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Gen. John Hyten on nuclear deterrence

Octavian Report: How would you assess the current state of U.S. strategic deterrence?

Gen. John Hyten: Our overall strategic deterrence is amazingly strong. It’s probably the strongest state it’s been in a long, long time. It’s fully ready, fully safe, secure, and reliable. The nuclear capabilities are safe, secure, reliable. We have significant advantages in space as well as significant advantages in cyberspace and conventional forces.

The concern I have is not about today. I want to make sure that the commander a decade from now can say the same thing to you I just said. We’ve got a lot of challenges to make sure that will be the case.

OR: What are those challenges?

Hyten: When you look at our deterrence overall, you see the Minuteman 3 ICBM, you see the Ohio-class submarine with Trident D5 missiles, you see the B2 and the B52 bombers with gravity bombs and air-launch cruise missiles, you see our current command and control structure that dates all the way back to the 1960’s, and you see the nuclear weapons complex that dates back to the 60’s as well.

The problem is each one of those things, because they’re so old, is going to have to be replaced over the next 10 years or so. About a decade from now, new stuff is going to come in across every one of those elements. When that happens, we have to make sure those capabilities can handle any threat this country could face.

We’re going to have a cyber threat that today we don’t have to worry about as much because of the age of our infrastructure. There’s an advantage to having old infrastructure. But when it has to be replaced, it’s going to be replaced with a more 21st-Century model, and that has to be just as secure as today.

OR: You have spoken before about the fact that since the ’60s, we’ve seen a real slowdown in the speed at which we can build out modernized nuclear capacity. How do we address that?

Hyten: That’s actually my biggest concern. My biggest concern is not our adversaries or our potential adversaries today. My concern is not Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or even violent extremism. My concern is that somewhere during my career, our country has lost the ability to go fast.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but our country went from being very risk tolerant — the Department of Defense was very risk tolerant; we encouraged risk takers — to an environment where we don’t encourage people to take risks, where we try to remove all risk from any technology program. And there’s no such thing as a technology program that doesn’t have risk. So when you try to remove all the risk, that means that we’re going to go very slow.

We have adversaries that are going very, very fast in a number of different areas. You watch North Korea building their missile program very, very fast. You watch China moving quickly in space and hypersonics. You watch Russia modernizing their entire nuclear force. They’re moving extremely fast, and we have to move fast again.

My belief is that the most important thing we can do would be to give authority and responsibility to the people executing those programs and then get out of their way. We have created oversights that make it very, very difficult for, say, a colonel or a Navy captain who’s a program director to execute their program. They have to go ask for permission for almost everything that they do.

I think we should give them the authority and hold them accountable. That means if they fail, they’ll be held accountable. Right now, it’s actually hard to find somebody to hold accountable, because every decision is made by committees in the Pentagon.

OR: China’s hypersonics and antisatellite weapons have garnered a lot of media attention in recent months. What is your assessment there?

Hyten: It’s nothing new. I think for whatever reason the media has noticed and embraced those two particular threats in China. But China has been pursuing those for more than a decade. The first successful ASAT test by China was 2007. That’s 12 years ago. They’ve been continuing to modernize their antisatellite capabilities, their space control capabilities, their on-orbit capabilities, their ground capabilities, their kinetic and their non-kinetic capabilities in space. They’re building out, and they’re building very, very rapidly.

The big advantage we have is that we have such an enormous, powerful space capability today that it will take some time before any adversary can catch up to that. But China’s been moving really fast.

They’ve watched how we use space to our significant advantage on the battlefield. They’ve watched it from the first Gulf War to the current conflicts in the Middle East. They watch every military operation we have that’s dependent on space, and so they’re developing capabilities to deny us space. And they’re not being quiet about it.

Hypersonics challenge our capabilities to detect and respond to the threat: a hypersonic weapon basically starts out as ballistic but then goes down very quickly towards the ground and goes into a very, very fast, hypersonic glide. This is a significant challenge for us to continue to detect. That’s why my first request is not for our own hypersonic capabilities, which I do think we need, but for a better detection capability.

That requires a different sensor platform. You can do it by radars, which would be almost unaffordable, or you can go to space. If we go to space, we have to be in a low Earth orbit, because they’re dim threats and we have to be a little closer and lower to see them.

I’m advocating for those kind of capabilities from a STRATCOM perspective. Again, the need is not immediate. But a decade from now, we’re going to need those capabilities in order to deal with these threats.

OR: What is the future of the U.S military in space?

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.