Ash Carter: The Interview

November 19, 2015

The Secretary of Defense shares his plans on how the U.S. military and Department of Defense will attract and retain America's top talent.

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

How will the U.S. military stay competitive? This is about far more than platforms, bombs, and guns. It is fundamentally about people. And with archaic personnel systems plaguing the armed forces and the Department of Defense, our talented young men and women are being drawn away into the private sector in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter sat down with WOTR’s Ryan Evans to talk about the Force of the Future initiative – a sweeping program of reforms that aims to bring the Department of Defense into the 21st Century in terms of how it manages its most important asset: human beings.



EDITOR-IN-CHIEF RYAN EVANS:  Welcome a very special edition of the War on the Rocks podcast series, with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Thanks for making the time for us, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  Ryan, thanks for being here.  Welcome to the Pentagon.

EVANS:  We’re here to talk about Force of the Future.  It’s a program of reforms, aimed at changing the way the Department of Defense handles its human capital.  And you have just announced the first sort of tranche for these reforms earlier this afternoon.

Personnel reforms are not generally considered the sort of sexiest topic out there, when you look at Defense, particularly when you’re competing with attention in terms of issues with the Islamic State, Russia, what just happened in France.

Why should the American people care about what you’re trying to do with Force of the Future?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, they care about having, in the future, as they have now, the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  That’s what protecting them tonight; that’s what’s fighting ISIL; that’s what is keeping the peace and making a better world for our children everywhere in the world.

Now, we have, today, the best. In addition to using that wisely, as we do, we need to make sure that ten years, 20 years from now, since we don’t know what the future will hold, that we have the very best men, also.

That means attracting the people who are young people today to be part of our future.

So, my job, as secretary of Defense, on behalf of our people is to — both to deal with today’s crisis and to leave behind me, to my successor and my successor’s successor as fine a fighting force as it is my privilege to lead.

And we’re good for lots of reasons.  We’re good because we have great technology, we’re good because we stand for great values, we’re good because we have lots of friends around the world, because people like working with Americans.

But the chief reason we’re the best is because we have the best people.  Now, you say this is kind of an abstract thing; maybe it is to most Americans, but I don’t want them to think that way.  I want them to think that — as many Americans, in fact, do — how can I make a contribution?

Many of them saw what happened in Paris over the weekend, and I was talking to a group of college students today, and I hope they’re asking themselves, how can I contribute to making a better world?

Some of them will join the military, but that’s not the only way they can contribute.  They could join DOD in other ways.  And — but I want to create as many different avenues as I can, to make sure that the talented people who are part of our future join our force.

And the last thing is, Ryan, I mean, it may be abstract in some way to the general citizen, but for our millions of people — military, civilian, and by the way, contractors who do a lot of our work as well — that’s what they do in life.  And they want to — I need to make sure that they continue to improve themselves, keep up with the latest technology, get advanced degrees.  That they have opportunities to take care of their families, to have children if they want to have children.

And that — to the extent I can, consistent with military needs and with the profession of arms, and the ethos that we represent — consistent with that, to the extent that I can make it possible for them to live the lives they want to lead, and still serve our country.  I want to do that.

EVANS:  And one of the heartbreaking things for me, as a longtime observer of the military, and someone who used to work as a civilian for the Department of Defense is seeing all these really talented captains and majors that just have so much to offer get out, because they feel they aren’t able to pursue the types of career paths where they think they have the most to offer.

And I’m sure you saw that article in The Atlantic, not that long ago, by General Barno and Nora Bensahel about this, that featured Tyler Jost and Katey van Dam from the Army and Marine Corps.

What — what are these reforms going to mean for people like that, that are still in, that are thinking about getting out in the next 14 months or so that this administration has left?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, we want to hold on to the very best if we can.

And I go around to bases all the time, and I talk to people.  Exactly that, captains and majors, and say, what is going on in your mind now?  You’re going home and you’re talking to your spouse, or you’re talking to your parents — what is the conversation like?  What is causing you to stop?

And I try to do that as much as I can, but still, whatever I get is anecdotal in the end.

