Over decades, the physicist-turned-defense leader worked to speed up and streamline arms procurement.
On countless trips to war zones and inside the halls of the Pentagon, Ashton Carter kept a card inside his pocket listing his day’s priorities. While the items on the list changed over time, the top spot was always “support the troops.”
Carter, who served as defense secretary during the Obama administration, died of a heart attack Monday, his family said. He was 68.
Friends and former colleagues described Carter as a brilliant man and a problem-solver dedicated to supporting Americans in uniform. They mourned the loss of not just a former boss, but a mentor and a friend.
On Tuesday, several of them pointed to the enduring fingerprints Carter left on the Pentagon during his four decades of service, including efforts to harness American innovation to keep ahead of Chinese advances in weaponry.
Several called Carter’s passing another blow to an ever-shrinking list of elite, Cold War-era national-security leaders.
“I really feel like the nation lost the national-security giant [and] an exceptional leader,” said Sam Said, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who, as a colonel, served as Carter’s chief of staff and senior military assistant from 2009 to 2011.
Former colleagues shared stories of seven-day work weeks and countless hours on airplanes to visit troops. They also spoke of a loving father and husband.
“He's one of the smartest humans I've ever seen, ever, but he also had the ability to execute,” said Wendy Anderson, who was an aide to Carter when he was the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer and later, his chief of staff when he was deputy defense secretary. “Often in Washington, you have people who are good at one thing or another, not equitably distributed with both.”
Said said: “He was able to solve wickedly complex problems in an actionable, practical way.”
Carter, who never served in the military, rose through the Pentagon’s civilian ranks. He served as an assistant secretary during the Clinton administration. When he wasn’t serving in government, he worked in academia.
In 2009, he was confirmed as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer; in 2011, as deputy defense secretary. He left that job after two years, but returned as defense secretary in 2015.
During his time as the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, Carter worked to speed up weapons deliveries to troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He shaped his time [as acquisition chief], and as deputy secretary, around ensuring that those men and women had what they needed when they needed it, to stay alive and to advance the national security objectives of the United States,” Anderson said.
He’s also credited with putting processes in place to allow those speedier weapons and equipment deliveries to happen.
“He absolutely abhorred unnecessary bureaucracy, and went out of his way to squat it down,” Said said. “There's some bureaucracy that's required to keep the machine running, and make sure the left and right limits are adhered to, but there's totally unnecessary bureaucracy that stood in the way of meeting warfighter needs.”
Shortly after being confirmed as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer in 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged Carter to put the acquisition office on a wartime footing.
“That was the beginning of him putting in place in the building certain efforts that essentially got around the existing bureaucracy that cost so much time in terms of getting our warfighters what they needed,” Anderson said.
Gates put Carter in charge of getting tens of thousands of MRAP armored troop carriers to the battlefield. At the time about 75 percent of U.S. troop casualties were caused by roadside bombs.
Said recalled a series of meetings in which officials came up with ways of transporting MRAPs from the United States to the battlefield in Afghanistan.
“It was a logistical nightmare to not only produce but more importantly transport at the rate that was necessary,” Said said. “We found multimodal transportation networks…and very creative ways that have never been explored before to dramatically enhance the throughput to meet the requirements in theater.”
Carter would also show up at meetings attended by junior officials.
“He never felt above any working group. If it meant solving a problem in support of the troops, it doesn't matter what level of person was in the room, he would be there,” Said said. “That really resonated with a lot of folks to go: ‘Oh, man, he's in the trenches with everybody trying to solve these issues.’”
Gates also put Carter in charge of the Counter Improvised Explosive Device Task Force, a group that worked to get relevant gear to the war zone in weeks or months instead of years. Carter and his co-chair Marine Lt. Gen. Jay Paxton “seized the opportunity with real passion,” Gates wrote in his memoir Duty.
Carter also ran a task force credited with increasing overhead intelligence in Afghanistan. Lacking enough reconnaissance drones to meet troops’ needs, Carter helped stand up an innovative network of aerostats, Said said.
A physicist by training, Carter frequently made trips to war zones to hear firsthand from the troops in combat.
“We went to Afghanistan, I lost track of how many times,” Said said. “The whole purpose of these trips there [was] for him to firsthand hear from the troops in the trenches all the way up to the leadership in Afghanistan of what is operationally needed? What do you lack? What are the problems that we need to solve for you in the Building?”
On the flight back to Washington, Carter and his staff would get to work. They’d work late nights, most Saturdays and even half days on Sunday.
At the Pentagon, Carter thrived on circumventing bureaucratic hurdles that slowed weapons and equipment to the battlefield. He worked to institutionalize many of his bureaucratic acquisition reforms through an initiative called Better Buying Power.
David Van Bueren, who served as the Air Force’s top acquisition official, reminisced Tuesday about working with Carter to overhaul the troubled F-35 stealth fighter program. He also talked about how Carter laid the groundwork to develop a new stealth bomber that would work in concert with other military aircraft and systems.
“He was really trying to look at how the country needed to switch directions a little bit and now prepare for a couple totalitarian countries that were now going to be a greater threat,” Van Buren said.
As defense secretary, Carter laid the groundwork for a number of technological initiatives to counter China’s weapons advancements. He created special cells to work with startups and commercial technology firms. Among them were the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Digital Service.
“He really tried to think about how we broaden the defense industrial base and bring in additional players,” said Eric Fanning, who was Carter’s chief of staff when he became defense secretary.
Carter created several ways for small startups to get access to Pentagon leaders—processes he called “poking holes in the wall” since “there's no door to get into the Pentagon for companies that don't know how to work the Department of Defense.” His successors have expanded those efforts even further.
After leaving government, he returned to Harvard as director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Today, several of his former colleagues occupy many of the Pentagon’s top positions, including Frank Kendall, the Air Force Secretary and Andrew Hunter, its head of acquisition.
“I had the privilege to serve Dr. Carter as his Chief of Staff during his initial service in the Obama Administration, where his focus on supporting warfighters, increasing the productivity of the acquisition system, and continuous improvement throughout the Department still resonates today,” Hunter said through a spokesman. “Moreover, he was a great leader who strived to ensure that everyone had the opportunity to reach their full potential. He will be greatly missed."
Carter still took time to mentor current Defense Department officials. In July, he had a private breakfast at a Boston hotel with Kathleen Hicks, the current deputy defense secretary.
“He was a great, great patriot,” Van Buren said. “If we all practiced all the things that he did in his life, the country would be far better off.”
Correction: A previous version of this article referenced Carter attending meetings about transporting MRAPs to Iraq. The meetings were about getting them to Afghanistan. The article has been updated.