Ashton B. Carter speaks during a presentation in 2009 of the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Q&A with Ashton B. Carter
Ashton B. Carter, a member of the Belfer Center Board of Directors is a former director of the Belfer Center and was co-director of the Center’s Preventive Defense Project until leaving in 2009 to serve as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Following his recent selection as deputy secretary of defense, we asked Carter about the challenges and opportunities of his new position.
Q: What do you see as your major challenges as deputy secretary of defense?
We are still a nation at war, and one of my foremost responsibilities as deputy is to help Secretary [Leon] Panetta prosecute currentoperations around the world: against al Qaeda and its affiliated groups, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.
But we also are turning a strategic corner, as we prepare to wind down two long wars and enter a new era of defense spending in response to the country’s fiscal situation. In this unprecedented budgetary environment, one of my principal managerial challenges will be to find savings—in efficiencies, personnel costs, force structure, and modernization— that are driven by strategy and a vision of the future, and not just by expediency. We have botched previous drawdowns after major wars in our history, and this time we need to do it right.
Q: Having just completed two and a half grueling years as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L), what would you identify as two or three accomplishments of which you’re proudest?
When former Secretary of Defense Gates offered me the under secretary job, he said, “The troops are at war and the Pentagon is not, and especially AT&L.” He made absolutely clear he wanted that to change, and I am most proud that we have been able to set a faster tempo of support to our troops around the world. As under secretary, I would wake up every morning and ask myself what my office could do that day to accelerate the delivery of equipment and material to theater: whether it be Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicles and bombsniffing dogs to protect our troops against the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices, better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, or better logistical support. This effort remains one of my highest priorities as deputy.
I also insisted that we deliver better value to the taxpayer and warfighter for each defense dollar we spend. In September 2010, Secretary Gates and I issued guidance to our acquisition workforce, entitled “Better Buying Power,” which identified the principal changes we felt were necessary to improve the way the Department of Defense does business—for example, making more appropriate use of contract type, insisting on paying what our products and services should cost rather than fatalistically accepting what budget estimators forecast they will cost without managerial intervention, leveraging real competition as opposed to settling for a series of directed buys, mandating affordability as a requirement for the acquisition of future weapon systems, and improving our tradecraft in contracting for services. These reforms would be important to apply in any budget environment, but they take on added significance given the defense budget cuts we face. The days when ever-rising budgets could cover poor program management are gone.
These changes are already showing results in such big-ticket programs as the KC-46 Tanker (where an unprotested contract award ended a many-year drama and obtained a great deal for the Air Force), and our largest tactical aircraft, shipbuilding, and satellite programs.
Q: What about frustrations in that job, or items still on the not-yet-completed list?
I remain concerned that we have yet to establish a so-called “fast lane” for support to contingency acquisitions and, more generally, to respond to rapidly changing global threats. As former Secretary Gates famously asked in a 2009 Foreign Affairs article, “Why [is] it necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars?” In my own experience as under secretary of AT&L, I have had to cut through reams of bureaucratic red tape to deliver the capabilities our warfighters need on their timetable, and not on the timetable of the Pentagon’s ponderous acquisition and budgeting processes. Fixing this problem will be a priority of mine as deputy.
I also believe that we must continue to deliver better value to the taxpayer and warfighter for our defense dollars. Our business performance, in my view, is still not acceptable, and our relentless pursuit of value must continue to expand in scope, with important advances still needed in our approaches to services acquisition, cyber, information technology, control of total lifecycle costs, iteration with the requirements process, engagement of small and innovative business partners, the industrial base, and other areas.
Q: Having spent most of the prior quarter century at Harvard’s Kennedy School as a professor, director of the Belfer Center, and founding chair of the International and Global Affairs concentration, in what ways did that experience prepare you for your job as under secretary and now deputy secretary?
The Kennedy School’s output is everywhere in national security circles—in Washington and around the world. The seminal strategic ideas of giants like Schelling, Nye, Allison, and others underlie every policy or crisis discussion. Secretary Panetta’s special assistant and my special assistant are both former students of mine—just two of so many alumni who make our government and world better. When I visited the Japanese Ministry of Defense a while back, the minister surprised me with a roomful of Kennedy School alumni who work there. What a wonderful institution to be associated with!
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