One of the things — and there are lots of different factors — and where it’s something we can fix and address, and it’s — and are not addressing, and it’s causing good people to leave, I want to change that.

Sometimes that’s their health care situation, their geography, whether they want — they have an educational opportunity, whether their spouse has a work opportunity somewhere near where they’re deployed, how long they have been deployed.

I can’t control everything, but I can control some of those variables.  But I — even more fundamentally than making those changes, the Force of the Future involves — one of the things we’re doing is using big data to allow us to actually understand the answer to that question.

It might surprise you to know that we don’t collect data on why people leave us.

Now, most businesses do, and they collect data on all kinds of people and their behaviors, and of course, companies are collecting data on your every click, right?  What makes you tick, what makes you — why are we asking — why aren’t we learning in the same way, using modern data analytics techniques, what is making our good people leave, so we can stop it.

So, it begins with information, and then we’re changing things.

I’ll give you another example of things that change once we have an insight.  One of the things we know matter to our young people is the opportunity to have — to get an advanced degree, because they think one day, they’ll be a veteran, and they’re going to want to keep working, perhaps after they retire, and they want to have some opportunity to do that.  And they want to better themselves in the course of their military life.

That’s good for us, because it gets them to stay.  It’s good for us, because it makes them better while they’re with us, because of more advanced training.

But too often, the way we run our system penalizes people who seeks higher degrees, rather than making it a commendable and rewarding thing to do.

So, there’s a lot we can do to better — attract people, retain people in uniform, and also, as I said earlier, get people who can come in just for a short time.  Not everybody is going to want to make a career of it, not everybody is going to want to make ten years of it.

Maybe they — they want to come in for a year, they want to work on one project, they want to give it a try.

I’ll tell you a story, Ryan — I, myself, tried on national security.  I was a physicist, and I had somebody who said to me, “Ash, why don’t you — would you work on this project?”

It was a project about where to base — how do put an ICBM, a long-range nuclear missiles, the height of the Cold War, some place where the Soviet Union couldn’t attack it.

EVANS:  So, an important question.

SEC. CARTER:  It was an important question.  And I — and I learned in the course of working on that, I said, wow, this pretty neat for a kid who is in his early 20s.

I’m using what I know and it’s really valuable.  I’m making a contribution.  And if I weren’t in the room, that — that knowledge that I have wouldn’t be part of this decision.

So, I was able to combine what I could do with what I thought was pretty darn important, and that hooked me.

I want to hook lots of people like that, and I have got catch them at a time, and I’ve got to make it something that can try.  I was given an opportunity to try it; I tried it, it caught me.  But if I had never had a chance to learn, I would — I wouldn’t be where I am today.

EVANS:  So, you want to create more of these, what you called in your speech this afternoon, these on-ramps for —

SEC. CARTER:  On-ramps that gives people a chance to try their national defense road, see if they like it, maybe they’ll stay on it.

And also off-ramps, so that people who are in service have an opportunity to go out for a while, get business experience, be in a company, a forward-looking company, or one of our best company, and apply what they learned there, their best business practices, their best I.T. practices, their best personnel practices, their best global awareness practices, the best big data practices, to what we do, which is protect people.

EVANS:  What about — are you — how hard are you looking at the up and out performance promotion system?

SEC. CARTER:  We are looking at that.  I did not announce decisions on that today, for the very simple reason that that’s complicated, and we’re still trying to work out what the best approach there is.

We know we can improve the way we operate, which has its — has real strengths, so we don’t want to throw out the baby with that bath water, so to speak.  But we want to improve it, and so we’re — we’re working on that with our senior uniformed leadership, who, of course, know the force best and know that system best.

And so, they’re the ones who were — who have — who are best positioned to think that problem through.

And when we finish thinking it through and think we have a solution, then I’ll be announcing that one.

EVANS:  Okay.  And in your speech, I noticed you mentioned a lot of — a lot of companies that are very familiar to most Americans, Facebook, LinkedIn, Netflix, Twitter. What lessons from the private sector do you think are applicable to a war fighting organization, and which do you think are not?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, not all, because, you know, we aren’t a business.  We’re the Department of Defense; it will always be different.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them how they manage technology.  We can’t learn technology itself from them.  We can’t learn human resources or personnel management techniques.  We can’t learn from them how they deal with family issues, as they apply to their employees.

