Podcast: Remembering U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter

Former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper shares some of his memories about the former Defense Secretary, who knew science, technology and the politics of the Pentagon to tackle its toughest challenges.

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Rush Transcript


Jen DiMascio:               Welcome to the Check 6 podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for Defense and Space. We're here today to remember Ashton Carter, the former US secretary of defense, someone who had a deep background in science, was tough enough to fight the Pentagon's bureaucracy and who knew how to work around it when required. I'm here with Defense Editor Steve Trimble, Senior Business Editor, Michael Bruno, and we're very lucky to have with us today the former Air Force acquisition chief, Will Roper, who served under Carter. Dr. Roper, how do you remember Ashton Carter?

Will Roper:                   Jen, there's so many ways to answer that question. I know everyone listening to this is still probably in shock with his passing. My memories of Ash go back through the beginning of my career in defense and all of them are very positive. But I can still remember the very first time at the Missile Defense Agency, I was an MIT employee at the time, and I was brought in to brief him on a fairly technical topic of missile defense interceptors. He took note of me and I got to know him after that. And the rest of that, getting to know him has really shaped my career, much of it working for him.

                                    Despite his very formidable resume, which many people are right to reference, his background is very impressive, and as is his education and association with Harvard. He was equally formidable in person, which you can't pull off of his resume. He had very insightful questions. He suffered no fools, but if you knew what you were talking about, he knew how to pick you up and use you for a greater purpose. And I think that personal side of him is something that a lot of the people who have worked for him are reflecting on right now.

Jen DiMascio:               Thanks. Steve, you put together a very insightful tribute to Ash Carter for the magazine, pointing out really the breadth of his experience from nuclear non-proliferation down to the minutiae of acquisition policy. I was hoping you could tell us some of those stories.

Steve Trimble:              Well, sure, and of course, I mean, I did not know him in the same way that our guest, Dr. Roper, knew him personally -- just in a professional sense. But just in reporting about him and writing about him for several years, you do get acquainted with his bio. And it always just sort of boggled my mind, the dualities and the breadth and the depth of his experience and his knowledge. I think of him of in the style of Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Packard in the early '70s, or Dr. William Perry as secretary of defense and deputy secretary in the '90s, just a fully qualified, even overqualified technocrat with a full range of skills, organizational, technical business skills that he could bring to the table.

                                    I mean, it goes back to when he was an undergrad at Yale studying kind of an unlikely pairing of medieval history and particle physics. Then he went on to Oxford University where he specialized in theoretical physics, did work at the Fermilab in the late 1970s as they were just discovering the quark particle. And I'm way over my head even mentioning the term really. So I won't go into any more depth on that. And from there, when he came into the Pentagon as an acquisition chief, he was able to go toe to toe with the big defense industry executives. He wrote in his book very, very almost provocatively about his negotiations with Bob Stevens, who was then the CEO of Lockheed Martin, over the pricing of the F-35. At the same time, he could have a great conversation with a Lockheed chief technology officer about the physics involved in the most advanced electronics on the jet.

                                    When he actually entered the national security realm, really in the late 1970s, early 1980s, he focused on missile defense and nuclear, well, not nuclear strategy, but nuclear capabilities and how they could be deployed and what you could do with them. But as he actually got on the leadership track, you might have expected him to be in the research and engineering area. Instead, he was in the policy side, international policy, nuclear nonproliferation, he was assistant secretary of defense working on that topic at the same time as the Soviet Union was breaking up. And changed a lot in terms of getting nuclear weapons out of places like Kazakhstan or the material for nuclear weapons out of places like Kazakhstan or Ukraine. Then 15 years later, he's called back into public service. And you think he might go again, back into that research and engineering track, but instead he's actually in the acquisition technology and logistics as the assistant secretary of defense or under secretary of defense, perhaps, at the time.

