Marine general lays groundwork for unprecedented change

James Cartwright has a passion for Pop-Tarts. Not the fruity flavors, mind you: no blueberry and no strawberry. But bring this Marine Corps general a brown sugar cinnamon pastry fresh from the toaster and he's yours.

That might be useful advice for the nation's next president. Cartwright is just nine months into what could be a four-year term as the second-highest-ranking officer in the nation. As vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the 58-year-old Rockford, Ill., native has a powerful and unique role in determining how the military invests its vast resources just as a new commander-in-chief will be coming into office.

Whether it is John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Barack Obama at the helm, the Pentagon expects to undergo some changes. Yet, to a degree known only by a few Defense Department insiders, Cartwright is already laying the groundwork for unprecedented change at the one federal agency that claims more than half the annual federal discretionary budget and is frequently the central instrument of U.S. policy abroad.

A new president of either party will be scrambling for funds and will likely raid the Defense Department's $600 billion annual budget. The Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, is widely expected to cut expensive weapons-buying plans, although he has pledged repeatedly to expand the number of ground troops and to make sure they maintain high levels of readiness and equipment. An extended commitment in Iraq, where the United States spends an estimated $12.5 billion a month, could similarly force the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to break a lot of Pentagon china just to make ends meet. And he has never been afraid to break the military's dinnerware before.

President Bush has shown little interest in attempting any significant 11th-hour departures from his policy in Iraq or initiating any newfangled way of doing business at the Pentagon. Yet, just as the 43rd president began daydreaming about an extended stay at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, he may have done his successor a huge favor. In selecting Cartwright last year as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he chose one of the few senior officers in uniform today with a record of conceptualizing vast bureaucratic reforms and, even more important, actually accomplishing them.

Over the past several years, Cartwright has gotten himself ready to catapult into the post-Bush administration yonder, at a time when the U.S. finds itself a weakened superpower amid a growing number of global competitors. This naval fighter pilot has squinted to make out a tiny floating airstrip that might logically become America's next defense strategy. In the face of growing violent extremism, cyberattacks, U.S. satellite vulnerability in space, and maybe even an antagonistic China or a resurgent Russia, the general thinks he has figured out a thing or two about how the mammoth Defense Department should prepare to counter 21st-century threats.

And so, Mr. Next President, meet Gen. James Cartwright, your change-agent-in-waiting at the Pentagon.

Funding Mismatch

To national security insiders, selecting the 36-year military veteran made perfect sense. Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- a pragmatist who replaced the iconoclastic Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006 -- tapped Cartwright following the retirement last July of Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, who was a Rumsfeld acolyte with a similarly outsized ego and unflinchingly abstract ideology.

Last year, the dispassionate and candid Cartwright, having served in three other assignments at the Pentagon since 1993, moved quickly to close ranks with moderates among his fellow brass. The Marine general answers to both Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, 61, another Gates pick, who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs in October. But the vice chairman is quickly fashioning his own reputation in Washington. Pentagon-watchers have seen him sit alongside Gates at nearly as many press conferences as Mullen has. In February, Cartwright became the public face on Bush administration plans to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite. (More on that in a minute.)

Akin to a chief operating officer managing the daily business of a Fortune 500 company, Cartwright also oversees the Pentagon's formal "requirements" process for identifying what equipment the military needs on the battlefield. In that role, he has considerable authority to issue a "go" or "no-go" on service plans for buying billions of dollars' worth of weapons systems and hence will influence the missions of those in uniform, and how they are armed, for years to come.

"The biggest issue facing the Defense Department will be the mismatch between requirements and funds available," former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak told National Journal last month. Cartwright "will be the military's point man in this struggle." And, the retired general said, it "is a battle that must be won."

Cartwright's only direct combat experience was to fly a few sorties in the mid-1990s during the engagement in Bosnia, as a colonel commanding Marine Aircraft Group 31. Nonetheless, he has an influential voice in "the tank," the secret Pentagon boardroom where the Joint Chiefs debate global security issues. According to Defense insiders, Cartwright -- along with several of his fellow chiefs -- has already voiced concern about how sustaining substantial troop levels in Iraq could damage the quality of the force and weaken military readiness to meet new challenges.

