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Questions for Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter

Ashton Carter

Secretary of Defense nominee Ashton Carter

Tomorrow’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee Ash Carter before the Senate Armed Services committee is likely to focus on politics, previous Department of Defense policy decisions, and parochial concerns. But a thorough vetting of the next Secretary of Defense should also include tough and direct questions about Carter’s experience with the revolving door, whether his acquisition reform efforts for big-ticket weapon systems made any difference, and if he is willing to take on military services that put weapon systems ahead of the safety and combat capability of our armed forces.

Below are a few lines of inquiry we’d like to see the Senate pursue.

The Revolving Door and Pentagon Culture

  • One of the problems at the Department of Defense is officials becoming overly cozy with industry, creating a clear conflict of interest. When you were Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics, you told the audience of a military industry investment conference that the interests of “taxpayers and shareholders are aligned.” Do you still believe that to be the case?
  • According to your financial disclosure forms, you have received tens of thousands of dollars speaking for various defense, consulting, and investment groups since leaving the Department of Defense, including $20,000 from the Gerson Lehrman Group, $10,000 from MIT Lincoln Labs, $5,000 from the Aerospace Corporation, $3,000 from the Asia Group, $22,500 from Barclays Capital, $13,500 from the Steel Tube Institute of North America, $30,000 from JMI Equity, $5,000 from Goldman Sachs, and $15,000 from Liberty Mutual. You also held positions on government advisory boards that could substantially benefit your clients while you were teaching at Harvard. Your experience demonstrates how inadequate current ethics regulations are to slowing the revolving door. Are you willing to pledge before this committee that you would be willing to forgo working for and with the defense industry again if you are confirmed as the Secretary of Defense?
  • During your last confirmation hearing, Chairman McCain cited his concerns about the culture at the Department of Defense. “Particularly over the last 10 years, senior defense management has been inclined to lose sight of affordability as a goal and has just reached for more money as a solution to most problems.” Chairman McCain continued, “Today I see evidence of this cultural problem all too frequently and it must be changed.”
    • You’ve previously said that you “don’t do culture change; it’s too hard.” Do you believe there are cultural problems at the Department, and do you still think this is something that is beyond the scope of your leadership as Secretary of Defense?
    • Numerous investigations have found an unprecedented number of DoD officials and senior officers going to work for the defense industry. For example, the Boston Globe found that from 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives. Do you think the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry is part of the cultural problem?
    • Would you oppose a reform that would require high level DoD officials and military officers to surrender their taxpayer-funded pension if they go work for the defense industry?

Acquisition Reform for Major Weapon Systems

  • In 2011 you identified 14 programs to demonstrate the efficiencies of “should-cost” and “will-cost” analyses. But your methodology for this analysis had flaws baked in: you required should-cost estimatesto assume successful outcomes from implementation of efficiencies, lessons learned, and best practices, and dismissed independent cost estimates as not being valuable to identify waste and cost risk. Most of the programs identified for this cost analysis, like the F-35, the Littoral Combat Ship, and the Ground Combat Vehicle program, continued to be poster children for the broken acquisition process.  One of the programs, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), experienced a critical Nunn-McCurdy cost breach less than a year after being identified as a case study for controlling costs. Why do you think this initiative largely failed?
    • Your Better Buying Power initiative identified the potential—never realized—for should-cost analyses to incentivize industry innovation, but didn’t address whether it would change behavior at the Department itself. A review by RAND of the use of should-cost analysis in the Air Force found that contracting officials didn’t use this analysis to negotiate lower prices, and that most personnel lacked the expertise and knowledge on how to best utilize this practice. Moreover, RAND found that the amount of subcontracting made it unlikely the Air Force could use should-cost analysis well. Does too much complexity and subcontracting undermine efforts to reform Pentagon acquisition practices?
  • The Department has already committed taxpayers to purchasing over 200 F-35s and will have nearly 500 before testing is complete. The latest report from the Director of Operational Test and Engineering (DOT&E) provides a litany of reasons why the program needs to be reconsidered and slowed down: flawed software that hurts the ability of the plane to drop bombs, share information, and detect threats; maintenance problems so severe that the F-35 relies on an “overdependence” on contractor maintainers and “unacceptable workarounds” (behind paywall) only to be able to fly twice a week; and a production schedule that ignores whether the program has demonstrated key combat capabilities or proven it’s safe to fly.  The President’s budget actually accelerates concurrency in the F-35 program, despite these known challenges. Your Better Buying Power initiative sought to reduce concurrency and risk in major defense acquisition programs. Do you support exempting the F-35 program from best acquisition practices to further accelerate F-35 acquisition?

Protecting Whistleblowers

  • The President’s budget proposes retiring more A-10s, which continue to be essential in our current wars, including our current operations against ISIL. The Vice Commander of Air Combat Command has reportedly said that pilots who speak to Congress about the A-10’s capabilities are committing “treason.” Do you think it is treason for pilots—or any other service members--to talk to Congress about the A-10’s capabilities?
  • Do you promise to not only protect whistleblowers who have come to Congress, but to hold accountable anyone who has ordered retaliatory actions or investigations against these whistleblowers?

Sequestration and the Budget

  • You also anticipated that sequestration would result in cuts to the F-35 program, specifically four fewer F-35s in FY 2013. But there was no change in the production quantities for the program that year, and many other weapons programs have not been substantially changed in production quantities as a consequence of sequestration. Instead, we’ve heard concerns about a readiness crisis and a hollow force, suggesting that any harms of sequestration are falling on our service members, not the defense industry. How was the Department able to prevent substantial cuts to the F-35 program? Why was procurement prioritized over readiness?
  • In August 2012you testified that sequestration “introduces…waste into defense spending at the very time we need to be careful with taxpayers’ dollars.” What programs would you identify as becoming more wasteful as a consequence of sequestration?
    • One of the most troubling aspects of sequestration is that the cuts made to the Pentagon are not strategic. Where would you look to make strategic cuts?
  • Both the Pentagon and Congress used the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account as a slush fund to support programs that should have been funded in the base budget. Was this an appropriate use of OCO funds?

Image from the Department of Defense.

By: Mandy Smithberger
Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project, POGO

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Congressional Oversight, Defense, A-10

Authors: Mandy Smithberger

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