APS News

Physicist Nominated to Lead Pentagon

By Michael Lucibella

Ashton Carter
Photo: Rod Searcy/Stanfor University

Ashton Carter

Physicist and former defense department official Ashton Carter is President Obama’s pick to be the next secretary of defense, the White House announced in early December. If confirmed, Carter will succeed former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as the head of the department.

Carter had been a long-time faculty member at Harvard University specializing in technology and security policy and previously served as the deputy secretary of defense from October 2011 through December 2013. He had recently started lecturing at Stanford in October of this year as a visiting scholar.

Prior to serving as deputy defense secretary he was the chief weapons buyer at the Pentagon and served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy during Bill Clinton’s first term. He’s known for being a technocrat and has served on advisory panels and published numerous books and articles on the intersection of science, technology and defense.

“In one way or another, Ash has served under 11 Secretaries of Defense,” President Obama said at the press conference announcing his nomination. “He’s an innovator who helped create the program that has dismantled weapons of mass destruction around the world and reduced the threat of nuclear terrorism. He’s a reformer who’s never been afraid to cancel old or inefficient weapons programs. He knows the Department of Defense inside and out — all of which means that on day one, he’s going to hit the ground running.”

Carter first made his name in the early 1980s at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, assessing the technological feasibility of lasers and particle beams for President Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative missile shield. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he helped draft the Nunn-Lugar amendment that provided U.S. funds to secure loose nuclear weapons.

While an undergraduate at Yale, Carter majored in both physics and medieval history and worked for a time at Fermilab in the search for the charm quark at the Tevatron. After graduating, he received a Rhodes scholarship to pursue a doctoral degree in theoretical physics at Oxford University.

After returning to the United States, he spent a year away from theoretical physics in 1979, when he worked with the Office of Technology Assessment on an assessment of the MX mobile missile project, including a proposal to mount ICBMs on blimps. After his work there, he refocused his career from theoretical physics towards public policy and international security.  

“I accepted the President’s offer to be nominated for Secretary of Defense because of my regard for his leadership,” Carter said. “I accepted it because of the seriousness of the strategic challenges we face, but also the bright opportunities that exist for America if we can come together to grab hold of them.”

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik