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By HYUNG-JIN KIM
Dec. 26, 2014 4:16 AM EST
More from POLITICO Magazine » Ash Carter faces a double-barreled challenge if he’s the next Defense secretary: leading a Pentagon handicapped by a Congress unwilling to go along with military-proposed spending reforms and working within the Obama administration that’s notorious for managing military affairs from the White House. Carter, expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate early next year to succeed Chuck Hagel, will also face the likely return of sequestration in the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 — and one of his top challenges will be persuading Congress and the administration to strike a deal to avert the automatic spending caps.
Also on his list: selling Congress on the need for cost-cutting reforms that have been rejected by lawmakers in years past, including base closures and changes to military pay and benefits.
Congress has also refused to go along with the Pentagon’s plans to retire the A-10 Warthog attack jet and the U-2 spy plane, among other aging weapons platforms, and has directed the military to continue buying weapons it didn’t request, such as M1A1 Abrams tanks and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets.
Under Carter’s watch, something will have to give.
Carter, who was deputy secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013, used to be down in the “engine room,” as he once said, while the others were “up on the bridge.” Now, if he’s confirmed, he’ll finally take the helm of a ship he knows well.
“I think he’s going to be very much the same guy everybody knows,” said Andrew Hunter, a former Carter chief of staff who’s now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“He’s very disciplined, he is out there trying to get things done, solve problems.” Carter can “get right to business,” Hunter explained, and won’t need an “education period that you would normally expect for someone new coming in.”
Carter’s top priorities are familiar to the defense world, and Hunter said he expects them to persist: Cyber-warfare. Space. The U.S. “pivot” to the Western Pacific.
But these issues could all be overshadowed by sequestration, which military commanders say would leave them unable to carry out the current U.S. defense strategy.
“Achieving some kind of agreement, some consensus, some workable deal, will be a huge major first hurdle,” Hunter said.
On Capitol Hill, Carter has strong relationships with top lawmakers, including many Republicans — something Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska, had to work to achieve after a rocky confirmation hearing nearly two years ago that led many senators to oppose his nomination.
Sen. John McCain, set to chair the Armed Services Committee in the new Republican-controlled Congress next year, said Carter’s confirmation hearing will “absolutely” be held in January.
“Obviously we’d want to have it as early as possible,” the Arizona senator said. “We’ll grill him and put his feet in the fire on a lot of issues, but you need to have a secretary of Defense that’s not a lame duck. Look how we’ve performed as lame ducks.”
McCain and other Republicans are pleased with Obama’s selection of Carter but worried he could have trouble making his mark in an administration that previous Defense secretaries say consolidated decision-making power in the White House.
“He’s still got the same commander in chief and that’s going to be a handicap to the things that he’d want to do,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the outgoing top Republican on the Armed Services panel.
Even if he is well liked by lawmakers, Carter faces a major challenge getting a reluctant Congress to go along with politically toxic cost-cutting reforms such as base closures, changes to military pay and benefits and the retirement of several weapons systems.
Without the reforms, defense analysts say, the military could be forced to continue absorbing big cuts to its operations and maintenance budget — leading to a “hollowing out” of the military that commanders say has happened at the end of past U.S. wars — leaving the country unprepared for the next one.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who’s retiring after serving as the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee since 1997, said Carter would have to make a strong case on Capitol Hill to get lawmakers to agree to cost-cutting reforms that his predecessors were unable to push across the finish line.
Members of Congress will “give respect to whatever changes he might propose,” Levin said. “That doesn’t mean that we automatically accept it.”
Even though Carter and his agenda might be familiar, it isn’t clear how much influence he’ll wield outside the Pentagon.
The Obama White House has become infamous for reserving many national security decisions for itself, while a new Congress controlled by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might not be interested in much of anything that comes from an unpopular, lame-duck Democratic administration.
“He may be limited a little bit in what he’d like to do, because I think that’s exactly what happened to his predecessor,” Inhofe said.
One priority the new Republican chairmen of the Armed Services committees — McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) — are looking to tackle is Pentagon acquisition reform, and they may well have an ally in Carter, who was the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer before becoming deputy Defense secretary.
Fixing the Pentagon’s troubled acquisition system, which has long been an elusive goal for Congress, the Pentagon and the defense industry, could give Carter, McCain and Thornberry a tangible goal.
“We’ve had numerous conversations and work closely together,” McCain said of Thornberry.
At the same time, Carter and members of Congress — particularly McCain — may not see eye to eye on how to rectify the Pentagon’s issues with procurement.
Asked what could be done now to stop cost overruns on big programs like the new Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, McCain snapped: “Fire people.”
“So that they can’t do it again,” he explained. “The same people are probably working on the next aircraft carrier.”
Philip Ewing contributed to this report.