4 Pieces of Advice for Ash Carter

January 18, 2015 Topic: SecurityDomestic Politics Region: United States

4 Pieces of Advice for Ash Carter

The incoming SECDEF has a difficult task ahead. These four suggestions could make his life a little easier.


You might think that Ash Carter wouldn’t need much advice on how to succeed as Secretary of Defense given that he has been the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, the Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and the Deputy Secretary, while also serving as a consultant, panel member or committee chair on numerous national level security related studies, but you would be wrong. As Ash knows from his own years in academia, security study specialists believe that they can teach defense decisionmakers how to do their jobs.  America has the best armchair generals/defense secretaries in the world.  I am certain of it as I am one of them.

I have four pieces of advice for the new secretary:


First, stop promoting the false religion of Jointness because Jointness cartelized defense planning and discouraged innovation. It is the reason why the Quadrennial Defense Review is always such a dud. The services equally share the opportunities of rising defense budgets and the pain of declining ones so no service has an advantage over the others.  Instead of revealing the weaknesses of each other’s programs, the services collude to prevent civilians from knowing options that could undermine their favorite systems or reduce their numbers.

Make them tell the whole truth in the development of weapons and doctrine by pitting them against one another. Inter-service competition is the pathway to better defense policy.

Second, stop senior officials from constantly trashing the acquisition system and defense contractors.  The acquisition system is complex and slow because it serves multiple, often contradictory goals, reports to the Congress as well as the administration, and of necessity works at the edge of technology where frustration, delays and failure are common.  No country, friend or foe, produces better weapons faster or cheaper than we do.  The apparently eternal quest for acquisition reform is a hopeless—even foolish— search for a way to avoid the realities of our political system and the uncertainties inherent in seeking advanced weapon systems. It is always going to be a messy process burdened by frequent performance disappointments and the occasional cancelled project. Contractors are critical members of the defense team. We could not have the great ships, aircraft or tanks we have without them nor should we expect Google or Amazon, working under the same political and legal restraints, to do a better job.  We rightly praise the dedication and sacrifice of the troops and their families. We should similarly recognize the vital contributions of defense contractors.

Third, the department needs to embrace the federal system. By this I mean it needs to stop seeking a new Base Realignment and Closure Commission to get rid of what it sees as excess domestic bases and it needs to stop trying to get the National Guard to serve solely national priorities.  Local bases and Guard units support local communities and local jobs. If the department wants political support in Congress for say pension reform or the rationalization of health care services, it has to forget about some of the other efficiencies it seeks. The federal system is the expression of local interests and it isn’t going away. Some communities may not miss the local base, but others will surely wither without them. The Guard wants to retain its combat role even when that may not make much military sense. Governors, representatives, and senators have to support these preferences. The political math isn’t hard to understand. Don’t fight it.

If the federal system and Congress decentralize basing and force structure decisions, wars centralize much of the rest of defense policy.  Recent secretaries have complained of the growth of the National Security Council staff and the tendency to pull decision making into the White House.  My fourth suggestion is to smile and accept the inevitable micromanaging.

Presidents pay the political price of failed wars. Lyndon Johnson did. George W. Bush did. It is not shocking that President Obama will not let the generals in the field, the regional commanders, the chairman or his SECDEF make the politically important decisions.  And in a long and difficult war, more and more of the decisions are deemed politically important. The president and his staff may or may not make the right decisions, but they will make them, and they have the authority to do so.

Defense policy is officially portrayed as a straight line from threats to strategy to resource allocation to program planning and execution. In reality little about defense can be free of politics. Threats are not clear, the right strategy is not obvious, resources are easy to exhaust, and planning and execution are infused with parochial interests.  Ash Carter surely knows this and will likely make a great SECDEF, no doubt thanks to my advice.

Harvey M. Sapolsky is Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the former Director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

Image: Wikimedia/Scott M. Ash