Ash Carter Bemoans Death of DC Defense Consensus

The big news coming out of the first day of the annual Aspen Security Summit held in the bucolic mountain resort town on July 18 was the sweeping changes in how the Pentagon continues to form its cybersecurity policy and procedures.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, dressed in his outside the beltway best in an open collar shirt and jeans, described the formation of 40 cyber “teams” operating in the Department of Defense that work “in addition to the NSA’s existing cyber workforce, which is mostly oriented towards cyber intelligence collection.”

The teams are comprised of roughly 4,000 DoD staffers who have already been tasked to the cyber mission and are focused first and foremost of defending the government’s own networks, since Carter bemoaned the “market failure in the cybersecurity field” that has undervalued the need for protecting networks.

Part of the idea when it comes to safeguarding information and discouraging leaks from within is to treat networks like service members treat the nuclear mission.

“You know, we have no-alone zones” around nuclear systems, he explained. “We have two-man rule. You go out to, you know, Barksdale and walk around the Apron, and you’ll see a red line.  And it says you cross that red line, you can get shot, because there are areas where you’re simply not to be, because proximity to nuclear weapons is too sensitive and momentous a thing to be allowed for individuals.”

Rules like this and compartmentalizing information more effectively on networks would make it harder for lone individuals like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning to access and copy large amounts of sensitive information right under the nose of the government, Carter insisted.

But during the course of his wide ranging Q&A session, the deputy secretary talked about much more than cyber issues.

Asked by moderator David Sanger of the New York Times what he thinks has happened on Capitol Hill to make cutting the Pentagon budget such an attractive way to trim to federal budget, Carter said that while traditionally “there was always a solid center of opinion that supported defense that you could count on,” that center has all but evaporated on both sides of the political aisle.

Part of this is due to the simple fact that “time has passed since 9/11.  People are tired of the two wars.  They’re tired of Afghanistan.  They’re tired of Iraq.  I mean, I pay a lot of attention to them, but you don’t see Afghanistan in the headlines all the time as it used to be.  They’re tired of it.”

One way that the services—especially the Army, which has already committed to slashing 80,000 personnel—can reduce costs is to reduce manpower, sine personnel costs are eating up ever larger chunks of the Pentagon’s budget.

Reducing those costs however—which include health care, pay, and retirement benefits—remains one of the most difficult problems for a department that is looking to shed billions of dollars quickly.

Involuntarily separating a service member isn’t a cost-free exercise Carter said, since they’re still entitled to services promised in their contract. “So you can’t just snap your fingers and reduce the size of the force. It takes time.”

Earlier in the day Lt. Gen. William Phillips, the military deputy to the army’s acquisition executive made similar comments at a breakfast meeting in Washington.

“If you took a soldier out today,” he said, “they probably wouldn’t be off the roles until 1 October.” With unemployment and other benefits, “we pay for that soldier for up to a year, so before we would gain any revenue for allowing that soldier to leave it would be FY 15, so you cannot take force structure out fast enough.”

When it comes to the oft-stated desire by the service chiefs and Pentagon budgeteers for more flexibility to move money around under the sequestration cuts, Carter said such authority would actually not help much, since such in taking such large cuts “I have to go where the money is,” with a handful of critical budget lines exempted.

“So, you know, I can’t go to the war in Afghanistan, because I can’t have people over there and stop sending them fuel and food. As I said, I can’t cut the nuclear deterrent. I can’t cut the president’s airplane….submarines have to sail….so I have to go where the money is.  That’s what’s perverse about it.”

Because of that, the cuts won’t actually be spread evenly over the entire defense budget, meaning that training, readiness, and civilians will be force to take a bigger hit.

As we know, DoD civilians are already feeling the crunch as they’ve started to take their mandatory 11 day furloughs earlier this month.

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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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