If America wants to succeed, it needs to learn to fail, top general says

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WASHINGTON — If the United States is going to stay a preeminent world power, it’s going to require failure, said Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command.

“We’ve lost the ability to go fast, test, and fail,” Hyten said. “We tie the hands of our engineers and acquisition folk because we expect every test to work and if it doesn’t work it’s on the front page of the newspaper. We have got to get back to where we accept risk.”

Speaking to the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies breakfast Tuesday, Hyten noted that failure teaches more than success, and that learning from failures can be a much faster way of learning than repeated small tests.

Hyten — who is the military commander responsible for the nation’s nuclear, global strike, and space assets — said the pace of current programs is far too slow. The development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles under the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program will take longer and cost more than the original creation of ICBMs in the early 1960s.

Between 1959 and 1964, with $17 billion in current-year dollars, the military created the Minuteman nuclear missile, delivering  “800 missiles deployed in five different bases across America, 160 launch holes, all the missile alert facilities, all the launch control centers, all the command and control,” Hyten said.

Now, building the next-generation GBSD is estimated to cost $84 billion for 400 missiles and isn’t set to be completed until 2029.

“How did we get to the point where it used to be that we could deliver 800 three-stage solid rocket motors…and now it takes us 12 to 17 years, so in other words, four times as long, four times as expensive, for half the capability?” Hyten said. “I don’t accept that that’s the way it has to be. It does not have to be that way. But it is that way and if we let it continue the same way we’ve been going it will stay that way.”

U.S. adversaries are taking a different approach, the general said, pointing to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s repeated attempts to launch a missile.

“What he’s doing is testing and failing, testing and failing, testing and failing, testing and succeeding,” Hyten said. “Fast. He’s learned how to go fast.”

The U.S. must be willing to try new things out, fail, learn, and correct as it works to update its nuclear arsenal, especially since the current Minuteman 3 missiles will soon no longer be viable.

“The system will not last,” he said.

The same risk-taking approach applies to space, Hyten said, lauding the speed with which the nation was able to move in the 1960s.

“We went from zero to the moon really in about six or seven years,” he said. “They went from the failure on the launchpad of Apollo 1 in January 1967 to walking on the moon in July of 1969, 30 months later. From the most horrible failure we had in the space program to the greatest success maybe mankind will ever have in space: walking on the moon for the first time. We were able to go fast.”

That spirit of innovation and risk-taking still exists in the U.S., especially in the private sector, Hyten said.

“SpaceX [is] going very fast on the commercial side building a rocket that is working pretty well,” he said. “Oh, by the way, they’ve had a couple failures. Rockets, especially in the early stages, blow up and they always have and they always will.”

Likewise, Hyten said he wasn’t pleased with media coverage of Blue Origin’s May accident that destroyed a set of powerpack test hardware for the company’s BE-4 engine.

“Blue Origin just had a failure. Son of a gun. That’s part of learning,” the general said. “It really upsets me when I see headlines come out in the newspaper after the Blue Origin failure the other day: ‘Blue Origin takes huge step back, big failure!’ I’m going,  ‘no, they’re pushing the envelope.’”

Hyten said he wants everyone in the military, broader government, and private companies to take risks and help speed up the pace of innovation and acquisition.

“You have to look at the world that we live in, not the world we once lived in,” he said. “We have to improve our thinking, we have to improve our speed of thinking, we have to improve our speed of development and acquisition, and ladies and gentleman, we can do that. This is the United States of America. We have the greatest minds, the best and brightest.”

Two major things will help, Hyten said, the first of which is allowing people to work without micromanaging every step of the process.

“We have got to get back to where we allow people to take risk,” he said. “Success will be when a program manager in our business spends more time with industry than he does in this town. Right now they spend all their time in this town, not with industry.”

The second is for Congress to reliably pass annual budgets.

“You can’t do it if you don’t have a budget every year,” Hyten said.