Channeling Bonanza

Those who know him say that Cartwright can be expected to serve as a leader even in a tank full of leaders. At 5 feet, 9 inches, and 180 pounds, Cartwright is not an imposing figure, but he possesses a steady intensity that infuses his entire frame. His testimony at an hours-long House hearing last year was illustrative. The general was so singularly focused on responding to lawmakers' questions that he never once moved his black patent leather shoes, tucked toe-tip-to-carpet underneath his witness chair.

But Cartwright is not always so pent up. Like an airline pilot who calmly reassures passengers in a thunderstorm, he seems disarmingly relaxed when others are stressed.

His aviation call sign, "Hoss" -- as in "Hoss Cartwright," the burly, big-hearted, sometimes dim-witted cowboy in the 1960s TV series Bonanza --has stuck with Cartwright for 35 years.

That this trim and brainy officer continues to use such an incongruous nickname reveals an offbeat and self-deprecating sense of humor. He also lacks the arrogance that sometimes typifies four-star generals. In conversation, he swings from earnestly serious to inventively witty in the blink of an eye.

During one of several recent interviews with National Journal, he confesses that he is "paranoid" and therefore weighs "everything I can think of" in terms of the kinds of threats that might emerge against the United States. Then, realizing that this might sound like a fit of hyperbole, the general bursts out laughing.

A moment later, Cartwright becomes deadly serious again as he underscores the importance of normalizing relations with North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang's ending its nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration, he emphasizes, would take a series of small steps toward rapprochement -- "crawl, walk, run" -- rather than set "the expectation that there is some sort of big-bang event" that will magically alter the North Koreans' behavior. Cartwright pauses, then concedes, "That's a bad way to say that" in the context of nuclear weapons, and laughs again.

For all of his levity in the embrace of wonkish security issues, Cartwright also has a serious work ethic and devotion to the troops up and down the command chain. His efforts to support troops at all levels have made him wildly popular among many and vehemently disliked by some.

Trusting People

On July 9, 2004, Cartwright took the helm at U.S. Strategic Command, becoming the first Marine to be put in charge of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. Naming a leatherneck to the post was a bold move even for Rumsfeld, who relished opportunities to defy military tradition. Here the Defense secretary went up against 58 years of strategic nuclear weapons command under the exclusive domain of Air Force generals with broad experience in intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers, and Navy admirals who had spent years undersea in submarines with missiles in their holds. Marine Corps officers such as Cartwright, trained to win battles against enemy ground troops, have little experience thinking through the arcane details of nuclear-deterrence strategy. But Rumsfeld was convinced that Cartwright would shake up things at this Omaha-based bastion of Cold War doctrine. And by all accounts, Cartwright did.

The Defense secretary had been setting the stage for a makeover at Strategic Command for nearly two years. As part of a big Pentagon restructuring after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld folded half a dozen new responsibilities into the command. Called STRATCOM for short, the organization transformed itself from a single-mission command into a central hub that oversees virtually all U.S. military activities that have worldwide scope. That mission includes directing military satellite operations that circle the globe; executing "global strike" -- a rapid attack on a target anywhere in the world; disseminating intelligence to war fighters across many theaters; defending against enemy ballistic missiles; and combating weapons of mass destruction.

The vast expansion in responsibilities without a commensurate boost in manpower would require some creativity, particularly because it involved moving well beyond the command's antiquated-but-comfortable nuclear weapons mission. So, rather than create an entire bureaucracy for the new missions, Rumsfeld allowed Cartwright to use existing organizations within the Defense Department for STRATCOM. It produced a flatter command structure and didn't add new layers of bureaucracy.

