Carafano was born in New York City, and raised in East Meadow, New York. He holds a B.S. in national security and public affairs from the United States Military Academy in West Point, an M.A. in British and early modern European history from Georgetown University, an M.A. in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in diplomatic history from Georgetown.
Carafano served 25 years in the Army in Europe, South Korea, and the U.S., and he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. During that time, he served as head speech writer for the Army Chief of Staff and was the executive director of Joint Force Quarterly, the Defense Department's military journal.
Carafano has taught at Mount Saint Mary College in New York and served as a fleet professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He has been an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and, as of 2011, he serves as a visiting professor at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley McNair in Washington and at Georgetown. Dr. Carafano joined The Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. in 2013 as an adjunct professor. He is a member of the National Academies Board on Army Science and Technology, the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee, and is a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute.
After serving as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington institute dedicated to defense issues, Carafano joined the Heritage Foundation in 2003 as a senior research fellow. Carafano serves as director at the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies and assistant director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. In 2005, Carafano was honored with the W. Glenn and Rita Ricardo Campbell Award, The Heritage Foundation's honor for outstanding contributions to policy analysis.
Carafano co-authored the homeland security report, Homeland Security 3.0: Building a National Enterprise to Keep America Safe, Free, and Prosperous, promoting the treatment of domestic and international security concerns in a more holistic manner within the National Security Council. He also co-wrote A New Strategy For Real Immigration Reform advocating the recapturing control of the border while restructuring and accentuating the legal immigration process and establishing legal prospects for temporary workers in the United States. Writing regarding defense, Carafano's 2008 study Providing for the Common Defense: What 10 Years of Progress Would Look Like, maps out a 10-year defense-strategy blueprint, including setting a floor on the defense budget as four percent of GDP.
Carafano has testified before the U.S. Congress as an expert of defense, intelligence, and homeland security issues. He is a weekly columnist for The Washington Examiner, and he has also provided commentary for numerous news and public affairs television and radio programs, including Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. His editorials have appeared in newspapers nationwide including The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, New York Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
In 2013, Carafano co-produced a short documentary, Veteran Nation, about the experiences of veterans of the United States Armed Forces. The film was created in partnership with ColdWater Media and Esprit de Corps and screened at The Heritage Foundation in February 2013. Carafano created the film after hearing about organizations that help veterans with the goal of inspiring more Americans to support U.S. veterans.
Several news organizations have reported that Carafano is the primary aide to the State Department for the Donald Trump administration's transition team. He organized meetings with European and Canadian diplomatic representatives "to hear out concerns about the incoming administration. Carafano insisted he was not hosting the event on behalf of the president-elect. But diplomats and congressional staffers said they understand he is likely to emerge as the Trump team's liaison for State Department matters."