                                    I mean, he's a physicist, he's a nuclear proliferation expert, but he immediately got deep into the minutiae of certain acquisition programs. I covered the KC-X program since the fall of 2001 when the Senate Armed Services Committee authorized the Air Force to start a tanker lease. And from then on, it just looked like the entire program was doomed to failure, that there was just no way you could actually bring this to a contract sign and given the political dynamic that was around this program. And basically by going into the deep minutiae on that program and taking it over, essentially the acquisition process and the competition between at that time Airbus and Boeing, he crafted this somehow politically neutral decision algorithm of sorts for weighing each of the 372 desired features that the US Air Force wanted in a new tanker, that in a way, I think almost befuddled the lawmakers from actually challenging the selection process successfully.

                                    I mean those were many of his capabilities or of his achievements in public service. But I think as secretary of defense for our industry, I mean clearly he took it kind of to the next level as secretary of defense when he championed this idea of going outside of the traditional defense industry, believing that there was more innovation and technical ability beyond the defense primes that was relevant to the military. So, that was his outreach to Silicon Valley. And that was the creation of organizations like the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental or the Strategic Capabilities Office, which our guest is very well familiar with. So I mean, there was a lot of things that he did that sort of changed the defense industry and the acquisition programs and the technology we work with and the way that we actually pursue them in ways I think are still with us.

                                    And I just want to add a few more comments that other people have made. He's a profoundly nonpolitical or apolitical figure somehow in D.C. life. So Eric Edelman wrote this week that, "Ash was the modern defense intellectual, who combined deep understanding of the technical side of national defense with an historian's sensibility of the national security challenges that the United States faces."

                                    Condoleeza Rice wrote on Twitter that, "His dedication, extraordinary skill and intellect were his hallmarks and his loss is a great one that will be felt by many." And finally, President Biden said that, "Carter was a leader on all the major national security issues of our times, from nuclear deterrence to proliferation prevention, to missile defense, to emerging technology challenges, to the fight against Al Qaeda and Daesh."

                                    So now that I've finished sort of eulogizing him here, he was an Oxford-trained physicist who became a powerful champion of defense innovation. And, of course, our guest is another Oxford-trained physicist who became a powerful champion of defense innovation. But if I could ask, Dr. Roper, can you talk about how you actually became acquainted with Ash Carter originally, either through that sort of Oxford Draper pipeline in the physics community?

Will Roper:                   Sure thing, Steve. So the way I got acquainted with Ash was that first briefing to him on missile defense. So it was the Missile Defense Executive Board. I believe the topic was looking at a particular interceptor case against an emerging threat. And it was highly technical. And so I was asked to give the briefing for the Missile Defense Agency. I was an MIT researcher at the time, and we did a lot of support for the agency. So I gave the briefing to Dr. Carter or to Ash, and immediately the questions started going, very deep, technical questions that would jump between interceptor geometries, closing angles, and then would immediately bounce back to programmatics. There was really no place that he wouldn't go. It was fun for me. It felt like a thesis defense, but probably wouldn't have been fun for most if you're not ready.

                                    And from that point on, he took an interest in me. He pulled me on to the Missile Defense Advisory Board, which was an independent advisory board that advised him on missile defense. And then a couple of years later, he called me into his office and I was expecting we were going to talk about missile defense. That was a very common topic for us or some area of technology. And I think some of those meetings with Ash were to just give him a break from the drudgery of the Pentagon and just to talk about something that was energizing. He would often have Secretary Perry come in and I would get to join and we would talk about the future of lasers for national security or pick your topic. And those were really fun times.

                                    But one of those times I could tell was different from even the time I walked in. He was really thinking about something that was not our usual. And the topic was China. And this was long before "great power competition" was a term that was common in Washington. We were still focused on defeating terrorists and counter insurgency, and you could tell that it was something that Ash was thinking really deeply about. And he said, "Will, I want you to go do something about China." And that was it. We immediately went and started talking about other things, but he gave me this open-ended task with no real subtasking about how to go do it or where to go do it. Just simply commented, "I want you to go create an office that's going to do something about China, and I want you to come tell me what those ideas are."