There’s a lot we can learn from best practices in industry.  And by the way, we can learn not just from companies that everybody has hear about, whose name everybody knows, but a lot of — also from what makes America particularly innovative, which is the companies you and I haven’t heard of yet, but will in two, or five or ten years.

That’s a distinctive American genius, which is to start new things.  And we want to harness that innovative potential for Defense, because that’s what brought you stealth, that’s what brought you the global positioning system, that’s what brought you, by the way, the Internet.  Originally it was a defense thing.

That’s what brought you satellites and jet engines in the old days.

EVANS:  Well, and since you’re — since you’re competing with these companies, like the big tech companies that we just mentioned, what non-monetary incentives are you willing to offer for people that have these specialized skills like engineers?

And as one of my friends, Jared Jonker, put it, who is at Palantir, he said, “How can the Department of Defense attract the best engineers to tackle our nation’s real security needs, instead of using their skills to help teenager share pictures of themselves?”

SEC. CARTER:  Well, that’s a very good question.  Well, the answer is captured in that exact quote.  I’m never going to be able to pay people what they can get out in the private sector.  Their reward is to be part of something that matters a lot more than getting people to click on something or take pictures of themselves.

They get to be part of the most consequential and also honorable thing you can do, which is protect the society in which you live and hand over a better world to the future.  That’s what captures them.

So when I get even people who are very experienced, who are getting paid an awful lot of money.  And when we get the chance to familiarize them with the problem, they find our problems fascinating, but they also find them very meaningful and they want to go home and tell their spouse, or tell their parents or tell their kids that that’s what they’ve been doing all day.  And that really matters.

People want to live lives that are meaningful.  Our most innovative people are people who want to make a difference.  And this is another way that they can make a difference.  So, our mission is magnetic for the very kinds of people we want who are people who want to make a difference.

EVANS:  My friend Kimberly Jackson, who actually used to work in this building asked a very good question.  She said, what does the U.S. military look like in 20 years without these kinds of reforms, looking at the threat landscape and what Russia and China and other adversaries are doing?  What are the — what’s the cost 20 years down the line of just doing business as usual for the U.S. military and the Department of Defense?

SEC. CARTER:  Whatever lies down that road 20 years from now and we — and one of the things that we’ve never been good at is deciding, is figuring, is predicting what we’re going to — what fights we’re going to be in 10 years to 20 years from now.

And so, what we need 10 years to 20 years from now is an agile, innovative bunch of people who can figure it out.  And that’s what we had in Iraq, in Afghanistan where people — they even COIN,  counterinsurgency that is, there wasn’t a — that was a new form of warfare mastered by and executed by a brilliant, brilliant generation of military officers and by the way, other people around the government also.

Cause it’s — we know most conflicts today have a defense and a non-defense ingredient to them.  I would claim and I’m with moral certainty that no other society could have mustered the ingenuity that the American society did to fight those fights on.

I recognize that in some quarters, those words were controversial and not everybody — but that’s not what I’m talking about.

SEC. CARTER:  I’m talking about the performance —

EVANS:  The tactical innovation?

SEC. CARTER:  — and the — it was brilliant.  And that wouldn’t have even been possible without the first class people.  So I need to leave to my successor and my successor’s successor first class people.  Cause I can’t predict the strategic future.  But I do know that if I leave them the best people, they’ll figure it out and succeed and protect America.

EVANS:  How much authority do you have to implement some of these reforms and at which point do you need support from Congress and what kind of support —

SEC. CARTER:  It’s a mix.  It’s a mix.  A lot of it we can do ourselves.

EVANS:  Such as?

SEC.  CARTER:  Oh.  We can apply those big data techniques.  We can change the regulations that allow people to go out and get — go to school.  When it comes to really big things, like one of the things that we have been working on is retirement as you know.

