Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter’s confirmation hearing is set for the first week of February. Coinciding with Carter’s confirmation, on February 2, the president will send Congress his fiscal year 2016 budget request. One of Mr. Carter’s first tasks as Chuck Hagel’s replacement will be to defend the President’s FY 2016 budget request – a document on which Mr. Carter has presumably had little influence.
The president’s FY 2016 request for Pentagon spending is reportedly $585 billion: $534 billion in base budget spending and $50.9 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations war funding account. The President’s overall defense spending request has not been this high since 2012. And the $534 base budget request “would be the largest base budget request in history.”
The Budget Control Act, enacted by Congress in 2011, put stringent spending caps on military and other discretionary spending. The president’s $534 billion base budget request is roughly $35 billion dollars over the $499 billion allowed under the Budget Control Act. Defense and fiscal hawks in Congress will need to compromise on an agreement to stay under or lift the budget caps or sequestration will go back into effect in October 2015 with indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts.
Like President Obama, Ash Carter is critical of across-the-board cuts. In reference to sequestration, in 2013 Carter said, “These devastating events are no longer distant problems…the wolf is at the door.” In a visit to Hill Air Force Base Carter said that sequestration is disgraceful, inexcusable and embarrassing. “It shames us in front of others around the world that we can’t manage our internal affairs better.”
Despite his frustration with sequestration, Carter understands the realities of the greater fiscal environment. In a 2013 speech at the National Defense Industrial Association, Carter spoke of “the need to absorb some reductions in defense spending in the interest of the nation’s overall fiscal situation.”
In 2010, Carter spearheaded the defense acquisition efficiency initiative known as Better Buying Power. The goal of the initiative was “to do more without more – that is, to get more capability for the warfighter and more value for the taxpayer by obtaining greater efficiency and productivity in defense spending.” The program reported success in cutting projected costs for programs like the Ohio-class submarine; however, some critics were quick to advise that these savings do not take into account frequent cost overruns. Others are skeptical of whether he will be able to make significant reforms considering his reportedly cozy relationship and history with the private defense industry.
As a theoretical physicist and the Pentagon’s former chief weapons buyer, Carter’s stance on nuclear weapons spending will be of particular interest.
The President’s budget is expected to include increases in spending for “modernizing” the United States’ nuclear triad. It’s been twenty-four years since the end of the Cold War; nevertheless, the Pentagon plans to spend at least $355 billion over the next decade modernizing our nuclear weapons arsenal and up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
Carter has a mixed record when it comes to our nuclear weapons arsenal. On the one hand, at a 2013 Security Forum, he argued that “nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much…You don’t save a lot of money by having arms control and so forth.” Nevertheless, he is an advocate for nuclear disarmament. Carter believes nuclear weapons “are the most awesome and terrible inventions of humankind.” In that same speech he continues: “And, you know, I’m a physicist…and physicists always felt that there was some responsibility that [goes] with having created this technology.”
One hypothetical solution to sequestration and the exorbitant price of modernizing our nuclear weapons arsenal was proposed by Ash Carter himself: replacing the nuclear triad with a nuclear monad. During President Clinton’s first Nuclear Posture Review, Carter “suggested a monad including as few as 10 Trident submarines, each carrying 24 missiles armed with six warheads each,” could replace the nuclear triad without diminishing U.S. strategic deterrence. This, of course, would significantly reduce the cost and safety risks associated with our nuclear weapons glut.
So, what will Defense Secretary Ashton Carter do in an environment where the Pentagon can’t have it all? Which of Carter’s past philosophies will prevail? Will he be a buddy to the defense industry? Will he reinvest in the triad or advocate for a nuclear monad? Perhaps next week’s confirmation hearing will tip us off as to which hat he will wear in his new role.