                                    The meeting ended. He was the deputy secretary at the time, so time was always something in short supply. That one meeting pulled me into 10 years of government service that I never expected to do. Chasing that mission with Ash at the helm, that led to the creation of the Strategic Capabilities Office, which was mostly classified in its mission, but it was focused on great power competition and what do we do about it ahead of the military departments being ready? That was a fantastic time for me because I had a team working for me. I had a budget that I had to grow. One of the great strengths of Dr. Carter's approach, which was not an apparent strength to me at the time, is that he didn't give me any top cover support in working the processes of the Pentagon. He didn't come in and say, "Will, here's a budget." He didn't give me a team.

                                    The Pentagon knew I was there because Ash wanted me there, and that gave me the ability to get into doors. But nothing more than that. And that's because Dr. Carter has been through that building enough and knows that if you can't find your own way there and deal with its process the way it is, that whatever you do is not going to last. It's not going to last if it's top driven. So he gave me enough influence and association, but forced me to figure it out. And after some time, I started to figure out the Pentagon and build up a team and build up a budget and scrape together about $10 million in funding and placed one bet on Standard Missile 6, that it could be repurposed from being a defensive interceptor to an offensive weapon. And the rest is history. Grew the office into multiple billion dollars per year and we built some of the most complicated war fighting systems for the services to be ready to deal with China and to deal with Russia.

                                    And that was the period that I learned defense and I got to learn it from Dr. Carter because the 53 or so different programs that we created, he was always engaged in them, always interested in them. Even that Standard Missile 6 project, we got into a level of technical detail that I wouldn't get into with many chief engineers, and that was because he wanted to understand the details, that was his nature, who's also just interested in them. He was interested as overseer and he was interested as technologist. And so every new program we created led to that kind of discussion. I want to understand it, defend its usefulness. Tell me how you're going to deliver it on time and cost to get into the acquisition details.

                                    And then when he moved up to be SecDef, there were times that I would travel with him, fairly frequently if he was going to some site where there was a technology interest. And during those travels, I would get to share a level of detail that you normally can't get into with a SecDef, because you've got a captive audience, you're on a plane. And I really got to learn defense through Dr. Carter, but I also got to learn how he oversees programs. And that probing questioning, intellectual curiosity is something that definitely rubbed off on me. There's a need for that. But he never took it too far, and that's that great skill that he had, like teaching a kid to ride a bike. He didn't need to be the expert on the thing being presented, and he knew that he couldn't be. There wasn't enough time. He asked questions to validate the briefer because he was interested, but he knew when to let go and let things move off.

                                    And that had a profound impact on me. When I left that job and went into the Air Force acquisition job, a lot of what I learned from Ash, I found to just be indicative of how I would oversee programs, to ask questions and to probe and to be intellectually curious, but don't let that curiosity go so far that you're taxing the program and slowing it down. And like Ash, I share a strong enthusiasm for technology of all forms. I share a deep desire to bring it to the military departments, which was evident in everything he did. Even our last conversation last Friday was focused on how we can make things better in Ukraine and use this as an opportunity to create a better national security environment for the future and a better international security environment for the future.

                                    So everything he did, he was inexhaustibly focused on national security and that kind of passion rubs off. It inspires you to be better. I think that is likely what anyone would say if they worked very closely with him. And I think the legacy he's left is one that will be lasting. The office I began for him still labors mostly under cover of darkness to try to do something about great power competition. The Defense Innovation Unit continues to do its outreach to Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. It inspired me to help create AFWERX in the Air Force so that the service could bring that kind of technology, that kind of innovation into its capabilities and do it at scale. And we worked very closely with DIU that Dr. Carter created. And the Defense Innovation Board is something that made a huge difference.

                                    It was his vision that we needed outside experts who were innovators. It was his genius to put [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt in as the chair, who put more time and effort into that board than anyone would've guessed. And I think that's also due to the gravity that the threat poses to our military and the gravitas of Dr. Carter inspiring people to want to give their all to our men and women in uniform. And these things live on. I currently serve on the Defense Innovation Board, which was an honor to be asked by this administration, but it's an exceptional honor because it's something that Dr. Carter created. And so though I would treat any form of government service with a high degree of seriousness, this one has a little more solemnity to it, because it's something that Dr. Carter created and believed in. And so I will absolutely give it my all as he would.

