The Obama administration named Ashton Carter as the next deputy secretary of Defense, giving an official who has already presided over hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of military-related spending cuts the power to help shape the coming era of Pentagon austerity.
Carter, a mild-mannered physicist and former Harvard professor, currently serves as the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer. National Journal reported last week that he was the front-runner to succeed William Lynn as the Defense Department's second highest-ranking official.
If confirmed for his new post, Carter will face the difficult task of mediating between the White House and congressional leaders, who are looking to slice defense spending as part of broad push to close the nation's yawning budget deficit, and the Pentagon's senior military and civilian leadership, who are anxious to protect cherished weapons programs - and the overall size of the armed forces themselves - from being placed on the chopping block.
The deficit-reduction deal reached this week to avoid a potentially catastrophic debt default calls for $350 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years as part of an agreement to reduce federal discretionary spending by $900 billion over that same time period. The legislation doesn't mandate cuts of that size - congressional appropriators will largely retain the power to slice or preserve defense spending as they see fit - but Carter and other senior Pentagon officials acknowledge that significant spending reductions are coming to the Defense Department after a decade of runaway growth.
"We're not going to have the ever-increasing budgets of the post-September 11 decade," Carter told a group of Pentagon contractors and logistics personnel in a late June speech. "This is going to feel very different to a group of government and industry managers and congressional overseers who have grown accustomed to a circumstance where they could always reach for money when they encountered a managerial or technical problem or a difficult choice. Those days are gone, for all of us."
Tuesday's announcement caps a meteoric rise for Carter, whose appointment as the Pentagon's top weapons buyer two years ago was questioned by lawmakers who noted that he had no background in acquisitions or in managing large organizations. Skeptics like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questioned how well Carter would be able to oversee the department's sprawling purchasing arm, which spends roughly $400 billion a year on goods and services.
But Carter quickly forged a close relationship with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in working to scrap underperforming systems and free up money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two men scrapped dozens of futuristic programs that were over budget and behind schedule, in part to free up more money for drones, surveillance blimps, and equipment earmarked for Iraq and Afghanistan. In June 2009, Carter canceled the Army's $200 billion Future Combat System initiative, which envisioned building a new generation of armored vehicles linked by advanced communications equipment. He also helped Gates halt new purchases of Lockheed Martin's costly F-22 Raptor fighter and wind down the troubled effort to build a new fleet of presidential helicopters. All told, they cut roughly $300 billion worth of programs.
Carter will now be charged with working with Gates's successor, Secretary Leon Panetta, to identify even deeper cuts and then sell them to skeptical lawmakers. Many contractors expect him to reduce the military's planned purchase of 2,500 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the most expensive weapons program in history. The cost-per-plane has soared by more than 90 percent, from $69 million to $133 million, even as technical problems have marred the program. Carter has also signaled that he may limit spending on the Army's next-generation ground combat vehicle (an armored truck meant to replace the iconic Bradley fighting vehicle) or the Marines' V-22 Osprey (a tilt-wing aircraft meant to take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane).
Carter has tried to soften the sting of the coming cutbacks, which will be the most severe since the end of the Cold War. He wants to limit how often his department "moves the goalposts" by demanding that defense firms add new technical capabilities to their weapons systems - a process that slows programs down and significantly increases their costs. He has also implemented new "share line" agreements, which allow contractors who bring programs in under budget to keep some of the money they saved the government.
Still, Carter - and whoever is named to replace him as the department's acquisitions chief - is virtually certain to face sustained political pushback from emboldened congressional Republicans who want to preserve as much Pentagon spending as possible. Gates, a Republican and George W. Bush administration holdover, had given Carter political cover on Capitol Hill. It's far from clear whether Panetta, who has a far more partisan reputation, will be able to shield his new No. 2 in quite the same way.