On Defense: Carter and the Candidates

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Two vastly different conversations about U.S. defense policies took place last week.

One conversation centered around Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s statements during multiple appearances on the West Coast.  That one was serious and thoughtful, as he laid out his planned new military programs for the 21st century.  It was real.

The other conversation arose from the Republican presidential candidates who were speaking at rallies, during media interviews, and during their March 3 debate.  That one was superficial at best and often misleading or inaccurate.  Those conversations were largely make believe.

Sadly, it was the latter that reached the largest public audience.  The difference between real and “make believe” when it comes to the impact of policies on our future security in this country is obvious if you take the time to focus on the details.

Carter said he will announce, perhaps this week, some “changes we’ll make in our overall [Defense Department] structure, some…laid down in the Goldwater-Nichols Act decades ago.” He did not identify them but mentioned “excess infrastructure and BRAC,” the Base Realignment and Closure process that Congress has repeatedly refused to authorize.

One target may be what Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee called last December “the top-heavy and bloated staff structures that we see in the [six regional] combatant commands,” spread around the world. At one of several hearings the committee held on Pentagon structure, former Defense Department Undersecretary Michele Flournoy noted that combatant command staffs had grown to 38,000 people.

McCain also pointed out that while combatant commanders were originally “envisioned as the warfighting arm of the military…that function has largely migrated to joint task forces, established on an ad hoc basis,” as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, McCain and his Senate colleagues recognize the importance played diplomatically by the geographic combatant commanders in this new era where the U.S. is seeking to build up security forces of its allies and have them join in regional counterterrorism efforts when needed.

So don’t be surprised if the combatant commands are a focus of Carter’s structure changes.

Another target may be some elements of “jointness” mandated by Goldwater-Nichols. The Senate panel complained about the excess number of joint flag officer billets created for those officers so they could serve outside their own services.

Carter last week focused primarily on what he called his “Force of the Future” initiatives, admitting before a Microsoft Corp. audience on March 3,  “I’m just trying to get as much going as possible and try as many things, and see what will — will work out.” He added he hopes the next Pentagon leadership will “see the same compelling logic that I do. So I’m confident these things will be continued.”

At his March 1, speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Carter spoke of the range of new Defense Department research efforts “advancing our commanding lead in undersea capabilities… developing new hypersonic missiles that can fly over five times the speed of sound… advancing artificial intelligence, autonomy and robotics so that no matter what our enemies throw at our systems, they just work.”

There and in other talks he described cyber activities on which the Pentagon plans to spend $35 billion over the next five years. That includes cyber defense to protect the DoD’s hundreds of networks so vital to all U.S. weaponry, including the upgrading security for some four million desktops, laptops and tablets, making them better equipped inherently to defend themselves against cyber threats.

He also talked of “offensive cyber options” underway against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “No reason why these guys should be able to command and control over the Internet. There’s no reason why they should be sending nasty messages around. There’s no reason why they should be able to use the Internet and social media to dominate and tyrannize the people on whose territory they now sit, and we are going to knock that out,” was the way he put it last Friday.

At Joint Base Lewis-McChord Friday Carter pointed out the benefits of the BRAC process which in 2005 led to the Army and Air Force sharing one base. He also noted the combined base personnel represented another of his initiatives, National Guard, Reserve, and active-duty all working together.”

He called the Washington National Guard’s 252nd Cyber Operations Group, “historic” for being one of the Guard’s first such units. Made up of extremely experienced people in the tech field who work in leading computer companies, they also serve their country at the same time, in this case conducting threat assessments on information networks for the Defense Department.

During the week, Carter also talked about some new Pentagon organizations that he said would lead the way into the future, starting with the Defense Digital Service, which brings talented computer coders in for a year or two or for a special project. “They’re not going to make a career” in government, Carter said, but they “make a contribution to us.”

He mentioned the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics located in San Jose, Calif., one of nine public-private research consortia that invest in new approaches to long-existing systems to meet 21st century threats. This one, Carter said, created a new generation of bendable and wearable electronic sensors that could be applied to a variety of applications from smart bandages in health care to durable embedded sensors in airplanes.

He also talked of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental – DIUx, where active duty and key Reserve personnel work out of an office in Mountain View, Calif. in the heart of Silicon Valley.

They make innovators and entrepreneurs aware of Defense Department needs and requirements.

He also discussed a pilot recruitment program for legal aliens called the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, which this year seeks to hire 5,200 with critical skills such as physicians, nurses and language experts.

While Carter delved into the nitty-gritty problems of defense, the Republican candidates generally used broad brushes the few times they dealt with the subject.

At the March 3 Republican debate, specifics came up twice and in both cases raised serious questions about what they discussed.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) proposed pursuing space-based missile defense against North Korea and Iran saying a system could “take out one or two or three missiles before it can cross over and do damage.” However, a 2012 National Academy of Sciences report found that a space-based boost-phase interceptor system “would require hundreds of satellites and cost as much as $500 billion to acquire and operate over a 20-year span — at least 10 times as much as any other approach” to missile defense.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich proposed putting “significant numbers” of American ground troops into Libya, Syria and Iraq, adding “we do have to include our Muslim Arab friends” as part of a broad coalition. Citing as an example the way the U.S. led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, Kasich said such an approach would “take care of the job” of getting rid of the Islamic State and the U.S. troops could “then come home.”

He conveniently ignored what would happen in those countries once American troops left.  Just ask George W. Bush and President Obama.  You need to train a local force to hold the territory so you can leave.  

Donald Trump again this past week showed the danger for America should he ever become President and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

His multiple statements and positions on waterboarding, other forms of torture and responding to Islamic State savagery over the past week illustrate his inconsistency, dishonesty and lack of understanding of U.S. constitutional government.

Last week I wrote about former CIA Director Michael Hayden’s statement that the U.S. military would refuse to carry out waterboarding, other torture, or killing the families of terrorists as Trump had claimed he would want done in the fight against the Islamic State.

Asked about that during last Thursday’s GOP candidates’ debate, Trump said, “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.” He later added, “If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”

One day later, Trump, answering a Wall Street Journal question, reversed himself through a written statement saying. “I …understand that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws.”

That did not end of the matter. Trump, on this past Sunday’s CBS Face the Nation, at first blamed host John Dickerson for not telling him water boarding was illegal. “You weren’t talking about violating laws,” he said.

It is not clear whether Trump even today understands the current law governing interrogation of terrorists, which is based on what’s permitted under the Army Field Manual. He did call them “massive restrictions” and admitted “water-boarding is not allowed.”

Trump said, “I would like to have the law expanded,” whatever that means, so “at a minimum” U.S. personnel would be able to water-board jihadist prisoners. Not doing that, he said, shows “we have become very weak and ineffective. I think that’s why we’re not beating ISIS. It’s that mentality.”

Of course the lack of water-boarding or using any other form of torture has little to do with the overall goal of winning the fight against terrorism, but Trump’s view that in dealing with the Islamic State “you have to play the game the way they’re playing the game” tells you a lot about why he should never be commander-in-chief.

Secretary Carter is dealing with “real world” solutions to day-to-day national security problems.  Voters should be cautious about simple sounding “make believe” answers to our major defense issues from candidates with little to no experience in dealing with such matters.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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