Ash Carter’s Parting Shot: Military Faces Challenges Abroad and Inside the Beltway

By Sandra I. Erwin

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter leaves the Pentagon as the military faces unprecedented fiscal chaos and uncertainty about its future missions. Nevertheless, a new generation of military leaders must seize the day and not let Washington dysfunction get in the way of the nation’s long-term security interests, Carter told U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen Nov. 22 in his final major speech before he retires Dec. 4.

Speaking to a crowd of current and future naval leaders, Carter described a turbulent environment — both on the domestic and foreign policy fronts — for which the Defense Department must prepare.

The global challenges are well known: Continued turmoil in the Middle East, the persistent threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and foes in new domains such as space and cyber.

Carter cautioned that the military will be taking on elusive, nontraditional adversaries at a time when the United States no longer has a monopoly on technological innovation. “The quickening pace of technological change has increasingly ‘flattened’ the world, connecting all of us in ways that can increase common understanding and drive social change, but that can also be misappropriated by rogue states, violent extremists, and sophisticated criminal syndicates to wreak havoc on society,” he said.

Another dangerous force will be climate change, Carter said. Extreme weather “promises to reshape the map in places like the Arctic, while at the same time making it increasingly likely that we’ll experience natural disasters like Katrina, Sandy, and the recent Philippine typhoon on a more frequent basis,” he said. And changes in energy demand and production will “continue to have extensive geopolitical ramifications.”

Advances in oil and gas extraction will help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign imports, although increased energy requirements from China and other countries in Asia, he said, “hold the potential to spark new competition for resources.”

The military is reshaping itself for the future following 12 years of counterinsurgency wars while it faces punishing sequesters that will spur across-the-board budget cuts, Carter warned.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to go about change,” he said. “The government shutdown, sequestration and the lack of a budget for this fiscal year have each taken a significant toll on our people and operations. Sequestration has already meant that fighter squadrons have been grounded, soldiers and Marines have been forced to forgo unit-level training, ships haven’t gotten underway, and maintenance on our weapons systems has been delayed.”

He called it a “tragic” turn of events that the military is being weakened not by an economic emergency or a recession but by an “artificial, self-inflicted wound.”

The nation needs a “government that functions,” he said. The cumulative effects of sequestration and the lack of an operating budget mean that Defense Department leaders “must plan for the future under a dark cloud of uncertainty,” Carter said. “Just as it would be irresponsible to pilot a ship without appropriate maps and weather data, it’s irresponsible to pilot the Department of Defense without knowing the basics of our budget.”

Despite the turmoil, the Pentagon should continue to pursue efforts to cut costs, he said. “It means reducing our overhead and focusing on institutional reform. … It means reigning in the increasing costs of military health care. And it means making tough choices in terms of our personnel numbers and compensation policy.”

Academy graduates, he said, are coming into active duty while the nation finds itself at a “strategic crossroads,” said Carter. “You’re entering service at a time in which our elected leaders, and ultimately the American people they represent, must decide the United States’ role in the world and the type of military we want.”

Likehis boss Secretary Chuck Hagel, Carter worries about Congress’ increasingly isolationist trends, and what that could mean for the future of the military.  

Carter has been an especially strong advocate of the president’s strategy to rebalance resources and attention to the Asia-Pacific region.

He is leaving the Pentagon after serving for five years under three defense secretaries — Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates — first as the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, and for the past two years as the deputy secretary. He had an earlier tour at the Pentagon in 1979, and returned in various capacities under 11 secretaries of defense.

As he prepares to returns to private life, Carter’s immediate plans are to take a vacation in New Zealand.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.