of two worlds, one with sequestration and one without.
While Carter’s boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, has argued the U.S. military must get smaller, dial back on commitments and reform to preserve capabilities, some uniformed leadership on his team have continued to tell Congress that cuts will simply devastate America’s military might. And, giving people equipment, training, all cost more today than during the last downturn, the force is going to get smaller than most people realize. As the chief operating officer of the Pentagon, Carter’s job is to manage all rings of the multi-ring Pentagon circus into a coherent performance.
Q. Let me start off with the tragedy in the Philippines. There is massive loss of life, and the U.S. military has unique capabilities to respond to that.
Q. There are those who say that U.S. military is for war fighting, and especially in budget-constrained times that should be its focus. But, how important are humanitarian missions like this, and with these budget cuts that we are seeing, are we going to have that capacity five or 10 years from now?
A. Well, I mean our military is first and foremost to deter conflict and respond to conflict. At the same time, we have a large presence in the Asia-Pacific theater, and when disasters like this occur, we are able to respond. And, it is related to our first objective, because it is related to the values that we represent. The reason why so many countries in that region want to be our allies and our partners, we are the ones who have all the allies and partners there. And, so as we conduct this rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, which is really just a matter of keeping up our historical, pivotal military role there, our ability to respond speaks to American commitment and to American values in a way that reinforces what our military is all about in the first place.
Q. Where is that capability going to be five or 10 years from now? Can we gauge that at this point?
A. Well, we can. We have done a lot of the work looking ahead to what the country is going to need in the future. It is going to need new things and we are working on a new bomber, on a new tanker, on undersea capabilities, cyber capabilities, lots of new things that are going to be part of the future world. We see all those things clearly. We are planning for them. We obviously do not know everything we would like to know about what our budget is going to be, but we are managing the best we can to continue to deliver those new capabilities and the things the country needs for the amount of money that Congress is willing to give us.
Q. Sequestration appears to be here to stay, at least for the time being. And yet there are two budgets and some say even four versions of the 2015 budget that are in the works at any given time. Why have so many versions of it? Why not streamline it to one sequestration-level budget and try to execute to that, given almost everybody says that money is going away either way?
A. Well, we have thought about what we would do if sequestration sticks. Obviously, that is not a desirable outcome. We have all been saying that for quite some time. At the same time, we are a place that steers into bad outcomes all the time. We are prepared to do that. So, we have been working on sequester-level budgets, but that is not what we think the country deserves or needs, and therefore, we are working on and planning for a range of budgets. It is just natural.
Q. The Government Accountability Officer [GAO] says that the DoD has been able to weather the 2013 sequestration with little damage. Is that is true, and if so, what happens when you have to cut another $52 billion, which is the next bill, next installment?
A. Well, we have been doing, and secretary Hagel has been doing this, Secretary [Leon] Panetta before him, doing our very best to manage to, as responsibly as we can, under this completely chaotic budget environment. So, we are trying to minimize every way we can the damage to national security, to our people, to our industry. But, we are not able to do that completely, so there are very real effects. There are very real effects on readiness, there are going to be real effects on some of our programs that we work so hard to reflect better buying power for the taxpayer and the war fighters. So, there are real effects.
Q. Defense Secretary Hagel and you have sort of indicated that budget cuts really are inevitable in this environment, and he has said that the military has to shrink and change missions and do a rethink on all of it. And yet, the service chiefs still seem to keep arguing that any cuts will be devastating. There are some people who are asking, is there a disconnect between the civilian leadership and the military leadership?
A. Well, we have all been saying that we need to change. We need to change quite apart from the budget. We need to change because the world is changing, and we need to anticipate what is next and be there first, as the U.S. military has always been. So, the changes in our future, I think is something that we are all completely committed to. At the same time, there is no question about it that the budget cuts that some people are talking about are going to be very difficult for us to manage to, and we do not want them. We do not think that they are the best thing for the country. We are realistic, we plan, we try to be realistic, as realistic as one can be in the Strategic Choices And Management View and all the other preparatory work we have done, for whatever happens on the budget. But, we know we need to change for reasons that have nothing to do with the budget.
Q. Do people understand that the cuts are likely going to be far more dramatic in their impact, given that everything costs more people, costs more equipment, costs more?
A. I do not think people fully understand that the Department of Defense has over the last 10 years seen what I will call some of the backroom functions, the overhead functions of defense grow out of proportion. I do not think some people realize fully how difficult it is and how expensive it is to maintain what we need to maintain, which is a quality, all-volunteer force. So, these are the kinds of expenses, but in the first category, the overhead category, first Secretary [Robert] Gates, then Secretary Panetta, then Secretary Hagel, myself and the entire team, we have been combating them right along. And, the personnel costs are simply a matter of balancing different places where we need to make future investments.
