Ashton Carter: The Pentagon Must Think Outside of Its Five-Sided Box

Ashton Carter: The Pentagon Must Think Outside of Its Five-Sided Box

"The U.S. military's excellence is not a birthright. It must be earned again and again in this changing and fiercely competitive world."

At the same time, the Defense Department must also meet our commitment to help care for our military’s wounded, ill, and injured.  It includes our enduring pledge to support the families of the fallen, whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of us and our country. And it also includes ensuring the dignity of our people, which is why our military leaders and I have prioritized the prevention and elimination of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military.

Of course, the Force of the Future will not all serve in uniform. 700,000 much ignored and even maligned but talented and dedicated Defense Department civilians currently serve across the country and around the world, where they fix aircraft, build ships, operate testing ranges, and much more. To ensure our future civilian workforce continues to be as effective, motivated, and talented as the one today, the Defense Department is taking steps such as changing the lengthy hiring process to allow the hiring of talented young graduates directly from college campuses, just as the employers we are competing against do. 

Despite the department’s retention efforts, I know that some service members will choose to leave. As Secretary of Defense, I have to tell you that is not always easy for me, because I hate to see our great people go. But at the same time, there is a silver lining: when service members have a successful transition to a good job, or start their own business, or work in public service, or volunteer in their community, they show potential members of the Force of the Future that the military can be more than a good place to be; it is also a good place to be from. Those examples – and there are many – have tremendous value as we recruit their replacements and replenish our own innovative workforce.  I am old enough to remember a time when it was different, and I am so proud today that our employers and our citizens recognize what spectacular contributors our veterans are.

Going forward, there will still be much more work to do, but for the first time in a long time, the parts of the Pentagon charged with managing our department’s talent, health, welfare, and readiness are poised to do more than simply react to issues that crop up in Congress or the press.  Instead, they now have a concrete and proactive action plan to guide their efforts. Based on the support for this agenda in our military services, I am confident its implementation will continue moving forward, and ensure that America’s Force of the Future is as great as the force of today.

The Future:

Innovation in technology, operations, organization, and personnel will strengthen our department, and ensure my successor and my successor’s successor as secretary of defense lead a force as fine as the one we have today. But it bears remembering that the Defense Department innovates from an already enviable, and indeed unparalleled, position of strength.

The United States possesses the world’s finest military, of course – built by our people, investments, hard-earned operational experience, dedication to the mission, and public support we receive from the American people. And there is much more than that. Our economy is growing. Our colleges and universities continue as beacons of discovery, invention, and thought.  Our selfless commitment not only to our own country’s defense, but to global security and to upholding common values, has rewarded us with an unrivaled network of friends and allies. And our melting pot of cultures, ideas, and backgrounds has instilled in us an industrious and innovative culture that is envied around the globe.

I am confident in the changes the Pentagon is making, in the vision we have set for the future, and most importantly, in the young women and men in uniform, and our civilians, who will carry our country forward. We are witnessing the early chapters in a history book that is still being written by this generation.

This history book will written by the junior officers and Defense Department just embarking on their careers, and by new generations even younger and still unborn. Chapters will be written by some civilians fresh out of graduate school who will decide to spend a year outside of the department at Google or somewhere else, and work with an expert in data science or machine learning. Pages will be written by the software engineers, bioscientists, and teenage hackers like David Dworkin who are getting to know our mission by working with one of our DIUx outposts or through a bug bounty like Hack the Pentagon, and might then choose to do a tour of duty in the Defense Digital Service or working at one of our DoD labs. And yet other chapters will be authored by enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who will devise new operational concepts for overcoming potential adversaries using advanced technologies that may not even exist yet, or defeating a terrorist group unknown to us today.

Together, they will fill the pages as America reinvents and changes anew how it will prevent and deter, and when necessary fight and win, wars in the future.  Our job is to give them the right kind of Pentagon to help them succeed: one that is more agile and innovative than ever before. As long as we do, I am confident that these young Americans will ensure – like the generations before them – that our military remains the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

Ashton B. Carter is the 25th U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Image: Aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville in the South China Sea. Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense