Ash Carter returns to a Pentagon in transition
President Barack Obama officially nominated Ashton Carter Friday as his fourth secretary of Defense in six years, replacing Chuck Hagel, who resigned amid mounting pressure from White House officials with a long track record of micromanaging defense issues.
The president introduced Carter as “one of our nation’s foremost national security leaders” and said he had been a key player “at the table in the situation room” helping to navigate complex security challenges. “I relied on his judgment,” Obama said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Carter, 60, will take the helm of the Pentagon at a critical turning point. Although the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, the U.S. military faces a world of growing crises and unprecedented budget pressures that threaten to create a hollow force incapable of responding across the spectrum of potential conflicts. It is for those reasons that the Obama administration and various independent experts believe Carter is the right choice at the right time to lead the Pentagon.
In a nod to Carter’s educational background and his years of experience helping the Pentagon procure new weapon systems and cancel programs that were not working, Obama praised Carter’s “unique blend of strategic perspective and technical know-how.”
A nuclear physicist by training who has not served in uniform, Carter has done stints in academia, notably at Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities. But he is perhaps best known for his tenure as the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics from 2009 to 2011. It was during that time that Carter directed 23 major acquisition reforms that targeted affordability, cost growth, industry competition and wasteful spending.
That was the beginning of what became known as the Pentagon’s Better Buying Power initiative — an overarching acquisition reform effort designed to find $100 billion in overhead cost savings over five years. The year was 2010, and Gates had given Carter ultimate authority over all major weapons programs, requiring program managers to set affordability targets that could not be altered without Carter’s approval.
Among the many changes instituted by Carter with the initial Better Buying Power policy memorandum was an effort to improve industry incentives to remove unnecessary costs from major acquisition programs. One of the ways he did that was to improve the cash flow process between the Pentagon and the businesses it contracted with. He also sought to improve the amount of competition on department contracts, particularly those contracts that received only a single bidder.
Carter was also the first champion of reforming how the Defense Department acquired services — to the tune of $400 billion a year. One of his first steps was to develop a standardized taxonomy for talking about services throughout the department. The goal was to manage services in a way that recognized each service sector is supported by a different industrial base and each requires a different management structure.
It was a time for what he described as “bold action” to cut fat out of the defense budget, which had seen double-digit growth year-over-year during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, called Carter “a logical choice” to replace Hagel as secretary. “Ash is thoughtful, smart and experienced, having served in key DOD leadership roles during major military operations. His experience gives him the detailed knowledge of the Pentagon, its senior leadership, its complicated budget, and its complex acquisition system necessary for a smooth and seamless transition,” Soloway said in a statement.
Obama characterized Carter’s razor-sharp business mind and command of innovative procurement strategies as an extension of his love for the men and women serving in uniform. “When he cut outdated, unneeded systems, he did it because he was trying to free up money for our troops,” Obama said. When U.S. troops were sustaining unprecedented casualties from improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs in the early stages of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “He moved heaven and earth to rush them new body armor and vehicles,” Obama said.
Turning to Obama, Carter pledged “my most candid strategic advice” and told the president, “You will receive equally candid military advice.”
Addressing the men and women serving in the military, Cater said, “To you, I pledge to keep faith with you.”