The Defense Department is facing destructive budget uncertainty that undercuts "what we're all trying to do," Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said tAug. 7, 2013
, but he urged the defense workforce to maintain its pride, its confidence and "guarded optimism."
Speaking with a small group of defense writers here, Carter said yesterday's announcement of a reduction in civilian employee furlough days from 11 to six demonstrates the morale concerns Pentagon leaders are working to head off. The mission itself, he said, helps to motivate the people who perform it every day, even those who have struggled with short staffing and smaller paychecks under furlough.
"There's one thing we can never take away from the people who work for this department, and that's their commitment to the mission," the deputy secretary said. "It's a great thing to be part of -- the most important mission that you can have, which is protecting people."
He said service members and civilian employees, whom he called "the inside family," understand that political gridlock and the resulting questions about dollars place DOD in a painful position.
"We don't know what our budget is, so we're not in a position to make final decisions about what we're going to do," Carter noted. "That is extremely frustrating to us, and I know it's very frustrating to people and their families."
Carter discussed the recent Strategic Choices and Management Review, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined during a news conference July 31. The review was an exercise in preparedness that examined everything from compensation to maintenance, he said.
"As we face this budget crunch, we're trying to balance all of the ways that we do honor to and properly equip and train our people," Carter said. "That's what the Strategic Choices and Management Review is all about."
It's not clear yet whether sequester will continue, he acknowledged, and the department also is seeking to ease some of the rules Congress places on how DOD spends its funds. But the department must, at any funding level, set the right course strategically, Carter said.
"Uppermost in our minds is to not just deal with the budget situation, but to deal with the moment in history in which we find ourselves," he said. "We're at a very important moment in our military history."
The nation's military performed superbly in two long wars centered on counterinsurgency, Carter said, and while the second is still winding down, planning for the future is a critical strategic necessity.
Carter noted the review identified ranges of cuts to people, equipment and compensation, but planners still can't put in place a course of action until the next fiscal year's funding picture clears up.
"We very much hope to avoid sequester [in fiscal year 2014] in the first place, and if we do have sequester, to minimize the impact on people, so they don't have a second year in a row of terrible uncertainty for themselves and their families," he said.
Pentagon leaders know the defense workforce is the secret to the greatest military in the world, Carter said.
"They're the ones whom you can send into any kind of conflict, from full-up, high-end combat to counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and be confident that across that whole spectrum they can perform," he said.
Troops and their civilian counterparts do amazing work for the country, Carter said. "Not everybody gets to go home at night and say that they were a part of something bigger than themselves, and all of our employees are," the deputy said. "So I hope they continue to take pride in that."
He also urged DOD's people to hold onto "the same guarded optimism" their leaders allow themselves: "that we're going to get through this, that the country's going to come to its senses and stop this nonsense over the budget, get back to some normal budgeting and some stability."