Q&A: Air Force Gen. John Hyten says U.S. space strategy, budget moving ‘down the right path’

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This article originally appeared in the March 26, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten is the nation’s top officer in charge of the nuclear arsenal. He’s also one of the most outspoken military leaders on the issue of national security space, and has called for changes in how the Pentagon trains and equips forces to defend space systems, pushing the Defense Department to “go faster.”

Hyten oversees nearly 184,000 military and civilian personnel as head of U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska. The command is responsible for strategic deterrence, nuclear modernization, missile defense, global strike and space operations.

The general visited SpaceNews earlier this month for a wide-ranging interview. He offered his take on the president’s budget, Pentagon acquisition reforms and the ongoing debate over how the military should be organized to fight in space.

Wars in space and “great power competition” are now major topics of conversations in Washington. Is there a risk of telling our enemies too much about our space vulnerabilities?

I like the law Congress passed last year about what we have to do to deal with space as a warfighting domain. I like the way they structured it. I like the study they commissioned to look at what the future of space wars will be. I like the way the president talked about space as a warfighting domain. We’re going to work all those issues. When you have something that is so critical to the country and it’s become a critical capability, our adversaries look at that and start developing ways to counter that capability.

How vulnerable are we in space?

Because of the vast amount that we’ve invested over the years, our overhead architectures are well beyond anything our adversaries can counter. We are in good shape in the near term. But are we going to be in good shape in the long term? We didn’t build our systems for a contested environment. I think it’s great that everybody is talking about it. One concern I have is that people will think that we are vulnerable today and that our entire overhead architecture can somehow disappear tomorrow. That is not going to happen. So we have to make sure that doesn’t change as we go into the future. That’s why we have to move fast.

What do Washington policymakers need to understand about this issue?

The most important thing about this whole discussion is that space is a warfighting domain. That’s where the president started, where the Congress started. Both said we’re going to have to look at a space force. I love that the debate is the right debate. I love the fact that the administration is embracing it. I love the fact that Congress is embracing it. I like that we have to do an independent assessment of a space force. I like the fact that the president is involved. This is important to our future security. A lot of people joke about helmets and uniforms. That’s not the issue. The issue is the threats. The administration, all parties are interested in that problem. The vice president and the National Space Council have embraced this. We’ll be working with the VP on this topic over the next few weeks.

U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten testifies March 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: DoD/EJ Hersom
U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten testifies March 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: DoD/EJ Hersom

How do you see the ‘space force’ debate going from here?

The president should be involved; he’s the commander of chief. The National Defense Authorization Act has set deadlines. This is not slow. I have to have a warfighting “conops” or concept of operations for space by June. The deputy secretary of defense has to submit recommendations in August. As long as we have a budget and we can go forward, these are very fast time lines in this town. Usually you get multi-year tasks. I’m very happy with the discussions right now. But I don’t like it when I get questions on helmets.

What are your initial takeaways from the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019?

When I was at Air Force Space Command two years ago, we defined a vision of the future, the “Space Enterprise Vision.” The current leader of Space Command, Gen. Jay Raymond, took that vision and developed a concept of operations for space. The Air Force took that conops and translated it into a budget. What pleases me is that the budget for the first time in a long time grows by a lot. We are starting down the path of building the warfighting capabilities. And there’s an urgency in the department now to figure out how to move fast.

Do you expect the Pentagon to really move fast?

I know it’s doable. Can we work with industry close enough so we can achieve the things that are in the budget? It will be a challenge. There are lots of historical examples of how this country moves fast when the need demands it. It’s usually in response to a tragic event or an urgent threat. This is an urgent threat. The leadership that we have in the department right now in acquisition is pretty impressive. The new undersecretary of defense, Mike Griffin, is someone who understands space pretty darn well. That’s an awesome thing. Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan is also committed to going fast. As a combatant commander, I will be cheering them on.

What immediate goals does DoD need to achieve in military space programs?

