Carter promises ‘leaner’ Pentagon if confirmed as Defense secretary

Although Ashton Carter oversaw many of the Pentagon’s cost-cutting drills in his last DoD job, he said there’s more to do. If confirmed as Defense secretary, he promised to work to end cost overruns in weapons systems and create an overall leaner Pentagon.

In his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Carter repeated a request he made frequently as deputy Defense secretary: that Congress undo sequestration and give DoD budget predictability. But this time, he said that in return for an end to the spending caps, the Pentagon needs to undo some of its own spending habits.

Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s choice to be defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
“I cannot suggest support and stability for the defense budget without, at the same time, frankly noting that not every defense dollar is spent as well as it should be,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The taxpayer cannot comprehend it, let alone support the defense budget when they read of cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead, and the like. This must stop. Every company, state, and city in the country has had to lean itself out in recent years, and it should be no different for the Pentagon”

On the need to reform the acquisition system, Carter said he spoke from experience in sharing senators’ frustration with the pace of Pentagon procurement. Responding to questions about complaints from the Jordanian king about a bottleneck in the sale of needed military equipment, Carter promised he’d make fixing acquisition a top priority.

“The cost control aspect is very important, but also, getting things done,” he said. “When I was working on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was — even for assistance to our own forces — way too much red tape stood in the way. You had to constantly try to cut through that. I’m not familiar with the Jordanian circumstance, but I do read the newspapers, and I can well believe that it’s slower than King Abdullah finds acceptable, and that you and I would find acceptable. If I’m confirmed as secretary of Defense, this is an area I’m pretty familiar with, and I’d work to get those things out there the way we did MRAPs.”

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Carter led the effort to rapidly acquire those mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles while he was undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, logistics and technology, and the speed of the MRAP acqusition was widely cited as one of his most important accomplishments when he left the Pentagon the last time.

But Carter lamented that when it comes to rapidly buying urgent items, the MRAP experience is the exception, not the rule.

“The experience that I had all too often in trying to support Iraq and Afghanistan as the acquisition executive was that when the troops said they needed something, the response of the bureaucracy tended to be, ‘Oh, we’re making one of those. It’ll be finished in 10 years,'” he said. “And we all recognize immediately that that’s nonsensical, because they needed that counter-IED equipment, vehicles, they needed it now. I think our acquisition system got in the habit during the Cold War of doing things very slowly. It would go on for a long time, and we would have programs that extended over 10 and 15 years. We’ve got to turn faster as a military. It’s not only when you’re in war, when you’re in competition with other countries that that are using the global technology base to advance their own military, if we’re going to continue to be the best military in the world, we can’t take steps in 15- year increments.”

But Carter cautioned senators that there will not be a single, quick fix to the acquisition system, and he offered few specific indications of what he would change as secretary. He did advocate for stronger development of DoD’s acquisition workforce, and also endorsed a proposal to give the military service chiefs a stronger role in the acquisition system.

“I am in favor of reintroducing to the acquisition system the role of the chiefs of the military services as the customer,” he said. “I think that’s been a proposal made by others with which I associate myself. But there’s no one silver bullet, there are many things that we need to do to improve acquisition.”

On efficiencies, Carter maintained that DoD’s headquarters organizations are still too top heavy, despite a management review he oversaw in 2013 that mandated a 20 percent reduction in staffing levels. A GAO report last month found that DoD has still not finalized its plans to implement those cutbacks, and that the department as a whole lacks a comprehensive strategy for determining how large its headquarters staffing levels should be.

Carter said he has not reviewed the report, but committed that he would make sure the promised reductions are carried out.

“I certainly think it is important to diminish headquarters staff and other forms of overhead. I think the 20 percent goal is a sound one. I do not know where it stands in terms of implementation now, but if confirmed, I will go back to that and try to meet that goal because we’ve got to get rid of the overhead here so that we can spend the dollars we have on the warfighter, which is what it is all about,” he said.

For similar reasons, Carter suggested he’s wary about recent proposals to create or expand certain headquarters organizations in DoD.

For example, the department and Congress have been considering elevating U.S. Cyber Command to a full unified combatant command, and last week, the Military Compensation and Military Retirement Commission recommended the stand-up of a brand new four-star command to oversee military readiness, including medical readiness.

“I’m all for paying much more attention to cyber and think we need to do that, but the creation of new commands and new headquarters in this budgetary environment is something I think we need to look at very closely and very cautiously,” he said.

Carter said he has not reviewed the 2016 budget DoD released earlier this week in detail, but said that if he’s confirmed, he expects to be back on Capitol Hill within the next few weeks to defend it in the department’s annual posture hearings.

He said he does support the overall spending levels in the budget, along with its call to undo the spending caps in the Budget Control Act.

“I very much hope that we can find a way together out of the wilderness of sequester,” he told senators. “Sequester is risky to our defense. It introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful, and it conveys a misleadingly diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike.”

At the end of a hearing that included very few contentious questions, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee chairman, said he hopes for a speedy confirmation. The committee, he said, would try to vote on the nomination this week, and would urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the nomination up for a final floor vote next week, prior to a scheduled Senate recess.

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