Q. And, there is a base. Colin Powell did the base force during the last drawdown to allow the department to drive cuts and not let Congress do it for them. There is a similar effort that is underway now. And there is a debate whether or not it is going to be used to justify the status quo of existing forces or whether or not it is going to be a template for future change. How is that effort going to play out?
A. Well, it is definitely going to be a template for future change. Because, as I said, we have to change, not just the size, but the shape of our force. That is what behaving and acting strategically is all about. So, we are trying to use this time to anticipate what it is that the country needs for its future defense.
Q. Let me ask you about the quadrennial defense review (QDR). 2014 is the big year for it. How do you build a quadrennial defense review when you have so much budgetary uncertainty, and actually one of the major planning threats that you, you know, try to plan for, is Iran?
A. Well, the whole purpose of doing a QDR is to behave strategically, to start with the world and the future and make sure that we are building our defense toward that future. So, that is the whole purpose of the QDR, and so what we try to do is ask ourselves what are the most important parts of the world to the United States in the future. What are the capabilities that we most need, recognizing that, to get to your budget point, we are not going to be able to have everything. So, we need to have the things that are most important. That is the whole point of the QDR, and we are building it on the strategic guidance that we did about a year and a half ago, which is still basically right. It focuses us on important parts of the world like the Asia-Pacific, it focuses on important new technologies like cyber, I mean, all of that is for sure going to be part of it.
Q. There are those who say that, you know, the Asia-Pacific is under-resourced, especially with sequestration, and that the India relationship is stagnating. You were involved in both of those, what do you think?
A. Well, we are going to resource the Asia-Pacific, and I will just give you some examples of how we are doing that. We are going to continue to resource the new strategic bomber, the aerial refueling tanker, which is an important part of that, our important sub-surface capabilities, electronic warfare, cyber, our alliances and partnerships, which are the bedrock for everything we do there. We have been keeping the peace in the Asia-Pacific theater for decades now, and the essence of the rebalance is to keep that peace and stability going, of which we have been a pivotal part. You ask about India, yes it is difficult. We are two technical and military cultures that grew up on opposite sides of the fence during the Cold War. So, it is difficult. But when Secretary Panetta first set me on the mission of working with the Indians, we knew that India is destined to be a security partner of the United States. Billion people, many share a language, a democracy, a lot of our political culture, so if you look at the region and say where is a country in that region that is destined to be a security partner of the United States in the long-run, India is one of those. And we are building for that long-run and we are willing to work hard and take the time.
Q. The administration has put a lot of premium on international partnership operation, but there also have been concerns voiced from folks in Europe and Asia and as well as in the Middle East that the administration will sometimes say one thing and do another. For example, on missile defense that created some tension, on Syria and Egypt with some of our Mideast partners, who say that we also do not consult, for example, before we do major things, on discussion with on Iran, for example, is not sufficient consultation. What does the United States, from your standpoint as somebody who does play a key policy role, need to do maybe a little bit better with its allies?
A. Well, you can always communicate better. I do think we are one of the most transparent partners that any ally could possibly have. We try not to surprise people, we try to give them plenty of warning, we try to consult with them, not always perfect at doing that, but, we are, I think one of the most transparent security partners anyone can have, which is why most countries choose the United States as their ally or partner.
Q. You mentioned the bomber, the tanker. It is going to a very tough budgetary environment. Are there going to be certain programs that are going to have to be [cut or scaled back] if you were to have strategic investments for the future?
A. Well, we are certainly going to prioritize the things that are important to our future strategy. Those are the things I need. We absolutely want to do that. Another thing we are going to be very careful to do, which is important to your audience, is to make sure we do not disrupt wherever we can avoid it, the stability of programs that we and our industry partners have worked so hard to put in a stable place.
Q. Joint strike fighters, for example.
A. Joint strike fighters are an example. Five years ago when I came to the department, the joint strike fighter was consistently missing all of its scheduled targets, all of its cost targets. First with Secretary Gates, we changed the management, we instilled some discipline in first the development program. Then in cost discipline especially, in early production. We are now working on the whole of production and also on sustainment, because remember it costs more than twice as much to own an airplane like the joint strike fighter as it costs to buy it in the first place. We have to control costs all along.
Q. And you are satisfied that it is going to meet its performance?
A. I am never satisfied, but it is a lot better than it was five years ago and I think the key, the joint strike fighter is a fantastic airplane as far as its performance is concerned. The issue and the principal issue is cost. We need to deliver the airplane for the cost that we can afford and that all of our allies and partners around the world who want the airplane can afford. That is the challenge.
