By Tom Vanden Brook
Ashton Carter has the resume and presence you’d expect at the top level of government: degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale, a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford. Posts at top levels at Harvard and the Pentagon.
He’s always come across in interviews as thoroughly prepared, voluble and interesting. This isn’t a partisan observation; the Bush administration had impressive Pentagon cast members, too. Look no further than Robert Gates.
So when Carter wants to talk, he’s generally worth listening to. The topic was automatic budget cuts and what they’ll do to defense strategy. There were dire predictions, some of which will likely come true if the Pentagon finds itself with $52 billion less next year.
Troops could be let go, civilian employees laid off. That’s news.
Another remark about Pentagon personnel also stands out in retrospect. When Gates hired Carter as his top weapons buyer in 2009, Carter recalled that Gates told him the military was at war but the Pentagon bureaucracy wasn’t. It wasn’t responding with the urgency that Gates deemed necessary.
Think about that. In 2009, the war in Iraq had raged for six bloody years and had been fought three years longer in Afghanistan. That wasn’t enough, apparently, to focus the attention of all those in uniform or the civilian workforce. Too many other programs unrelated to either war captured their attention. The Air Force’s F-22 comes to mind. The fighter never flew a mission in either war.
Gates put Carter in charge of finding out what troops in combat needed most — Mine Resistant Ambush Protected trucks, spy planes and blimps, fortified underwear — and gave him the writ to make it happen fast. The Pentagon bureaucracy had grown so large and unresponsive, Gates and Carter had to plumb new channels around it.
Gordon Adams, the smart, chatty professor at American University and a former Defense Department official, looks at the Pentagon and sees too many people doing too many things unrelated to fighting wars. In a recent interview, he noted that the Pentagon employs more civilians and contractors than active-duty troops. The ratio used to be one civilian for every two troops, he said. He also points to hundreds of thousands of troops who have never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Slash overhead, Adams says, and you’ll find the savings you need.
To be sure, the military needs troops and civilians who focus on parts of the world where we’re not fighting. Wars can break out in unexpected places after all.
How many is too many? Some civilians and troops may find out sooner rather than later.