Ashton Carter, President Obama's nominee for defense secretary, told Congress Wednesday that he was likely to favor sending lethal weapons to Ukraine to fight Russia and work toward a "lasting defeat" of ISIS.
Carter also suggested that he would push back against attempts to "micromanage" military policy from the White House, and advocate an independent voice in shaping the drawdown in Afghanistan and long-term strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and in written responses to Senators' questions, Carter said that pay, benefits and a Military Health System better coordinated with the Veterans Administration were vital to enhancing recruitment and retention.
"Providing an appropriate pay and benefits package is essential to this task, but compensation and benefits costs must be balanced with readiness and modernization requirements," said Carter, who previously served as the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer.
Carter was not subjected to the aggressive questioning that was faced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was hammered on his support for Israel at his confirmation hearing, and he was expected to get quick approval by SASC and the full Senate.
Sen. John McCain, the new committee chairman, has suggested that Carter could be confirmed before the Senate recesses on Feb. 16.
In his opening statement, McCain renewed his long-standing complaints that the Obama administration lacked a coherent strategy on ISIS, Ukraine and a range of worldwide threats. He also warned Carter against being "micromanaged" by the White House as former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta have charged.
McCain allowed that "crafting a reality-based national security strategy is simply impossible under the mindless mechanism of sequestration."
McCain challenged Carter on whether he would back increased U.S. support for Jordan following the killing by ISIS of captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who reportedly was burned to death.
"We need partners on the ground to beat ISIS," Carter said of Jordan, and the killing of the pilot "encourages us to support them."
Carter said the strategy must be to impose a "lasting defeat" on ISIS. "It's important that when they get defeated, they stay defeated," he said.
Carter also indicated that he would support providing weapons to Ukraine in the fight against separatists backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I'm very much inclined in that direction," Carter said.
To improve his chances for confirmation, Carter was introduced to the committee by former Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., one of McCain's closest allies and friends in his Senate career. Lieberman called the 60-year-old Carter, a Yale graduate with a doctorate in physics from Oxford University, a "man for all seasons."
On Afghanistan, Carter said he would not hesitate to recommend changes to the Obama administration's plan that would essentially have all U.S. troops out by the end of 2016, with the exception of embassy security and a small contingent of advisors.
"I support that (Obama) plan. At the same time, it's a plan," Carter said. "If we need to change those plans, I will recommend those changes to the President."
Carter was considered a top candidate for Defense Secretary when Panetta resigned in late 2012. Carter then abruptly resigned as deputy Defense Secretary when Hagel was chosen by Obama.
Carter also was not considered Obama's first choice when Hagel resigned last November. He was nominated after Michelle Flournoy, the former assistant Defense Secretary for policy, made clear that she was not interested in the job.
On sexual assaults in the military, Carter agreed with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on the need to combat retaliation in the ranks against victims who come forward to file charges, but he stopped short of endorsing Gillibrand's proposal to take sexual assault prosecutions out of the chain of command.
Carter said he was open to having women serve in the infantry and Special Forces, but said he would await ongoing studies by the military services.
Despite the budget pressures, and the demand for U.S. forces in the Mideast and Europe, Carter said he was committed to the Obama administration's plan for the rebalance of forces to the Pacific. "My view is that we can and must continue" with the rebalance, Carter said.
Carter was also challenged by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on whether he would back President Obama's push to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before he leaves office by transferring or releasing the remaining 122 prisoners.
He said he would "not be encumbered by any pressure from the administration to speed up the pace" of releases and transfers.
While Obama can press to close Guantanamo, the decision under law on releases and transfers rested with the Defense Secretary. "I understand my responsibilities under that statute. "I will play it absolutely straight," Carter said.
If military personnel costs were not reined in, and the automatic spending cuts under the sequester process were to continue, the result would be a "dwindling technological edge on the battlefield," Carter said.
He said that one of his top priorities as Pentagon chief would be to speed up the acquisition process for new weapons systems.
"I feel passionately about that," he said in response to questions from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
In the past, when the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan pleaded for new equipment, the response from the Pentagon typically was "we'll be finished in 10 years," said Carter, who oversaw the deployment of Mine Resistant-Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) as deputy defense secretary.
"Incredibly, that was the response from the bureaucracy," Carter said. "You can't do that in the middle of a war."
Carter, who shaped the acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, warned that speedy acquisitions risk cost overruns. He noted the "long-standing battle to control costs" on the F-35s, and said the cost-control efforts must continue.
"That has to extend into the sustainment phase of the aircraft," Carter said.
He also noted the $2 billion in cost overruns on the construction of the Gerald Ford nuclear aircraft carrier.
"The taxpayer cannot support, let alone comprehend, the defense budget when they read of cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like," Carter said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com