That — some of those rules are written in law.  So we have to go to the Congress and get them to be partners in this enterprise.  And the most far-thinking and reformed minded members there know too that our secret sauce is our people and our secret sauce is the ingenuity of our people and that even as they fund us to build a new bomber and they fund us to build super-secret things, they need to fund the people of the future as well.

EVANS:  And, you know, one of the — I think this is a very historically important issue.  As I was preparing for this and reading about these issues and you know, we’ve published a lot on this.

But I also look back in history and you know, we remember Gaius Marius, the Roman statesman, 100 years, about a 100 B.C., implemented these massive personnel reforms across the legion that brought in all of these kinds of people from Roman society into the military that hadn’t been there before.

And a lot of historians agree that this lengthened the, strengthened the power of the Roman legions and lengthened the life of that entity, the Roman Republic then the Roman Empire, so I think that this is really important.

But these need to be seen through beyond the next 14 months and so what are you looking at doing to make sure that your successor, whoever this is, you’re sort of able to hand the ball off and make sure that they keep running down the field?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, as much as possible.  I’m a man in a hurry and I will try to figure this out, work with our leadership and put us on the — a course so that my successor has things, as many things tidied away as possible and is on a good path as possible.

And it’s — people ask me this Ryan, all they time.  They say, well, you’re going to be secretary of defense now for another what, 14 or 16 months it’ll be like.  And the administration is going to end in 16 months.  What can you do in 16 months?  And I have two answers to that.

One is, that is a very Washington question, because in the rest of the world, 16 months is a long time.  In the tech world, it’s forever.  And so, I can go on in 16 months and we can do a lot in 16 months.  And secondly, I may not be able to finish everything I start in the next 16 months but man can I start a lot.

And so, we’re going to make the best use of it and start a lot.  And then I’ll leave it to my successors to solve other problems which I’m sure will come along, but leave them in the best possible situation.

EVANS:  Great, well, I really appreciate your time.  It was a real honor to have you on the podcast.  I hope some of the service men and women out there listening that are thinking about getting out, give it another, harder look before they make their decision after listening to this.  So thank you very much —

SEC. CARTER:  Me too.  The — what I want them to know is we want you to give a second look.  We want to keep you.  We want to keep our best people.  And I know I can’t just beg you and I can’t just, you know, ask you out of the goodness of your heart.  We have to make it work for you and I’m determined that we do that as we go forward.

EVANS:  Thank you very much.

SEC. CARTER:  Thank you.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

3 thoughts on “Ash Carter: The Interview

  1. A few thoughts on the subject:
    I think it highly debatable this is a generational problem, except as a smaller portion of society self-selects for a life of service.

    Second, as former Navy enlisted I was fascinated by the Atlantic article’s details about Army officer assignment, Career Advisors, peer advice, having choices at all and someone to speak to them – all unfamiliar concepts. As an Aviation technician with a current billet as aircrew the Navy spent an additional two years training me. But the designation system only looks to the platform and role. So when my model aircraft was retired I was not considered or eligible for other flying billets unless they matched my current one.

    I was up for re-enlistment with 9.5 years in, 9700 flight hours, eligible for the Chief boards and in a flying role very competitive in the first few cycles. Additionally I had a family accustomed to 3/3 rotations and just picked up a hard science Bachelor’s degree. I contacted the detailer and was being told if I wanted to stay in I would do a complete career change to a Maintenance role, compete for Chief with peers who had many more years in the role than I, and the Navy wasn’t interested in any schools or training, effectively shutting off any flying roles or career change.
    Had I known we were about to go to war I might have been able to delay until my skills were valuable to the Navy again, but on THAT DAY one has to tell the detailer which billet one has selected.
    So I took my family and jumped into looking for a job as a civilian engineer in the midst of a recession.
    By the time all the P-3B were pulled back into round the clock flying and I was needed, I was hired at twice what I had been making.
    I even stuck my head back in the recruiter’s office looking for an active/reserve slot or a door into OCS without success.

    Lest all these personal details sound like sour grapes, I loved the Navy and still do. I simply know more details about my case than others I watched on a daily basis.

