Ashton Carter should be confirmed as the next secretary of defense this week, if Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain has his way. His confirmation hearing on Wednesday was a far cry from that of his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, who drew the ire of his former senate colleagues for allegedly controversial views about Israel. Hagel’s confirmation hearing had its share of fireworks, to the point that Twitter crashed several times during the proceedings. Carter’s hearing, by contrast, was a mundane affair, notable mostly for his Republican interlocutors’ use of the hearing as a forum to air their grievances with the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
While most of the hearing focused on issues such as Ukraine, ISIS, Iran, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a few moments provided possible insights into how Carter might affect the way the Pentagon does business.
Strategic “Stickler” or Building Manager – One exchange from Carter’s hearing has drawn significant attention from the press. When pressed on his willingness to dissent from the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Carter said he was a “stickler for the chain of command.” By that, he meant he would assert his role as second-in-command of the military, subordinate only to the president himself. More than that, it meant he would not be shy about offering his strategic advice to the commander-in-chief. But with foreign policy planning centralized firmly within the White House, it is unclear what degree of influence Carter will be able to exert. For his part, and despite supporting Carter’s nomination, McCain believes the new secretary of defense will have no effect on policy. But being frozen out of the tight circle of White House advisors Obama relies on does not have to render Carter irrelevant. As discussed previously, job of secretary of defense has several roles. One of them includes managing the world’s largest bureaucracy at the Pentagon. With his experience working in the Building, Carter might be most effective—and the defense establishment might be best served—if he focuses his energies there instead of grappling for influence with Obama’s White House advisors.
Strategy versus Math – One of Carter’s predecessors, Robert Gates, famously referred to cuts to defense spending proposed by the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission as “math, not strategy.” While not using such a pithy phrase, Carter is approaching the limits on defense spending established by the Budget Control Act in a similar manner. During his testimony to SASC, Carter expressed his “longstanding” opposition to the “sequester” in response to a question from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He agreed with McCain, who in his opening statement, once again repeated his favorite meme about the spending caps: “Crafting a reality-based national security strategy is simply impossible under the mindless mechanism of sequestration.” But strategy is not simply a matter of linking ends and means. The latter requires resources. Resources are subject to multiple, competing claims, and it is a matter of politics to adjudicate those claims. The politics of the moment do not portend the type of increases in defense spending Carter and McCain desire. Any strategist worth his or her salt must take those simple facts into account. Even at the height of the Cold War the United States did not attempt to match the Soviet Union tank-for-tank for economic, political, and even ideological reasons. Carter planning based on the Budget Control Act caps, instead of making empty complaints about budget “uncertainty” would be a good place to start.
Acquisition and Competition – While Carter’s commitment to reforming Pentagon acquisition practices has been commented on incessantly since his nomination—having previously served as the department’s top weapons buyer—a largely overlooked aspect of his confirmation hearing revealed a new wrinkle. Carter suggested during questioning that he would be open to the chiefs of the military services playing a greater role in the acquisition process—what Carter referred to as asserting the “role of the customer” in the process. But Carter could go even further and have the services actively compete with one another as they did in the past. Competition among the services can be useful in a number of ways, but perhaps the most important benefit it offers is the information it provides civilian planners. During his hearing, Carter acknowledged the amount of money the Department of Defense regularly wastes, and offered rhetorical support for efforts to audit the Pentagon. There are ways he can begin making changes immediately. Military services competing for scarce resources will happily provide information on the wasteful practices of their fellow bureaucracies to gain a larger share of the budget. It is still unclear whether the department will be prepared for audit by the 2017 deadline. Reintroducing service competition could be a more effective way of getting that job done.