Keep Ash Carter at Defense

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

Hillary Clinton should keep Ash Carter as Defense Secretary if, as expected, she wins the presidency next week.

With American troops fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, major Carter initiatives underway within the Defense Department and the potential of an obstinate Republican opposition in Congress, a President-elect Hillary Clinton would avoid an almost guaranteed three-to-six-month political fight and leadership gap, if she tried to put a new team at the Pentagon.

Perhaps as important in keeping Carter is the need to keep the initiatives he has put into effect at the Pentagon over the past year. He outlined many of them last Friday during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here in Washington.

Carter opened– by saying, “Today, we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known. There’s no other military that’s stronger, more capable, more experienced or frankly more innovative. That’s why our military edge is second to none. And it’s a fact every American ought to be proud of” – a sharp contrast to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump calling the U.S. military a “disaster.”

But Carter went on to say, “Our military’s excellence isn’t a birthright. It’s not guaranteed. And we can’t take it for granted in the 21st century. We have to earn it again and again. And that’s what this is all about; innovating to stay the best.”

It’s Carter’s initiatives, which he has termed the “third offset strategy,” that look to keep the U.S. military edge over its adversaries in comings years. Historically, the “first offset strategy” was President Dwight Eisenhower’s “new look” in the 1950s that saw reliance on the American advantage in strategic and tactical nuclear weapons that balanced off Soviet and Warsaw Pact strengths in manpower and armor in Europe.

That was followed in the 1970s, when the Soviets moved toward nuclear equality, by the “second offset strategy,” which saw the development of precision, terminally-guided conventional weapons that changed war-fighting approaches.

As Carter described it last week, he wants to develop a third offset by beginning “to plant the seeds for a number of different technologies that we think will be determinative in giving us a war-fighting advantage for the future.”

He went on, “Today, speed and agility are key, and because [of] the world we live in, the next offset will not look like the previous ones. And it may not even end being what we might consider a traditional offset strategy at all.”

He praised Defense Department labs and engineering centers that are working with “innovative defense industry… across a wide range of critical technologies.”

He cited Navy labs “developing and prototyping undersea drones in multiple sizes and diverse payloads…important since among other reasons, unmanned undersea vehicles can operate in shallow waters where manned submarines cannot.”

Army labs are “working on gun based missile defenses, which can help defeat incoming missile raids at much lower cost per round than more expensive interceptors, imposing higher cost on the attacker,” he said.

He pointed to Air Force labs that are “pioneering applications for neuromorphic computing,” which he described as “hardware, software, and systems inspired by the working mechanisms of the human brain.” This, he said, would “offer the prospect of overcoming the limitations of current computing architectures and enable information superiority in air, space, and cyberspace.”

Carter created what he called, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental or DIUx, with offices now located in Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin, Texas. DIUx teams are soliciting proposals for micro satellites and advanced analytics that would create space-based tools to provide situation awareness to forces around the world, Carter said.

Another Carter innovation, the Strategic Capabilities Office or SCO helps develop changes in existing Pentagon platforms and technology, such as the arsenal plane and a new anti-ship capability for the Navy’s SM-6 missile that was once only used against attacking aircraft. 

Carter said another SCO project led to making the Army’s long-range artillery rocket, ATACMS, capable of striking moving targets at land and at sea.  It was done Carter said, by “integrating an existing seeker under the front of the missile” which changed “an Army surface-to-surface missile system [to one that] can project power from [a] coastal location up to 300 kilometers into the maritime domain.”

To meet an uncertain future, Carter said, “We’ll have to change too – how to invest, how we fight, how we operate as an organization, and how we attract and nourish talent.”

I’d feel much more comfortable if Carter were the Defense Secretary helping make those choices.

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