WASHINGTON — Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama's pick as Pentagon chief for his final two years in office, says Congress needs to restore stability to the defense budget and the Pentagon must do its part by ending wasteful practices that undermine public confidence in military spending.
"I cannot suggest support and stability for the defense budget without at the same time frankly noting that not every defense dollar is spent as well as it should be," Carter said in remarks prepared for his opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination Wednesday and is expected to confirm him.
"The taxpayer cannot comprehend, let alone support, the defense budget when they read of cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like," he added.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of his statement Tuesday evening.
Carter said the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration are risky to U.S. defense. The man he would replace as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, has said that if sequestration is not eliminated the Pentagon probably would have to rewrite its defense strategy.
"It introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful, and it conveys a misleading diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike," Carter said.
Noting his longstanding interest in reforming the Pentagon's must-criticized spending habits, Carter said he would attack the issue head on.
"If confirmed as secretary of defense I pledge to make needed changes in the Pentagon, but also to seek support from Congress, because in the end I know that Congress holds the power of the purse," he said.
Carter is expected to face politically charged questions about Iraq and other hot spots.
Carter, 60, is experienced in a wide range of national security issues and served twice previously in Obama's Pentagon, most recently as deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013. He was assistant secretary of defense for international security policy during the administration of President Bill Clinton.
A native of Philadelphia, Carter is a physicist by training and a highly regarded thinker on strategy, budgets and policy. He never served in the military.
When Obama announced Carter's nomination on Dec. 5, the president said he credited Carter with a "unique blend of strategic perspective and technical know-how." He is steeped in the intricacies of missile defense, U.S. nuclear weapons, U.S.-China relations and the evolution of North Korea's nuclear program.
Less clear is whether Carter will find more success than Hagel in gelling with Obama's inner circle. The president's relationship with the Pentagon has often been strained, with some officials in the department saying Obama views the military skeptically and centralizes decision making in the West Wing.
Hagel, a Republican and a former senator from Nebraska, was tapped for the Pentagon post in part because he was seen as someone who would largely acquiesce to the White House, though he, too, is said to have grown frustrated, particularly with the policymaking process overseen by national security adviser Susan Rice.
Two of Obama's previous Pentagon chiefs, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, have publicly aired their grievances with what they saw as White House micromanagement.
Carter would inherit a Pentagon wrestling with the Islamic State militant threat in Iraq and Syria, an unsettled course for Afghanistan, Russian provocations in Ukraine and an uncertain outlook for the defense budget.
He is likely to face questions on these and other issues at his confirmation hearing, including the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions and doubts about Obama's push to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for terror suspects.
In response to written questions from the Armed Services Committee prior to his hearing, Carter said he would consider changing plans for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 if security conditions worsen. About 10,600 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.
Carter also said he is aware of reports that Islamic State militants may try to expand into Afghanistan, and that he will work with coalition partners to ensure that does not happen.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the committee, has repeatedly questioned the wisdom of setting and announcing a hard end date to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Unlike his predecessors over the past 30-plus years, Carter has served neither in the military nor in Congress. The last defense secretary without experience in uniform or national politics was Harold Brown, who led the Pentagon from 1977 to 1981.
A relatively unknown figure nationally, Carter would be among the younger defense secretaries in recent years and the first to come of age after the Vietnam War.
He received undergraduate degrees in physics and medieval history at Yale University and earned his doctorate in theoretical physics at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.
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