WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2015 – Ash Carter becomes the 25th secretary of defense today after having served previously as deputy defense secretary, defense acquisition chief and assistant secretary for global strategic affairs.
When President Barack Obama nominated Carter for the position — calling Carter an innovator and a reformer who knows the Defense Department inside and out –- the president said, “On Day One, he’s going to hit the ground running.”
At his Feb. 4 Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, Carter described the work that lies ahead for him and the department.
“I think we are in a time,” he told the Senate panel, “where the number and severity of risks is something I’ve not seen before in my life.”
Risks to the Nation
For Carter, the job will include dealing with coalition responsibilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what he described as “the malignant and savage terrorism” emanating from turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.
He’ll also take on what has become a reversion to what he’s called old-style security thinking in parts of Europe, long-standing tensions and rapid changes in Asia, a continuing imperative to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and dangers in new domains such as cyber.
Carter’s own expertise, experience, travels and interests in defense and national security have prepared him precisely to deal with these challenges and more.
As former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman said in introductory remarks during Carter’s hearing, “It would really be hard to find someone to serve as secretary of defense who combines as much practical Pentagon experience with so deep a background in national security policy as Ash Carter.”
Issues and Allies in NATO
Over his career, Carter has developed important relationships among military and foreign policy leaders of U.S. partners and allies in NATO. In 2013, as part of an expert panel at the 49th Annual Munich Security Conference, Carter explored DoD’s strategic approach to 21st-century threats for an audience of international foreign and defense ministers and security policy officials.
“I think our strength in Europe is our alliance with NATO and the political solidarity that represents, which is very important when it comes to the Baltic states and the response in Ukraine,” he said during his confirmation hearing.
Carter told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that economic and political pressure on Russia and President Vladimir Putin has to remain the center of gravity in the U.S. effort to push back against the incursion of Russian troops into Ukraine.
Carter was present and involved in the 1994 signing in Hungary of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In the diplomatic document signed there by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, Ukraine agreed to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory, send them to Russian disarmament facilities and sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, all of which it did.
Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to accept Ukraine as an independent sovereign state.
“I was in Ukraine the day the last nuclear weapon rode across the border from Ukraine into Russia,” Carter said. “That agreement provided for Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which it obviously has not done.”
In that agreement the United States took on a commitment not only to respect, but also to assure, “the ability of Ukraine to find its own way as an independent country,” he added. “That is at stake today.”
Finishing the Job in Afghanistan
Warfighters’ needs — for weapons, equipment, training and more — were a driving force in Carter’s nine official trips to Afghanistan during the International Security Assistance Force combat mission there.
Carter spent some of his last days as deputy defense secretary in Afghanistan over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2013. On Thanksgiving Day, after meeting with U.S. and Afghan military leaders and shaking hands with 150 troops at Forward Operating Base Gamberi in eastern Afghanistan’s Laghman province, Carter and his wife, Stephanie, got behind the dining facility’s steam tables and happily served turkey to the men and women in uniform.
At several stops, Carter was honored as a champion for troops in moving the Pentagon acquisition process beyond bureaucracy and into the life-saving business with a range of tools produced in a timely way.
A Champion for Troops
These included mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; unmanned aerial systems; counter-roadside-bomb equipment; persistent surveillance by way of the aerostat, or an immobile balloon-type structure filled with a lifting gas — what Carter called ‘a poor man’s Predator unmanned vehicle’ — and medical advances produced during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The campaign in Afghanistan has been close to my heart for all the time that I’ve been associated with the Department of Defense,” he said during his confirmation hearing.
“I think success is possible there, but … requires the United States to continue its campaign and finish the job,” he added, noting that he supports the president’s plan for Afghanistan but will recommend changes if he sees a need for them.
In the Middle East region, Carter told the Senate panel, “I think we have two immediate, substantial dangers — one is [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and one is Iran,” he said.
A Serious Complication
Carter called Iran’s role a “serious complication” in the region and in the coalition fight against ISIL being waged in Iraq and stretching across the border into Syria.
During his hearing, in answer to a question about reports of Iran’s recent use of a two-stage rocket to place another satellite in orbit, Carter said continued Iranian development of ballistic missile technology is “a threat not only to the United States but friends and allies in the region, and it’s just one of the things Iran is doing that is dangerous.”
“That’s one of the reasons why we need to keep our missile defenses and especially our [intercontinental ballistic missile] defenses current, capable and large enough in size to deal with both the prospective Iranian threat and the also very real North Korean ICBM threat,” Carter explained.
On the international fight against ISIL, Carter said that regional partners in the fight will help the United States make sure the defeat inflicted on ISIL is lasting, and that it keeps ISIL from creating breeding grounds for its “malignant and vicious kind of terrorism.” U.S. involvement is essential and necessary, he added, but not sufficient by itself for lasting victory.
Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific Region
During his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, Obama said the United States is modernizing alliances in the Asia-Pacific region while making sure other nations play by the rules in how they trade, resolve maritime disputes and work to meet common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.
A big part of the transition is the military rebalance to the region, where Carter traveled extensively as deputy secretary to explain the rebalance and to reassure political and military leaders there that budget cuts would not affect the U.S. commitment.
In 2013, a March trip to Asia included visits to defense and government officials in Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia, as part of an international panel at the third Jakarta International Defense Dialogue, Carter said the United States is serious about its commitment to the region and detailed elements in motion of a rebalance called for in the department’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance.
Keeping Peace and Stability
Carter called the rebalance a commitment to continue the pivotal American military role in the Asia-Pacific theater, a presence that for decades has kept peace and stability there, and created an environment for explosive economic growth.
At his confirmation hearing, Carter said the United States could rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region while keeping its commitments in the Middle East and Europe.
“My view is that we can and must,” he added. Though ISIL and events in Ukraine are critically important and require much attention, “we have to remember that half the population of the world and half its economy is in [the Asia-Pacific] region,” he said.
Multilaterally, Carter has said, DoD recognizes the importance of strengthening regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which plays a critical role in maintaining regional stability and resolving disputes through diplomacy.
The Importance of South Asia
The rebalance is a transition not only to the Asia-Pacific but within the region, Carter told the Senate panel. As former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s deputy, Carter’s portfolio included serving as the department’s point man in defense relations with India.
“India is, in my view, destined to be a strategic partner of the United States,” Carter said, characterizing the nation as a large democracy that shares many U.S. political values and the values of pluralism.
“I think that destiny will bring us together, but I’m for hastening that,” he added, with collaborative efforts in military-to-military relations and defense and technology cooperation.
For all their economic relations, India and every other country in South Asia depend on peaceful relations and trade with one another, Carter observed at the time.
“The top priority of all those governments, they’ll tell you, is economic prosperity,” he added, “and that can’t be had without security within their borders and with their neighbors with whom they have to trade.”
The Very Newest in Technology
One tenet of the 2012 defense strategy was to pursue the very newest in technology and operational art, Carter said many times in his role as deputy defense secretary.
“Investments in this area target special operations forces, capabilities in space and in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and cyberspace,” he said.
In 2012, during a keynote address to participants at the annual RSA Conference on cryptography and information security in San Francisco, Carter said DoD is deeply involved in and committed to cybersecurity and the department’s responsibility to defend the nation.
“That explains, for us — and in this I speak for [the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and other department leadership — our real sense of urgency about cyber and our willingness, indeed eagerness, to be a leading part of, where appropriate, the march to cybersecurity that we’re all just beginning.”
Urgency About Cyberspace
On cyberspace, Carter said during his confirmation hearing that the federal government has a role in protecting the country from cyberattacks in the same way it has a role in protecting the country from other kinds of attacks.
“I think [the government] can do a lot more to exercise that responsibility without causing concerns over invasions of people’s privacy,” he added.
The government can share information and knowledge it has collected about threats to private networks with those private parties, for example, if proper legal safeguards are provided, Carter said. And these have less to do with privacy than they do with things such as antitrust and other important legal aspects, he added.
“I think the government can sponsor and conduct [research and development] that improves the tradecraft in network defense for the good of the country,” he said. “So I think there’s a lot we can do, and we’re not anywhere near where we should be as a country.”
21st-century Defense Strategy
Carter often characterized as a strategic crossroads the department’s transition from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a renewed political and economic focus on the Asia-Pacific region and the need to absorb defense budget reductions.
“These two great historical currents are coming together,” Carter said in 2013, “and it’s my view that they can, if managed properly, reinforce one another.”
During a November 2013 address on national security leadership in Annapolis, Maryland, Carter detailed for 250 U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen the strategic tasks facing the Defense Department as the 21st century unfolds.
One of these was to maintain a technological edge over U.S. adversaries, and Carter — who holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar — said maintaining a technological edge over competitors is the surest way to deter conflict.
Maintaining a Technological Edge
The nation, he added, must continue to invest in technologies that will be essential to 21st-century defense, and the president and the department have focused on protecting critical investments, even in times of budget austerity.
DoD is increasing investments in the cyber domain because of growing threats to national security and critical infrastructure, Carter said. In the space domain, the department is rebalancing its portfolio to better defend against threats, degrade enemy space capabilities and operate in a contested environment.
The department also is investing in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and unmanned assets, he said, including platforms that launch from land and sea, and operate well above the Earth’s surface and deep under the sea.
“I would say,” Carter said during his confirmation hearing, “that the world continues to pose serious challenges to international order, and that the United States is indispensable to the solution of those challenges.”