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Many challenges ahead for Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter

Senate to hold Ashton Carter confirmation hearing on Wednesday

The Senate confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter is scheduled for Wednesday. He is a former Deputy Secretary of Defense who served in that role from 2011-2013, and he’ll be replacing Chuck Hagel who resigned in November but has remained in office pending Carter’s confirmation.

Carter faces many challenges. His biggest task will be juggling the number of troops around the globe that are dealing with various threats and changing conflicts. That includes moving several thousand troops back to Iraq and training soldiers there, managing 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and dealing with the threats from ISIL and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He’ll also have to deal with Russian aggression in Ukraine, and challenges posed by North Korea and Iran.

Ashton Carter was trained as a nuclear physicist and is seen by many as a defense intellectual. A long-time Harvard professor, he’s written nearly a dozen books and more than a hundred articles on physics, technology, national security, and management.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment “The Week Ahead,” Thomas Drayton spoke to Mike Lyons, a retired army Major and Al Jazeera America’s National Security Contributor; and to Lawrence Korb, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, who joined the conversation from Washington, DC.

“There are so many challenges ahead of him,” says Lyons. In addition to his international responsibilities, Lyons adds that Carter will have internal forces at the Pentagon that he will have to be concerned about, including soldiers facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and sexual harassment.

Korb say the real question is how much an impact Carter can have given the relatively short amount of time remaining before President Obama leaves office and the administration’s tendency to centralize power in the White House. “In this administration, more and more power has gravitated away from the departments to the White House,” he said.

“They need to draw from [Carter’s] experience back from the late 1990’s in the Clinton White House,” says Lyons.

With President Barack Obama’s submission of his budget request to Congress this week, Carter will also have to deal with the defense budget, which is estimated to be around $534 billion in 2016, and which doesn’t include an additional $51 billion for war funding.

Carter, who’s pushed to restore Pentagon budget cuts in the past, will have to contend with wasteful spending in the military. According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Defense Department spent at least $46 billion between 2001 and 2011 on a dozen weapons systems that never entered production. That includes money spent on things the military says it’s been forced to build by Congress, such as $500 million spent on upgrading Abrams tanks in 2013, something the military says it doesn’t need. As well as the $1.5 trillion spent on the production of the F-35 fighter jet, which has been plagued by technical problems, production delays, and cost overruns.

“[Carter] is partly responsible for this,” says Korb. “He used to run the acquisition process and accelerated the F-35 production before all the development was complete. He certainly knows the issues, but in this short period of time, there’s not much he can do.”

Another challenge for Carter will be dealing with morale within the military. A Military Times Poll taken last year shows that only 15 percent of active duty troops surveyed believe the President is doing a good job, which is much lower than when President Obama first took office in 2009.

Many analysts agree that the sudden departure of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was abrupt and mysterious.

“To me, it defies explanation,” says Korb. “Here you had a senator and combat veteran who was well-liked around the world and never publicly criticized the administration, like Secretary [Robert] Gates did.”

Korb says he does not expect a major shift in policy with Carter at the helm. “If Secretary Hagel, who had worked with President Obama in the Senate and had a certain amount of stature, didn’t get Obama’s ear, it’s hard for me to think that Carter, smart as he is, without that stature, is going to be able to convince the President to change his mind on a lot of things.”

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