Deputy Defense Secretary: Spending Must Be 'Driven by Strategy'

The Pentagon has completed a review of how to cut spending under the constraints imposed by sequestration. Ray Suarez sits down with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to discuss the challenge of protecting the nation from the threats it faces today while also preparing for "the problems that will define our future."


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GWEN IFILL: The Pentagon pushes back against what they describe as crippling budget cuts.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The Defense Department announced today it was reducing the number of days its employees would have to take as unpaid furlough from 11 to six.

Earlier this year, the Defense Department launched a review to figure out what to cut to live within the budget constraints imposed by sequestration and federal budget cuts. The Pentagon has completed that review.

With me now is Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who led it.

Welcome to the program.

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: Good to be here.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we talk dollars and cents, earlier in the program, we talked about the closure of foreign missions, the evacuation of American personnel. We have been pounding -- the United States has been pounding al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from the air for years.

How come they're still so able to launch attacks against American interests and assets?

ASHTON CARTER: Well, we have been pounding them for years.

And -- but we're taking the situation we face right now very seriously. You see that in the posture that we have. And this problem of terrorism, you know, al-Qaida and so forth, is something that is going to be part of our strategic future -- and that's one of the things we considered in the review -- as long as there's human society.

Now, there's always going to be the problem of the few against the many. And so those of us who have the responsibility for security are always going to need to be concerned about counterterrorism. It is an enduring mission of the Department of Defense. And as we in the review looked at all the things we needed to do in the future and began this great reorientation of the Department of Defense from Iraq and Afghanistan, which had been the principal things preoccupying us for the last decade, to the future, as we look at those problems, you see, yes, terrorism.

We will need to stay good at countering terrorism. You see the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific theater. And we're spending a lot more attention as a Department of Defense on that. You see new things like cyber, entirely new things. So, that's why our strategy -- our effort to deal with the current budget situation, we believe, has to be driven by strategy, that is, a view of the future.

And terrorism is one of those things that's going to be around.

RAY SUAREZ: Now that the review is completed, you still don't know exactly how much money you're going to have to spend in the years to come. But what effect does sequestration have on the day-to-day operations, what you have been given to do by the American people?

ASHTON CARTER: Well, unfortunately, sequestration is the worst way to cut our budget.

We have taken reductions already in our -- in the defense budget. And what the review showed clearly was that we can over time get to the budget cut levels called for by sequestration. And we can do that in a strategically and managerially sensible way, but it takes some time.

Now, why is that? Well, it takes some time to cut things, to let people go, to stop doing things, all the sensible things you do. What happens in sequestration is, boom, we're hit very hard, very steeply. And that drives you to do things that aren't strategic and managerially sound, like stand down readiness, just stop flying, because you can't afford to do the flying.

Well, if we stand down the Air Force units that are supposed to be flying, that means that they're not training for the contingencies for which we might need them. That's a serious step to have to take. It's one you would never take from a strategic or managerial point of view, but it is forced upon us by sequester.

So, if we can get some time, then we can deal with these budget cuts much better than if they just come down on us in a way that thwarts good management.

RAY SUAREZ: There are people sitting in their homes around the country watching this broadcast who think, well, if they take a small haircut, like every federal department had to, that's from a very high level.

We spend a multiple of the amount of money of the next several militaries in the world behind us. Give us some examples, specific examples of what you had to do without in the near term because of these budget cuts.

ASHTON CARTER: Because of sequestration, very specifically, we have had to stop training for both ground units and air units, stop sending ships on patrol and having them train and be ready for conflict.

What we have tried to do is take all of the money we have got and put it into things that are most obviously and immediately necessary, like the war in Afghanistan, nuclear deterrence, taking care of wounded warriors and so forth.

And what that means is all the rest of the bill has bulged into other things. These things aren't unnecessary. They're just places where we can get our hands on the money very quickly. And the principal one that concerns us has been training. And the second one is furloughing civilians.

Our civilians are very important to us. These are great people, great patriots. More than half of them are veterans. We have had to furlough them. Now, again, these are not things that you would do if you had the time to make a budget change in a sensible way.

It's the speed of sequester that makes it so difficult. And you mentioned other agencies in government. I'm not the only manager around town who is trying to do these things. And, you know, we depend upon science and engineering in defense to keep the technological edge. We depend upon an educated work force because we have an all-volunteer military.

We depend upon sound infrastructure. We depend on all these other things, all the other parts of government. So, the fact that everybody is being forced to do these things that are managerially nonsensical is a shame for us.

And the other thing is, you know, the taxpayer, they only should give us the amount of money that we need to protect them. I understand that. And also, very importantly, we should only -- we should make sure that we make good use of every dollar they give us. And sometimes we don't. And that's something very serious to me. And that's why an important part of our review was to make better use of the taxpayer dollar.

So, we're prepared to change. We actually have to change, Ray, because the war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. We have to change and face the problems that are going to define our future. So, we're ready to change and know that we need to change strategically, but, unfortunately, sequester is not the way to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: I want to continue this conversation online.

But Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, thanks for joining us on the program.

ASHTON CARTER: Good to be with you.