The move to decentralize authority away from the four-star headquarters and toward the "grunt in the field" was textbook Marine Corps doctrine. But for many of the Air Force and Navy personnel who made their careers as stewards of STRATCOM's nuclear weapons mission -- now just one of eight STRATCOM responsibilities -- the change hit hard. In fact, many at STRATCOM whispered that they didn't quite grasp what Cartwright was doing.

In response, the general took an unorthodox approach: He did as little as he could to guide them. "If you come in with what many people would like -- 'Here are 15 studies on exactly how to do X' -- the first thing you've done is, for sure, eliminate any discovery," Cartwright said. "If you give them a script, they can't possibly break out and discover something really revolutionary." He bit off changes in six-month increments, allowing the organization to advance, retrench, and advance again.

Central to this strategy was his move to "allow people to own the solutions more, rather than [my] just dictating them," he said. A quick glimpse at Cartwright's spacious Pentagon office underscores the theme. No weighty tomes line the walls, a testament to the general's decision a few years ago to use the Internet to find whatever he needs. Just one small hardback lies alone on the sill of a tall window: A Message to Garcia, by Elbert Hubbard.

At 32 pages in big type, the book is actually an essay readily found in its entirety on the Web. It tells the story of a U.S. Army lieutenant, Andrew S. Rowan, whom President McKinley dispatched in 1898 to hand-deliver a letter of support to Calixto Garcia, a Cuban army general who led the insurrection against Spain. Rowan was never told how to accomplish the mission; he just figured out the best approach and got it done.

The young Army officer "took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia," Hubbard wrote in 1899, suggesting that Rowan was the true hero of the Spanish-American War.

"The key there is not to forget that ... you can easily overmanage people," Cartwright told National Journal. "It's a book about trusting people to do things."

SKIWEB

In that vein of trusting his troops, at STRATCOM he created a networked information-sharing forum -- an internal website containing threaded discussions, blogs, and news updates -- so that everyone along the chain of command could stay on top of global developments and exchange fresh ideas about how best to accomplish their assigned missions. SKIWEB -- which remains available to anyone with access to STRATCOM's classified network -- has become a window inside the bureaucracy, unvarnished by the military's ubiquitous and stale PowerPoint briefings, its users say.

Like Wikipedia, SKIWEB is meant to be self-correcting, in that reliable information enjoys a long shelf life, but online collaborators can quickly correct any errors. That brand of open-season, anybody-can-contribute method has its risks. "We fully understand that all of the information may not be 100 percent correct all of the time and it may not initially provide us with perfect solutions," Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler said when serving as Cartwright's deputy in 2006. "That's OK. Military commanders are used to dealing with ambiguity.... If we wait for perfect information that plods through the old Napoleonic structure, we risk being irrelevant in today's world."

Despite the admonitions that SKIWEB's open exchange must not be encumbered by too much influence from the chain of command, an old military culture demanding multiple levels of approval before anything is put forward continued to lurk in various corners throughout STRATCOM. This was exactly the kind of death-by-bureaucracy that could kill original thinking.

At first, "nobody would blog except for the very senior people," Cartwright said in a late 2005 speech. "I wondered why not. Well, they had basically ordered their people not to blog. I said, 'Well, your choice is to be fired or get them to blog.' "

Tear Down This Wall

Cartwright sought yet more ways of empowering warriors at increasingly lower levels of command. Although he played no direct command role in the war in Iraq, he did observe how tough it was for soldiers and airmen to gain access to even the most basic intelligence data and images to help them identify and pursue insurgents. Pinpointing a single piece of classified information sometimes required spending hours poring over internal Pentagon websites, each dedicated to a single surveillance aircraft or spy satellite, each walled off from the next and bound by its unique user protocols.

The intelligence "exists, [but] it's a question of how to Google it," Cartwright said in April 2005. So the general in early 2006 energized a moribund panel comprising the nation's top nine combatant commanders called the Senior Warfighter Forum -- known by its Trekkie-like moniker, the SWARF --and gave it an important new purpose. The group sought to standardize software across the military services so that uniformed personnel could exchange battlefield intelligence more quickly and effectively.

