Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter during his swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon March 6, 2015.

Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter during his swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon March 6, 2015. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley

Carter: Congressional Inaction on Defense Budget Is Dangerous and Embarrassing

U.S. defense secretary also calls on China to halt island-building, and touts coming personnel reforms.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave Congress both barrels on Wednesday, calling lawmakers’ inaction on defense “a tax on how we plan and operate.”

“Budget uncertainty, a decrease in defense resources, and Congressional reluctance to agree to proposed reforms — including eliminating overhead and unneeded infrastructure, retiring older platforms, and making reasonable adjustments in compensation – amount to a tax on how we plan and operate,” Carter said at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference just outside Washington, D.C.

In a wide-ranging talk, the defense secretary also called on China to end its island-building in the South China Sea — two days after a Chinese admiral said that much-disputed body of water “belongs to China."  He also touted an upcoming overhaul to the military’s personnel system meant to better entice and retain a 21st-century force.

Carter offered strong words about lawmakers’ inaction. With just 14 days remaining in the fiscal year, Congress has not passed a defense appropriations bill that eliminates what he called the “straitjacket” imposed after the 2011 Budget Control Act.

“Without a negotiated budget solution, we will again return to sequestration, reducing discretionary funds to their lowest real level in a decade — despite the fact that members of both parties agree this result will harm our national security,” he said. “The alternative to a budget deal, a long-term continuing resolution, is merely sequestration-level funding under another name.”

If the Pentagon has to operate under a continuing resolution for a full year, it would waste $38 billion, he said.

Of sequestration specifically, Carter said, “Making these kinds of indiscriminate cuts is wasteful to taxpayers and industries. It’s dangerous for our strategy, unfair to our service members, and frankly, embarrassing in front of the world.”

On China, Carter reiterated calls for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants” in the South China Sea. “After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”

Instead, he called for “renewed diplomacy, focused on a finding a lasting solution that protects the rights and the interests of all.”

He also highlighted the Pentagon’s current effort to overhaul the way troops and civilian DoD employees are recruited, promoted, and retained.

“We’re aligning our personnel management system with 21st-century trends — like the digital revolution in talent management. We also must understand the reality that some young Americans aren’t satisfied with industrial-age career tracks,” he said.