Q. With the Better Buying Power acquisition reforms, the hope was to build headroom for the department, because you knew the budget cuts were going to come down the pipe. Did you build enough headroom, is it delivering the kind of efficiencies that you had hoped it would?
A. It is, it is. I must say that it is not me, it is the tremendous people, both in our acquisition work force and also in industry, who have responded, who understood exactly what you said, which is that in difficult budget times, the way that a program is going to survive in the first place is by being managed well. So we worked on cost control, we worked on aligning the incentives for industry, which are, we want to help the industry run a profitable industry, align those incentives with our incentives, enhance competition. One thing that was very important, and few people realize, is that half of our contractors’ [funding] is spent buying services, not the planes, tanks and ships that people focus on. We spend a lot of attention on improving our trade craft and the acquisition of services, and there is still plenty more to do. You can always get better.
Q. This is your third tour. You served many secretaries of defense, what are some things that you are proud of and count as successes?
A. I think by far and away the thing that has meant the most to me, all the time I have been here is supporting the war fighter in Iraq and Afghanistan. During my whole time, these last five years, we have been at war. That was not the case previously when I served in the department, and when you are in the department’s leadership, you never, ever take your mind off that. That is what you wake up to every morning. It is what my wife and I think of when we go visit hospitals on the weekend. And so providing our people with all the support they can, you can possibly give them. And that does not always come naturally to this place, which is thinking in budgets and thinking in the future. You always have to remember that they are in danger. They need protection from [roadside bombs], the kind that [armored vehicles] provide. They need our best surveillance to know where the enemy is around them. They need the best logistics support so they have all the supplies they need, they have the installations they need. They need the best medical care. They need the best survivor care. They need frontier research into the kinds of injuries like traumatic brain injury that we have not really paid attention to in previous wars. That, by far and away, that is where my heart has been, that is where every day has begun.
Q. What do you wish you had a do-over on?
A. You know, there is so much to do here, and there is so much to do better that you could do it 24 hours a day, if only you did not have to sleep.
Q. How do you drive change [in the department]?
A. Well, first of all, it starts with the leadership, and I have been blessed to have three magnificent and inspiring secretaries of defense, Secretary Gates, Secretary Panetta, Secretary Hagel. Next, you have to be relentless in implementation. Do not take anything for granted. Keep after it. It sounds pedestrian, but you have got to carry things across the finish line. Otherwise, people will dawdle.
Q. You have a reputation for following up, some people tell me.
A. I’m relentless, and I am proud to say it. And the other thing is getting other people to do the right thing, and backing them up when they do it. Because you are only one person, even if you are deputy secretary of defense. So getting those people, inspiring them to do the right thing and then supporting them, that is what it is all about.
Q. Pay, personnel and benefits reform was a top priority for the administration. You guys have asked for relief and changes. Congress gave a commission in order to map what the future of that looks like, but in a Nov. 1 letter to the commission, you said, “Well, you guys should hold off because in the 2015 budget submission, we’re going to have our proposals for reform.” Was that a missed opportunity to get a body to help you make a case that you have been trying to make for a long time?
A. No, we want the commission to do work, it has got excellent people on it, who are very knowledgeable. What we cannot give them yet, is our FY15 budget, because we do not know what that is, but we have not submitted it yet. But, we gave them all the proposals we made in FY14, all the data, and analysis and so, but these are very good people and we need their help. Because this is an area that is critical to the future. If we do not find a way to deal with compensation, it is going to have consequences for all the rest of our capability.
Q. Why has it been so hard to fill some senior level jobs in the department?
A. Well, we in the department, compared to other Cabinet departments, are doing very well. One of the things that was on my mind as I thought about my own departure was whether we had most of our other jobs fulfilled, and we do, and with excellent people. And, therefore, I thought that the secretary and the president would be well-served and could be well-served even with the transition and the deputy job. Other Cabinet departments, you are right, are much more sparsely populated. But, we are doing very well, and I should say also the quality of our military leadership is absolutely superb.
Q. There is a search for your successor. What are the right characteristics for the job?
A. Well, I think first of all, the chemistry with the president, and with the secretary of defense, because after all, you represent them, you are their alter ego. You have to be a good manager. You have to have your heart in it, particularly because we are at war and because of the gravity of what we do and what we owe to our people. It is not a game. It is a serious business and your heart has to be in it. And finally, that kind of energy that gets you up every morning and you work and work and work and work right through the day into the evening.
Q. What is next for you?
A. I do not know, because I cannot look from here. I am just so busy working right up until Dec. 4. I do know that Stephanie and I are going to New Zealand in December, so I am looking forward to that. I got a career or two left in me. There are lots of things to do out there, fun things to do.
Q. Go back to teaching?
A. I have not decided what I am going to do next.