Michael Bruno:             One of the reasons we chose Dr. Carter as part of our person of the year back in 2017 when we did that project was because that designation was supposed to help recognize people who sort of change institutions, whether for good or for bad could be debated and was explained in the article. But we explained on why Ash Carter, Bob Work, Frank Kendall, the sort of committee to save the Pentagon and save the defense industrial base, why we chose them at the time. And I'm hoping you can elaborate about how the outreach and the interaction that the Pentagon has with the tech world now, how that was influenced by Dr. Carter's outreach with the whole DIUx at the time and just going to Silicon Valley and trying to get the hoodies to work with the people in the pressed uniforms.

Will Roper:                   I think it had a huge impact and will continue to have a huge impact. I mean, one, a secretary of defense is putting his time into this, putting his travel into this, and the Pentagon takes note of things like that. Where is the SecDef today? And it's easy to say, we need to work more closely with Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, but to create an organization to do it and to spend your time going there says it's more than just a talking point. This is something I believe in. And DIU certainly put an organization, in Pentagon parlance we knew who the people were that were doing that tech outreach, but I think the influence that it had on me personally being able to go with Dr. Carter and work with DIU, work with Eric Schmidt on a variety of topics, even beyond investment. Working with Eric, I got exposed to how Google and other great software companies develop software. And it was clearly not the way we were doing it in the United States government.

                                    I got exposed to areas of technology like digital engineering that I'm not sure I would've understood otherwise. And then when I left those jobs working in the office of the secretary of defense and went into a service, I was properly primed and converted to the cause and then had the ability to go plant those ideas and do it at scale inside of a military department. I expect that will continue to happen. The Air Force really rallied around software development as an example. It really rallied around investment. These things were viewed as being cool as well as important. The cool, I tried to help on as much as I could with branding and marketing the way that a leading technology company should be branded and marketed, and the Air Force was, but the importance came from Dr. Carter. He was the SecDef, he put his time into it.

                                    The Defense Innovation Board now rebooted under Mike Bloomberg. Again, I think it speaks to there's another highly successful person at the helm, successful in business, successful as an entrepreneur, as a philanthropist, speaks to the caliber of that board and the type of people willing to come in and share it and pull a team around them. That started under Dr. Carter. So you can still see the things that he began, they continue to bear fruit. I think as everyone tries to wrap a neat bow around his legacy, his track record will defy that. There really isn't any aspect of defense that he wasn't involved in. He opened up combat roles for women. He allowed LGBTQ personnel to have greater access to military jobs and leveled the playing field for talent. Took on the strategy against ISIS where it needed someone to come in and provide a sense of strategy that was also bounded by what was operationally feasible.

                                    So whether it's nuclear nonproliferation early in his career, whether it's opening up the door to Silicon Valley, whether it's being a steady hand as an acquisition exec that had the credibility of industry, whether it's opening up jobs in the military to those who didn't have them or didn't have equal access, there's really not a component of what the military does that he wasn't involved in. So maybe the neat bow to contradict my own assertion is that he was competing for the future of the Pentagon in all of its facets, and he had the bandwidth and the intellectual capacity to be an expert in all of those facets and found ways to create a brighter future in each of them. And that is an extraordinary legacy to leave behind and certainly sets the bar for any future secretaries of defense. If they can lead their office feeling like they were a secretary in the vein of Ash Carter, then it will have been a job exceptionally well done.

Jen DiMascio:               Well, that I think is an excellent point to wrap up on. I thank you, Dr. Roper for joining us today and hope you'll join us again soon. Listeners, please join us again next week for another episode of the Check 6 podcast. Don't miss it by subscribing to Check 6 in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.

Michael Bruno

Based in Washington, Michael Bruno is Aviation Week Network’s Executive Editor for Business. He oversees coverage of aviation, aerospace and defense businesses, supply chains and related issues.