Last Line of Defense

An Interview with Gen. John Hyten

Hyten: I've been in space my whole life, really. When I started in the military, and I came in as a lieutenant in 1981, we had a very contested space environment. The Soviet Union had deployed a core orbital antisatellite capability; we had developed and built the F15 ASAT program. (I worked on that program back in the 80’s.) It was a very contested environment. It was a war-fighting environment.

But then when the Cold War ended, it became a very benign environment. The Soviet core orbital ASAT went away, our F15 ASAT program went away. And we built out this magnificent, amazing, incredible space capability. Navigation and timing with GPS; missile warning with DSP and SBRs; satellite communications with advanced DHF and wideband global satcom; narrowband satcom with MUSE. Space-based surveillance, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance through our partners in the intelligence community. We used that to our significant advantage in war on the ground. Now we could navigate with precision anywhere on the globe, we could communicate freely anywhere on the globe. We could put a weapon anywhere we wanted to.

It changed warfare. We'll never go back. But our adversaries saw that. Russia and China in particular. And they are building capabilities to deny us that significant advantage we've built.

OR: Do you see an eventual militarization of space as a physical theater?

Hyten: It's up to humans to decide that. In every domain that humans have gone into, humans have brought conflict. So I believe there will be conflict in space. But if we can manage it correctly, and keep it available for peaceful uses, like our nation's policy says, then we have the opportunity to manage that conflict and not ruin the environment for ourselves or future generations. That's going to be a challenge. Because any debris you create in space is going to be there for a long, long, long time.

OR: What is the current state of missile defense, and how vulnerable are we?

Hyten: I'm very, very confident that we have great missile defense capabilities against North Korea. That's what the Alaska capabilities are deployed to respond to, that's what the California capabilities are deployed to respond to. We have great sensor coverage of everything that comes out of North Korea.

We don't have missile defenses against the other threats that are out there. So we have to consider what we're going to do in the future about any other threats. But the missile defense capabilities we have are really focused on North Korea and Iran, not on China and Russia. And I think that's an important thing to understand.

China and Russia have vast numbers of threatening capabilities. That's why our strategy with Russia and China is not defense, it's deterrence. And deterrence comes from STRATCOM.

OR: We seem to be living in an era of political disruption. What are the implications of that for your work?

Hyten: I'm about to be 60. And the world we live in is not the craziest world I've experienced. I grew up in Alabama in the '60s. I grew up with George Wallace as the governor of Alabama. I grew up in a time of violent protests in this country, where the world changed completely. I grew up in a time where Japan came out of nowhere to become an economic power.

All this is just part of the way the world moves forward. And it goes forward in multiple different ways. But one of the best things about being a military officer is that my perspective actually doesn't change. I swore an oath to defend this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution.

My job is to come in and look at the threats to this country from any adversary or potential adversary, and make sure that our nation has the defenses to respond to those threats and if necessary, defeat those threats in combat. As the Commander of STRATCOM, my job is the same as it's been since Strategic Air Command stood up in 1946 — we will provide the nation a strategic deterrent and prevent nuclear war.

When I'm sitting here in Omaha, life's actually pretty simple. I have a job to do, and the world spins all around me. But all we do is focus on the threat, focus on how we respond, and be ready if an adversary should ever step over that line.