During 1st-ever 'Worldwide Troop Talk,' Carter tackles servicemembers' questions
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carter took questions from the ranks Tuesday on issues from budget gridlock to women in combat arms during a first-ever "Worldwide Troop Talk" with servicemembers around the world.
Troops used social media, email, video conference and phone calls from the U.S., Germany, South Korea, Japan, Kuwait, Greenland and Guantanamo Bay to submit questions to Carter, who spoke from Fort Meade, Md.
The following topics were among those Carter addressed:
On Carter’s ‘Force of the Future’ initiative:
The defense secretary said developing strategies to shape the military for the next several decades are among his chief priorities.
“I’ve got a whole lot of ideas that we’re going to sift through,” Carter said, without providing specifics.
“You are the finest — all the people watching all around the world — you are the finest fighting force the world has ever known, and that’s a gift that I inherited from my predecessors and the generations before me. That’s something I want to make sure my successor and my successor’s successor and so forth all have.”
On budget constraints:
Carter blamed partisan “gridlock in Washington” for continued budget cuts at the Defense Department and other federal agencies, adding that the nation couldn’t afford to fix the country’s more than $17 trillion deficit on the backs of such key institutions.
“It doesn’t work. We need to rise above this and come together behind an overall approach to deficit reduction … You’re just continuing to undermine important public functions, of which national security is the most sacred,” Carter said. “I have nothing good to say about it. There’s no reason for it but gridlock in Washington.”
The Pentagon, Carter said, has taken a “balanced approach” in responding to shrinking budgets. That includes President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that military pay increase would be capped at 1.3 percent for 2016.
“We can’t pay you enough for what we ask you to do … that said, we have a limited budget,” the defense secretary said. “In addition to paying you more, I want to make sure you’re fully trained, and that costs money too. I want to make sure that you have the best equipment, and that takes money too, and I want to make sure that there enough of you …. to carry us to victory.”
On force protection:
Protecting U.S. forces both stateside and abroad is “No. 1 for all of us,” Carter said.
“We’re going to tighten security, and we need to,” he said. “We’re looking at doing more.”
That could include arming more service members on installations and potentially at off-post sites like recruiting centers, a topic that’s been heavily debated in the wake of the July 17 attack in Chattanooga, Tenn., that killed four servicemembers.
Carter said he’s currently reviewing service recommendations submitted to him last month on ways the military can better protect itself against people he called “lone wolves and sort-of losers who have been online too much.”
The defense secretary did not provide specifics about those potential changes.
On integrating women into combat arms jobs:
Early next year Carter will announce which, if any, currently male-only combat arms jobs will be opened to women.
“What matters most is who is qualified and can meet the rigorous standards of service … I want to have the widest possible pool of people from which we can draw the force of the future, and that includes half of our population which is women,” Carter said.
The services have until the end of the year to recommend whether any combat arms jobs — primarily in the Army and Marine Corps --- should remain closed to women.
The defense secretary said he’s instructed service leaders to “really think hard about that and tell me whether any restrictions should be kept in the future, and if any (should) exactly why.”
On defeating the Islamic State:
Carter said he had no doubts the American military can defeat the Islamic State, which has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. But he said simply defeating the militant group would not guarantee long term stability in the Middle East.
“That’s not the trick,” he said. “The trick is to defeat (the Islamic State) in a lasting way, and that means that after they are defeated they need to stay defeated, which means there need to be local forces representing the local people who keep the kind of extremists that (the Islamic State) represents from taking over again.”
That’s the reason the U.S.-led coalition has chosen to enable “friendly” fighting groups including the Iraqi Security Forces, moderate Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters to battle the Islamic State on the ground with the support of coalition air power.
“Our strategic approach … is to enable capable ground forces that are local and can keep the peace after we’ve helped them win the peace,” he said. “…Otherwise it won’t stick, and we’ll be back there in five years or back there in 10 years, 15 years.
“I’m confident we’ll do it. This is civilization against barbarity. It’s the many against the few. We will win, but we want to win in a way that sticks, and that means doing the laborious job of training and equipping locals who are motivated to fight these guys, win back their homes, and then run a decent place for their people so it isn’t a breeding ground for this kind of extremism.”
On closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay:
Carter said the Pentagon is committed closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp where the U.S. is currently hold 116 detainees “if it can be done safely.”
The main issue, Carter said, is finding a new location for half of the current detainees who “are not safe to be released.”
Guantanamo Bay “ends up being part of jihadi recruiting and I’d just assume not leave that to future presidents,” he said. “It’s tricky to do that because some of the people there at Guantanamo Bay have to be detained indefinitely. They’ve just got to be locked up. We are looking at places in the United States, prisons and other places, where these people could be moved.”
About half the population at Guantanamo could be released to other countries under conditions that “mitigate that they’ll never return to the battlefield.”
Military leaders have recently identified Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and the Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C. prison as potential sites that could house the remaining detainees. Congress would have to approve moving any detainees from the detention facility in southeast Cuba.
“We’ll try to come up with a plan and work with congress and see if we can do that or not,” he said. “It would be a nice thing to do, and an important thing to do if we can do it. But we’ve got to be realistic about the people who are in Guantanamo Bay, they’re there for a reason.”