Ashton Carter: 'It’s the Beginning of the End of an Era' for the U.S. Military
By Sandra I. Erwin
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Fighting in Afghanistan is still raging, but the U.S. military must now begin to prepare for the wars of the future, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned. Speaking to a crowd of Air Force officials and contractors, he said the nation’s military has reached a “strategic inflection point” and must be ready for “what the world will need next.”
The war against al-Qaida and the Taliban is not over, “but you can see the beginning of the end of the era of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Carter said Sept. 19 in a keynote speech at the Air Force Association’s 2012 Air & Space symposium.
The Air Force, like the other branches of the military, has poured most of its resources on combating insurgencies over the past decade, Carter noted. During that time, “the world hasn’t stood still, technology hasn’t stood still,” he said.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once criticized the Air Force leadership for overindulging in “next-war-itis,” a term he coined to describe the generals’ obsessive preoccupation with planning for hypothetical future enemies instead of focusing on the wars of today.
Carter, although he did not utter the term, implicitly gave the Air Force a license to return to planning for those unknown enemies of tomorrow. “The time has come to look up from the preoccupation of necessity, look around, and [predict] what the world will need next,” he said. The Air Force should be prepared for the “security challenges after Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Carter. “That's the transition all the services face” and must soon begin, despite looming budget cuts, he added. “We need to make this transition no matter what the fiscal situation.”
The Air Force needs to be “agile, lean, ready, technologically advanced … be able to defeat any adversary anywhere,” he said.
Carter cautioned that, to reach these goals, the Air Force will need to carefully manage its resources and invest wisely. In the face of budget cuts and pressures from rising payroll and heathcare costs, the military services might be pushed to dip into their equipment procurement accounts. In this context, any new technology that is still in the early phases of development or has not entered production is vulnerable to the budget ax, Carter warned. Many weapons programs have “shallow roots” so it's easy to pull them out and terminate them, he noted. “It’s important to be disciplined in these times,” he said. “We can't afford to lose our technological edge by cutting the seed corn.”
Carter suggested that the Air Force should protect funding for cyberwarfare, unmanned aviation, space, electronic warfare and long-range strike weapons.
He assured the Air Force that it will play a “key role” in the Pentagon’s strategy to realign military forces toward Asia-Pacific. Countries in the region are counting on the U.S. Air Force’s presence and are spending big money on U.S. Air Force weapon systems, Carter noted. In 2012, Asian countries bought $7.7 billion worth of Air Force hardware. About 60 percent of Air Force overseas units are stationed in the Pacific region. Carter praised Air Force plans to build a large modern base in the island of Guam in the Western Pacific, and to increase deployments in the Mariana Islands. The Air Force’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-22, and the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be permanently stationed in the region. Even if budgets shrink, he said, “We're making no reductions to our tactical air posture in Asia Pacific.” The Pentagon also is in negotiations with the Australian government to allow Air Force rotational deployments.
Photo Credit: Yasmin Tadjdeh