WASHINGTON — Just weeks before retiring from military service, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten warned that bureaucratic inertia and fear of failing are thwarting innovation in the U.S. Department of Defense while China continues to roll out new military and space technologies.

“Although we’re making marginal progress, the DoD is still unbelievably bureaucratic and slow,” Hyten said Oct. 28 at a Defense Writers Group event.

If he had to offer any advice to his successor it would be to “reinsert speed into the process,” Hyten said.

Hyten, the nation’s second highest-ranking military officer, is scheduled to retire next month. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs runs the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) that oversees all military acquisitions. 

The Biden administration has not yet nominated a new vice chairman to replace Hyten.

A former commander of the Air Force Space Command and of U.S. Strategic Command, Hyten has been a long-time critic of the plodding ways of the Pentagon, particularly in the development of next-generation weapon systems.

DoD takes decades to develop and field new systems, he said. “The answer to every question on how long it’s going to take to get a follow on capability is 10 years or 15 years,” he said. A case in point is a new intercontinental ballistic missile that DoD is developing to replace the Cold War-era Minuteman 3. 

That program, called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, started around 2015. “If everything goes right, it will reach initial operational capability in 2030 and full operational capability in 2035,” Hyten said. 

China’s orbital glider

Hyten said he could not discuss specifics of China’s recently reported test of a hypersonic guide vehicle that orbited the Earth and reentered the atmosphere. 

“All the facts I know about the test are classified,” he said. “A test did occur, it is very concerning.” Hyten also declined to comment on whether the Chinese tested a new capability the United States didn’t know about.

Without explaining what exactly was concerning about the test, Hyten called it another sign that China is executing its game plan to become a global superpower. 

“What you need to be worried about is that in the last five years, or maybe longer, the United States has done nine hypersonic missile tests, and in the same time the Chinese have done hundreds,” said Hyten. “Single digits vs hundreds is not a good place.”

DoD is developing hypersonic missiles, he said, but is not moving as fast as China due to a risk-averse culture that fears negative media coverage and scrutiny.

Decades ago the Pentagon made fast strides in weapons development by using iterative testing and accepting frequent failures in order to learn and improve the system for the next attempt. 

“We are not doing that anymore,” said Hyten. He mentioned a hypersonic technology vehicle program led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that more than a decade ago developed next-generation systems “ahead of everyone else in the world.” But a couple of failed tests led to years of investigations “and then we canceled the program.”

Hyten suggested that China is “doing it the way we used to do it, and they move fast.” Meanwhile, “we won’t test until we’re highly confident it will work. We’re going to study it to death before we move on again,” Hyten added. “We have to understand risk in development. Technology is hard.”

Failing fast and moving fast is “how you learn,” he said. “But somehow we’ve decided failure is bad.” If that mindset doesn’t change, he warned, China will eventually surpass the United States in military technology. 

Russia’s hypersonic weapons program is less of a concern than China’s, Hyten said. “We have to worry about Russia in the near term. They continue to experiment with hypersonics but not nearly at the pace of China, not anywhere close to the pace of China.”

The Pentagon accurately calls China a “pacing threat,” said Hyten. “At the pace they’re on, they will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it,” he said. “It goes back to the speed issue. We have to be able to insert speed back into our processes.”

Hypersonic missile defense

In response to China’s and Russia’s weapons developments, Hyten has been a proponent of deploying sensors in space that can detect and track hypersonic missiles. 

DoD’s Space Development Agency is designing a network of satellites in low Earth orbit to detect and track hypersonic missiles. But Hyten cautioned that a space-only solution is unaffordable and missile defenses will require an integrated system of satellites, aircraft and ground-based radars from the United States and allies around the world. 

“It’s not one magic constellation of satellites that can see all threats,” he said. “If you try to do it all in space, it’s one of those infinite budget problems you can never catch up to.”

“What we have to do with our allies is an integrated sensor architecture that can see hypersonics. You have to integrate ground, air and space systems,” Hyten said. 

He also warned about China’s deployment of space weapons that could threaten U.S. satellites in orbit. “They’re going counterspace in a big way, they’re deploying weapons in space,” said Hyteon. “They are doing all those things because they saw how the United States has used space for dominant advantage.”

Hyten admitted that he got himself “in trouble” for describing U.S. military satellites as “big juicy targets.” But he said he stands by that characterization “and I will use it again because it’s accurate.”

The term suggests that U.S. satellites are so technologically advanced and sophisticated that they make prized targets.  Hyten has called for a shift to a different architecture of lower cost surveillance satellites that can be mass produced and deployed fast. He lamented that has not yet been accomplished.

“I wish we’d achieved a resilient space architecture,” he said. “We talked about it for over a decade, and we designed it for over a decade, the design is out there.” 

Because of DoD’s failure to deploy a resilient architecture “we actually put the president in a tough spot because we have a handful of fat juicy targets, while the adversary has built hundreds of targets that are difficult to get after,” he added. “We could have done something differently.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...