    I watched detailers send a 4.0 ASW crewman with an OCS package in-hand also eligible for Chief to a tail hook squadron noted for trashing non-tail hook careers. Without command support his OCS application was allowed to wither and he took an early out.

    On paper there were programs that might have provided career paths such as the Limited Duty Officer, but the Navy never loved the programs and the few I served with were disillusioned, bitter men.

    The long and short is Mr. Carter can give all the speeches he wants, if you are enlisted Navy your entire career is in the hands of a junior Personnelman who has slots to fill, and this one leads to that, and that one leads to this and there will be no deviations so he never actually has to know what any of them do or what skills translate to other areas.

    Other articles have discussed the Navy’s dependance on senior enlisted to keep things running smoothly while Officers are rotated through billets at high speed to gets the boxes checked for their career. And the current system works well enough as long as sufficient numbers are willing to self-select a life of service.

  2. Like evolution, the Navy satisfies their needs through an incredibly wasteful process, and I have watched the Navy discard massive amounts of already trained talent only to spend the money retraining replacements due to career inflexibility.

    But it was excellent preparation for the civilian world which long ago discarded training or retraining in favor of layoffs and selective hiring using a system not unlike my previous comments about Navy enlisted detailing.

    So when Mr. Carter identifies that the services have to compete for the best and brightest I agree. When he carries that to the next step that the services need manpower policies that reflect civilian peers I think he makes a mis-step.

    The civilian community places an even lower value on their people, and are quickly transitioning to an almost free-lance model of employment with the least investment the best.

    The transitory nature of tech employment is nearly invisible from outside, disguised by rosy salaries and free dry cleaning and trendy campus designs – when your skills are in demand.

    Should you fall behind in self-education, should your expertise in technology grow stale, the system very much resembles my previous on Navy enlisted detailing. Whole divisions are swept away wholesale with no thought whatsoever to retaining the talent.

    Where the civilian community does excel is leveraging those who are aggressive about constantly retraining themselves to remain current and needed. And this is an area where civilian practice would benefit the services.

    What I think gets lost in the focus on technical skillset is the underlying difference in lifestyle and suitability to the demanded life style is undervalued by the services.

    If we return to the referenced Atlantic article our intrepid Cobra pilot was going to remain blissfully deployed for years more if not her whole career. Only when she was forced into a desk job did her goals change.

    Referencing again my experience, I did two full six month overseas deployments and two multi-month detachments and innumerable short assignments. Once you account for the three years initial training, I was rolling up over 90 hours a month airborne, had the Flight Surgeon on speed-dial, and had a family happy and satisfied with those conditions despite a 36/36 month rotation and a base change and household move packed in there.

    Not too different than life at a startup, but with no promise of great financial reward, and no end in sight. What is it worth to have a professional doing such a job with the solace of peace at home to boot?

    I think in some ways these attributes are equally if not more worthy of retention than trainable technical skills. Spousal career conflicts and homefront discontent issues are huge drivers of military career termination.

  3. Carter’s emphasis on the importance of human capital is very important given the current military context.

    It recognizes that U.S. society expects that its military can win wars quickly and as bloodlessly as possible [at least for our side]. Our society lacks the political will to handle heavy losses unless our national survival seems at stake, which it is not presently.

    It recognizes that the wars of the future will require quicker response times than in the past, meaning personnel need to be ready to fight and win the first battle of the first war and do so with minimal loses (this has been a policy since the 1970s).

    It recognizes that the U.S. military is currently too small to suffer heavy attrition; thus, it must make up for its small size with quality forces.

    Now, the challenge is to see whether DoD has the will and ability to turn these ideas into reality and whether whoever takes over under a new administration will continue the

    In my view, they have no real choice. We must maximize our scarce resources and the best way to do that is to improve the overall quality of the force. One soldier today needs to be worth two soldiers from a decade ago.

    Technology, better training, and higher job satisfaction are ways to achieve that goal — something the Army learned slowly in the 1970s and 80s as it transitioned to an all volunteer force that, in theory, was going to beat the Soviet Union through the skillful use of complex tactics and new war fighting technologies.