Ash Carter's initial focus on reform was sidetracked by operational, fiscal strains

Ash Carter listens as President Barack Obama announces his nomination as Secretary of Defense at a White House ceremony in December, 2014.


By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 17, 2017

WASHINGTON — On Ash Carter’s first week as defense secretary two years ago, he launched the Force of the Future Initiative that he thought would define his term: scores of changes to make military service more attractive to the next generation of warfighters.

His goal was to broaden the Pentagon’s appeal and make the military more in line with what he thought necessary to fight future wars: less traditional infantry, more high-tech hackers.

But Carter’s focus on reform was quickly challenged by increased small-scale engagements with terrorists in the Middle East, friction with global powers and budgetary struggles in Washington.

“He was someone who was profiled as a reformer who ended up with a lot of operations responsibility,” said David Adesnik, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

During his term, the United States has faced Russian aggression, the largest military reinforcement of Europe in decades and the increased pace of operations against the Islamic State group. The train-and-advise strategy has helped Iraqi and Syrian fighters gain ground, said Larry Korb, a senior defense fellow at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Carter — Obama’s fourth defense secretary — is “leaving at a point of momentum” in the battle against the Islamic State militants, he said. “I do think he should take credit for that.”

However, the Asia Pacific area remains “the single most consequential region for America’s future,” Carter told the Reagan Defense Forum in California in December. There is the potential nuclear threat posed by North Korea, and the economic and military rise in the region, particularly by China. The United States will have 60 percent of its naval assets in the Asia Pacific by 2020. During Carter’s tenure, new agreements were set with Singapore, the Philippines, Japan and others to meet that goal.

Carter’s focus on reform had to take place in the context of the continuing war on terror, Adesnik said.

“It’s very rare the Pentagon can focus only on reform. Certainly since 9/11, there hasn’t been time to focus,” he said. “There aren’t too many breaks for America as a global leader.”

A lifetime in defense

When Carter took office in 2015, he had more than 30 years of experience working for or advising the Pentagon, including three separate stints as a deputy or assistant secretary of defense. He also had years of involvement serving on select boards set up to address defense challenges such as reforming the Pentagon’s acquisition policies or to advise its nuclear weapons policy, among others.

That deep bureaucratic experience provided extensive expertise that could lead to lengthy memos and speeches as defense secretary, but did not always translate well at the podium during interviews. As an intellectual, Carter could discuss at length how, as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics starting in 2009, the Pentagon was able to speed the acquisition of thousands of armored vehicles to better protect troops in Afghanistan. As defense secretary, Carter seemed less at ease discussing the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. That unease was apparent when questioned about the insistence of President Barack Obama’s administration that the thousands of men and women who had returned to Iraq to help defeat the Islamic State group were not in combat, but instead there to train, advise and assist.

There is a less bureaucratic side to Carter, and it’s often visible when he’s with troops.

He makes a point to shake hands with every servicemember he meets, posing for photos and giving out challenge coins.

“I get a chance to look you right in the eye and congratulate you and thank you,” he said in June at a troop event at Fort Knox in Kentucky, making time to talk to each soldier, one by one. “I’m very proud of you. Our whole country is proud of you. You should be proud of yourselves.”

He was the first defense secretary to join Facebook, according to the Defense Department. His first post: a photo of him shaking hands with a Marine on a MV-22 Osprey.

Institutional change

Carter believes the military should challenge itself to be better — “to think outside of the five-sided box.”

He has made dozens of recommendations to help the military recruit and retain its best. None, however, has brought as much attention to the Pentagon as Carter’s controversial decision in December 2015 to open all positions to women.

“They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” Carter announced in a news briefing at the Pentagon. “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”

His views split with many people, including then-Marines Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, who favored keeping certain infantry and artillery positions closed to women.

Carter “stood up to the Marines on women in combat,” Korb said. “The interesting thing will be what [defense secretary nominee retired Marine Gen. James] Mattis is going to do about that.”

Mattis told the Senate on Thursday that he has no plans to reverse the decision if he is confirmed.

At his final news conference last week, Carter said the full integration of women should remain.

“What matters for the future of the all-volunteer force is that we emphasize attracting and retaining the most qualified people who can meet our standards,” he said. “That is the criteria, not other criteria.”

Force of the Future

Carter launched his Force of the Future Initiative in March 2015, speaking at Abington Senior High School in Pennsylvania, his alma mater.

“In the coming years, as the so-called ‘9/11’ generation begins to leave our ranks, the Defense Department must continue to bring in talented Americans from your generation and others,” Carter told the group. “That starts with being honest about our challenges in attracting people we need and want.”

His six-pronged effort calls for improving the promotion system, adding family benefits such as maternity and paternity leaves, introducing professional sabbaticals for servicemembers and bringing in outsiders as officers in high-tech fields. In November, Carter announced a plan to expand recruiting and broaden the appeal of ROTC programs on college campuses.

Another aspect of his initiative is the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, which has offices in northern California, Boston and Austin, Texas. Its goal is to advance technological innovation in the military by working with the private sector and cultivating talent. It aims to get cutting-edge technology into the hands of troops.

Not everyone is a fan of Force of the Future.

“This initiative has been an outrageous waste of official time,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in February, noting the budget challenges and ongoing operations facing the department.

McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued the continued budget pressure on the military imposed by the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration and the pace of operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan made it an inappropriate time to focus on the reforms.

Carter defended his emphasis on reform during a time of war and financial constraints.

“Well, we need to do these things at the same time,” he said. “We need to carry out operations in the present, we need to prepare for future operations.”

Twitter: @TaraCopp

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in September, 2016.

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