Although the changes were still light-years behind the advances in private-sector computing, they have begun to allow combat grunts to "pull" information they need from military networks rather than await its "push" down the command chain, when it almost invariably arrives too late to make a difference.

Cartwright also set out to force the human spies and the computer geeks to interact across a virtual chasm. Reflecting the kind of compartmentalization typical before the 9/11 attacks, the military's own intelligence sector had developed firewalls between those who analyze human-gathered intelligence and those who cull electronic data and images from listening devices, reconnaissance planes, and spy satellites.

Cartwright tells the story of how he teamed up with Maj. Gen. Mark Welsh -- a like-minded Air Force fighter pilot who served as No. 2 at STRATCOM's intelligence organization -- to destroy communications barriers that prevented integrated intelligence from reaching counterinsurgency troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It proved to be anything but a simple task. In periodic visits to an operations center at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Cartwright found that a deeply embedded culture of secrecy kept creeping back in.

"Every time I would go, there would be a new wall," Cartwright said at a February 2007 industry conference in Orlando, Fla. "I'd drag General Welsh out onto the floor and say, 'I don't want that wall to be there when I come back.' He'd tear it down, and [soon] it would be someplace else."

Sending Signals

On February 14, Cartwright sat between two Bush administration appointees at a Pentagon press briefing and announced a plan they had hatched to destroy a failing U.S. spy satellite that threatened to fall back to Earth within days. Though the officials denied it, the space shot -- using a modified missile-defense interceptor fired from a Navy ship -- was widely interpreted as a demonstration of U.S. anti-satellite capability. Just over a year before, Cartwright had condemned a similar Chinese anti-satellite test as reckless.

Alongside his civilian counterparts, the general insisted that the sole reason for downing the American space vehicle was to destroy the toxic fuel it carried onboard. Had the hydrazine tank survived re-entry into the atmosphere and landed near a populated area, it could have threatened the health of anyone who happened upon it, Cartwright said.

"There has to be another reason behind this," Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington defense and foreign-policy think tank, told The Washington Post at the time. "In the history of the Space Age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space."

Even some of the general's greatest admirers said that his justification for the intercept strained credulity. "I am willing to believe General Cartwright, even though his statement makes no sense to me," said Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative for the New America Foundation. "His personal credibility is so high."

Speculation inside the defense community was that Cartwright either was acting as a loyal foot soldier for his civilian bosses or simply could not fathom that the action might be perceived as anything other than what the Pentagon claimed. A third, perhaps more likely, explanation is that it was just fine with Cartwright if the world interpreted the February 20 intercept as an anti-satellite demonstration if it deterred other space powers from threatening U.S. satellites.

"What could be the worst downside?" Cartwright asked at the press conference, noting this was a question that administration officials pondered carefully. They concluded that the net benefits outweighed any risks.

Yet critics of the shoot-down anticipate reverberations contrary to U.S. interests. "The Chinese are going to use this to excuse their otherwise inexcusable test," Lewis said. "And those other countries who we count on to create a norm against debris-creating [anti-satellite weapons] will be less willing to help us," he said.

Critics say that Cartwright should have anticipated that Russia, China, and other future space powers might invest more in their own anti-satellite weapons in light of the U.S. intercept. The general's next big challenge --revamping the U.S. military posture to effectively counter emerging threats --will require a savvy understanding of geopolitics and how American power is perceived around the globe.

Faster Response

Cartwright's vision for revamping U.S. national security strategy calls for a Pentagon that responds more quickly and with greater agility to emerging threats. Traditionally, the United States has countered threats by relying on its technological sophistication. During the Cold War, defense industry innovations provided us with effective countermeasures in our competition with the Soviet Union, but we typically measured the turnaround times in years. Cartwright says that we no longer have the luxury of that much time.

"Heretofore, everybody looked for [technological] breakout: 'I can invent 'X,' " Cartwright said. "In a global Information Age, the ability to break out in business is really tough. It's down to just a few months that you're going to be able to invent something and not have somebody come along and clone it, and take away your competitive edge. It's true in warfare. It's true in politics."