First, we need to get launch costs under $100 million. If you watch the recent contract awards, they are coming down. But we are not there all the way. We’re still not sure where the dual access to space is going to come from. But it’s in a good place right now. Secondly, we have to get to three- to five-year development time lines for satellites. We’re not there yet on the military side. But we are there on the commercial side. We have to translate those practices into the government side. Thirdly, we have to get to modular spacecraft where we can take existing government or commercial buses and integrate new payloads. We’re not there on the government side but the commercial side does it.

What about ground systems?

The biggest piece is an integrated ground architecture. Defining that future architecture is critical. The Air Force is going down that path. If we have to spend a billion dollars for a new ground system for every satellite we build, then it all falls apart. The practices are there in industry. But we have to translate that into the military culture.

Gen. John Hyten, right, welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, left, to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, home of U.S. Strategic Command. Credit: US Stratcom/Steve Cunningham
Gen. John Hyten, right, welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, left, to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, home of U.S. Strategic Command. Credit: US Stratcom/Steve Cunningham

What are DoD leaders doing specifically to accelerate space modernization?

I have this conversation frequently with Gen. Paul Selva [vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]. Selva leads the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. He told me: “If you bring me a set of urgent requirements I can get it through in a couple of months.” He is now putting mandates on the bureaucracy to go fast. The key is to focus on capabilities. We should not define the systems in the JROC. We should define the capabilities we need. And then leverage the innovation in industry to deliver those capabilities. The reason JROC has taken so long is that we define the system through the requirements process. That will change.

What is the status of the military’s strategy for fighting in space?

I have to deliver to Congress by June 1 the warfighting conops that will be based on the enterprise vision from two years ago. We are not done yet. The work has already been done by the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office for the most part. I just have to put in the needs of the Army and the Navy. One area where we have not trained the joint warfighters across the force is about how to integrate space into operations. There’s a small group of space people who understand it. Air-minded people, ground-minded people, maritime operators, they all need to know what space does for them and how to integrate the space operation into a terrestrial operation. That will require more work to identify what training is needed.

What concerns do you have about the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

We are trying to drive speed into nuclear modernization, too. For the life of me, I still don’t understand why in 1958 we could build a three-stage solid rocket intercontinental ballistic missile and deliver 800 in five years. Everything. New missile holes, new bases, command and control, all done in five years. Now it takes us 15 to 20 years to build 400. I think we have the ability to go much faster. I want to make sure we don’t have any gaps. The current Minuteman, I’m confident, will last until 2030. That means I need the [Ground Based Strategic Deterrent] program coming online without any delays. We are ready today. I just want to make sure that the commander 10 years from now can still say that.

Minuteman 3 launch control centers, built in the 1960s, aren’t exactly state of the art — but they are very secure against cyber attacks. “When you bring on all the new systems…all are going to come in with a new command-and-control architecture. They are not going to build the ‘60s architecture,” Hyten says. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Josh Aycock
Minuteman 3 launch control centers, built in the 1960s, aren’t exactly state of the art — but they are very secure against cyber attacks. “When you bring on all the new systems…all are going to come in with a new command-and-control architecture. They are not going to build the ‘60s architecture,” Hyten says. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Josh Aycock

The nuclear command, control and communication (N3C) program has been criticized for its outdated technology. What are your views on where this goes?

This is an old system. But it’s very secure. If you want a cyber-secure system, build it in the 1960s. Our systems have land line; they’re closed networks. Nobody envisioned there would be any connectivity. It’s very resilient against threats, and I’m very confident it can handle anything today. But not 10 years from now. When you bring on all the new systems — the B-21 bomber, the [long-range, stand-off] cruise missile, the GBSD, the Columbia-class submarines — all are going to come in with a new command-and-control architecture. They are not going to build the ‘60s architecture. They will have modern technology and have to plug into the new NC3 architecture. I’m spending a lot of time now to make sure we understand, as we move into this new architecture, what it needs to do and can it still be cyber secure? Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came to see us in September. We probably spent half a day talking NC3. We’re going to have a plan this year.