Some Highlights and Lowlights of Ashton Carter’s Easy Confirmation Hearing

Ash CarterLast Wednesday the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by chairman John McCain, held a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s nominee for Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter. Carter played it cool throughout the more-than-four-hour long hearing. His answers, although lacking in significant substance, were delivered with conviction and poise. And, if anything, he had a much smoother confirmation hearing than his soon-to-be predecessor.

Unsurprisingly, Carter did not reveal much that deviated from the President’s own talking points. That is, besides that Carter is “very much inclined” to provide lethal weapons to the Ukrainian forces— a departure from the White House, which has not announced a decision about providing lethal assistance to Ukraine in their fight against Russian-backed separatists.

While the fight against ISIL and the U.S. continued presence in Afghanistan was arguably the most frequented topic, sequestration was a close second. The nuclear weapons complex also had its time in the spotlight.

Pentagon Budget

If Carter was transparent about anything during the hearing, it was his fervent desire to get rid of sequestration. In his opening remarks, Carter spoke of sequestration as “risky to our defense, it introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful and it conveys a misleadingly diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike.” However, sequestration—or across-the-board cuts—only go into effect if Congress fails to appropriate under the Budget Control Act caps.

Still, Carter reinforced his opposition to the prospect of sequestration at every opportunity throughout the questioning. But he also spoke of the need to “do more to spend the defense dollar better.”

Also in his opening remarks, Carter said the following: “I cannot suggest support and stability for the defense budget without at the same time frankly noting that not every defense dollar is spent as well as it should be. The taxpayer cannot comprehend, let along support the defense budget, when they read of cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead, and the like. This must stop.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Nuclear Weapons

The committee played to Carter’s strengths and questioned him about the safety, security, and necessity of our nuclear weapons complex.

Senator Shaheen, D-N.H., asked Carter about how he plans to balance US non-proliferation efforts with modernizing our nuclear triad to which Carter replied, “We need to do both.” Carter emphasized a need for a “safe, secure and reliable” nuclear weapons enterprise, a refrain he used at least four times throughout the hearing.

The shiny, gold star of the day, however, went to Senator Heinrich, D-N.M., who asked three nuclear weapons-related questions.

Heinrich asked Carter, “As someone who helped draft the Nunn-Lugar legislation…what’s the right approach to preserving that non-proliferation infrastructure in the current environment?” In response, Carter reinforced the need for programs like Nunn-Lugar but did not directly answer the question.

When asked about a suggestion Carter himself made during the Clinton era Nuclear Posture Review to replace the nuclear triad with a submarine-based monad, Carter skirted the question. He stressed once again the need for a “safe, secure, reliable nuclear arsenal” and said that current nuclear triad is meeting our deterrent requirements, successfully dancing around the issue.

During the hearing, Carter did agree to work with Senator Heinrich in the future to formalize the type of joint responsibility the Department of Defense and other agencies should have for National Nuclear Security Administration’s national laboratories.

While the committee touched on a variety of issues regarding the Pentagon budget and nuclear weapons, it is perhaps interesting to note what was not discussed. To my knowledge, the Overseas Contingency Operations account, the war fund that has effectively become a slush fund, was not mentioned once. The President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request released this week asks for $50.9 billion for OCO, only $5.3 billion of which is reserved for operations against ISIL. While some aspects of the ISIL issue were discussed in Wednesday’s hearing, no one grilled Carter on whether or not he believes the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force should extend to cover the current operations against ISIL.

Carter’s ‘meh’ answers across the board were not very surprising. While he managed to be lockstep with the President and Congress simultaneously, one thing is crystal-clear: he is signing up for a particularly difficult job in a challenging political environment. Hopefully Mr. Carter will help, in his words, “find a way… out of the wilderness of sequester”—and, the way to do that would be to find some couch change at the Pentagon to keep the budget under the caps.

To see the ten questions we would have asked Ashton Carter, click here.