Insurgents in Iraq, for example, have responded to the billions of dollars the United States has spent on countering homemade roadside bombs with relatively simple alterations to their designs and tactics that have rendered U.S. hardware almost useless, according to Defense officials.

The limits of technology are not lost on Cartwright. "Weapons will remain a part of [national security]," Cartwright said. "But it's got to be broader than that.... We can't just buy our way out with technologically superior weapons. It just won't work. It won't be diverse enough to keep us where we want to be."

Reaching back to his culture-changing experience with SKIWEB, the general has begun telling his Pentagon military staff, "You're probably the barrier, not the technology." He is pushing young officers and enlisted personnel to invent new tools for communicating and fighting more effectively. But he is also telling them they must be willing to let go of their innovations as soon as they become obsolete.

Citing the short innovation cycles in the commercial computing industry, Cartwright wants the military to acquire hardware in a whole new way. "Think about something we're going to throw away in 18 months," he said. "You're going to keep turning it over, turning it over."

Cartwright said that his own view of the post-Industrial Age tracks with what Future Shock author Alvin Toffler has written over the past 40 years. A passage from a 1996 Toffler book seems particularly apt: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

Such an approach might well require tossing out decades-old Pentagon procurement practices that have left the services laden with old equipment and lavish plans for new weapons they cannot afford. A fresh look at how the services have allocated their personnel might similarly produce a wholesale revamp so that U.S. forces are more appropriate for countering future threats, Cartwright suggests.

He also wants the defense community to think through the kinds of military tasks that might reasonably be automated as a way of trimming down layers of command and speeding response to new threats. Ultimately, some missions might be so computer-driven that a human intervenes only by exception.

"We are taking very sophisticated, very high-speed systems and slowing them down to put a person at every transaction," Cartwright said. "And we can't do that. It just won't work in the future."

So, he asks, "At the end of the day, what things are appropriate for you to relinquish control over? And what things require the person to still be in the loop?" Consider "how many years we kept the firemen on the railroad, even though we'd gotten away from boilers," he said. "We write rules oftentimes to ensure power centers or jobs."

Don't Lose the Ethos

Yet there remain concerns -- running up to the military's highest ranks --that Cartwright may be prone to rely too much on technology as even a partial substitute for boots on the ground. His faith, for example, that long-range conventional missile strikes might deter bad actors or prevent the escalation of conflicts "smacks of a pilot's wildly optimistic expectation of what high explosives can do from a great height," asserts retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who led armored cavalry troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

At the same time, other Pentagon observers interpret Cartwright's longtime focus on empowering warriors throughout his chain of command as a sign that he is not technology-obsessed. In a 2007 speech at the industry conference in Orlando, Cartwright underscored a need to preserve the esprit de corps of troops in combat, even as the Pentagon attempts to discard obsolete cultural norms. "We have got to figure out how to ... build [new] organizations and integrate them without losing the culture, without losing that part of a service's ethos that makes us -- either in the cockpit or in the foxhole --willing to die for the person that's standing next to us," he said. "That's important, and we could erase that in a heartbeat with some idea of a technical solution for all problems."

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, an infantry officer who served as operations director on the Joint Staff before his 2002 retirement, says that Cartwright has the right approach. "I believe that Hoss Cartwright really gets it," Newbold says. "He appreciates the critical importance of the human factor in all of this."

Regardless of who wins the presidency in November, Cartwright is convinced that a fundamentally new approach to national defense is in the offing. "We're at a time when, because of the election, the opportunity to think about these kinds of things is probably the ripest," he said. "I'm not jumping on the change bandwagon, but the opportunity at the change of administrations is probably the greatest to take a different direction."

And with a new commander-in-chief at the reins, this is one Hoss ready to race in a different direction.

The author is a reporter for Global Security Newswire. She can be reached at egrossman@nationaljournal.com.

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