Late last year, Ash Carter, who served as the 25th secretary of defense, died at his home in Boston.
In Washington yesterday, the Special Competitive Studies Project hosted the “Ash Carter Exchange on Innovation and National Security” — a forum where a host of experts discussed ways to advance collaboration in the pursuit of national security.
Closing out the day-long event was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, who offered his insight into Carter’s influence on national security and the Defense Department.
“I had the great privilege of working very closely with Secretary Carter on many, many occasions over the years, and I can attest to you that he was a great patriot, a real patriot, and a great American,” Milley said. “The first thing I think of when I think of Ash Carter was his human touch. He was, of course, a physicist, a scientist — but more than that, he was just a great human being. He was approachable and affable and got along with everyone. He was positive, he was upbeat, and he communicated especially well.”
More so, Austin said, Carter had been a committed public servant.
“Ash Carter’s decision-making was always motivated by the care and safety of the men and women in uniform,” Milley said. “He was incredibly talented at cutting red tape and speeding up the bureaucracy in order to improve the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.”
One example, he said, was with the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle — a vehicle that was put to use in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the time, it was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who conceived of the idea, but it was Carter — then the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics — who pushed it over the finish line.
“I was witness to that,” Milley said. “His action, the action of Ash Carter, saved American lives on the battlefield, to include my own.”
This year is the first time the “Ash Carter Exchange on Innovation and National Security” has been held. Carter’s wife, Stephanie, helped organize the event. According to the event’s website, the purpose of the exchange was to gather “pioneers and champions of innovation” to “advance collaboration in pursuit of national security.”
That type of effort, Milley said, was something Carter himself excelled at.
“Perhaps his greatest legacy is a sense of urgency for the U.S. military to adopt new technology, to accept risks, and to think of creative solutions to our … problems,” Milley said. “Secretary Carter was forward-thinking, he was always talking about generative AI [artificial intelligence] … he was the rare person who could understand and speak to both the science and the policy of new technology.”
Carter’s vision and pursuit of innovation, Milley said, reshaped the direction of the U.S. military, making it more agile and nimble.
“I believe … that Ash Carter instinctively understood that we are in the middle of the largest fundamental change in the character of war throughout all of human recorded history,” Milley said. “And he also understood that the stakes were enormously high. At the end of the day, it was about preventing great power war and preserving the rules-based international order that had maintained the great power peace for the last 80 years.”
Today, Milley said, both China and Russia are looking to disrupt that world order to advance their own interests, and that is something Carter understood more than most.
“Both China and Russia have the means to threaten our interests and our way of life,” Milley said. “But we must keep in mind that war with either is neither imminent nor inevitable. And we must continue to deter a great power war, which was the central purpose of Ash Carter’s professional life. That is what drove Ash Carter.”
Today, Milley said, the U.S. will continue to deter great power war by being ready and demonstrating its readiness to the world. That is something was one of Carter’s “first principles,” he said.
“It is readiness in the future, otherwise known as modernization, that Ash Carter recognized,” Milley said. “And he understood that we were at an inflection point in human history where we are experiencing a fundamental change in the character of war.”
While the nature of war will always remain the same — one nation’s desire to impose its will on another nation, — how wars are fought has changed and will change in the future.
In World War II, for instance, Nazi Germany was the first to be able to successfully combine new technologies — such as aircraft, wheeled and tracked vehicles, and radio — and use that to their advantage.
“They took these technologies and they combined them into a way of war — the German way of war — a way of war that allowed them … to overrun Europe in 18 months,” Milley said.
The United States, the Soviet Union and allies against Nazi Germany eventually caught up, Milley said. But the Nazi’s initial mastery of technology had given them an early advantage.
“We are in a comparative moment today,” Milley said. “And Ash Carter was one of the few who recognized it very early on. He knew that we might not have 18 months to ramp up production and build up the military when the next great power war breaks out. He knew that we must be ready now, and we must be ready in the future.”
The challenge now is figuring out the best combination of technologies, integrated with the right training, doctrine and organizational structure. Some of those technologies — including assured communications, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, smart manufacturing and 3D printing — were all highlighted by Carter early on, Milley said.
“Your military was directed years ago by Secretary Ash Carter to develop those technologies,” Milley said. “And those are coming to fruition today. You’re seeing that in the Army with a multidomain task force and long-range fires. You’re seeing that in the Marines with a littoral regiment. You’re seeing that in the Navy with experiments in 5th Fleet in the Central Command area of operations with unmanned maritime surface and subsurface vessels. And you see it in the Air Force.”
All those concepts, Milley said, were initiated by Ash Carter. And the challenge today for the U.S. armed forces is to take new technologies and merge them into a way of war that gives the U.S. the tactical and strategic advantage over adversaries.
“We do this to prevent war. And to achieve this, we must operate seamlessly in our joint force,” he said. “On Day 1 of the next war, we must be fully integrated and able to maneuver through space and time in a fast-paced, high-tech, rapidly changing environment, [while] remaining invisible and in a constant state of movement. And [if we] do that, we might prevail. But, more importantly, to do that, if your enemy knows it, you’ll deter.”
To advance that effort, Milley said, the DOD is initiating the third iteration of it’s joint warfighting concept — the first version was drafted by Carter.
Milley also called on those in attendance at the event to recommit to Carter’s vision for a military that includes the best of the best — based on merit.
“Everyone who is this room now, anyone who is watching this, and all of us that wear the uniform, we all must recommit ourselves to the vision of Ash Carter,” Milley said. “We must always remember that we take our oath to the Constitution; Ash Carter never let us forget that.”
Carter, Milley said, understood that in America and for the U.S. military, differences like race, religion, gender or social status don’t matter
“What matters was your commitment, your talent,” Milley said. “What matters is that you’re an American. What Ash Carter cared about was your merit, your skills, your knowledge, your attributes. He understood it, and he lived it. And he knew that you’d be judged by the content of your character. He was committed to that idea of America. Ash Carter was someone that we all should try to emulate. All that he stood for is what we should recommit ourselves to — the idea that is America. That is what Ash Carter had as his North Star, and that should always be our North Star.”