WASHINGTON — Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command and President Trump’s nominee to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday for the first time publicly denied sexual misconduct accusations levied against him by a former aide.

Hyten’s nomination was considered in jeopardy since allegations surfaced earlier this month that Hyten sexually harassed Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, who worked for the four-star general at U.S. STRATCOM.

But the Senate Armed Services Committee after looking into the matter agreed to move forward with his confirmation hearing.

SASC members who were expected to oppose Hyten’s nomination — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) — were preparing for the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit and did not attend the hearing.  Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are viewed as potential “no” votes. But the majority of committee members at the hearing indicated they would support Hyten.

SASC Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the committee conducted its own probe and concluded the allegations were “unproven.” He said the SASC held five executive sessions, studied over a thousand pages of investigative records, and reviewed statements of more than 50 witnesses.

Offered an opportunity to state categorically whether he acted inappropriately, Hyten said: “Nothing happened, ever. The allegations are false.”

A major boost to Hyten came from two women who gave powerful testimonials on his behalf: former Air Force secretary Heather Wilson and Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), herself a victim of sexual assault when she served in the Air Force.

“I know well that sexual assault and sexual harassment happen, and it must be combated,” Wilson said. But she insisted that Hyten was innocent based on a thorough investigation that took place while Wilson was still in office. “The allegations were taken seriously and it was handled appropriately,” she said. “We had 53 investigators interview 63 people in three countries and 14 states.” All travel records, phone records and emails were reviewed, said Wilson “I believe the Senate will come to the same conclusion I did: General Hyten was falsely accused. This matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination.”

Wilson also told the committee that she could not think of any other officer in the U.S. military who would be as qualified as Hyten to handle key national security priorities such as space, cyber and the nuclear deterrent. As vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Wilson said, Hyten would give the president his unbiased take on issues. “He gives frank military advice without much sugar coating. He will tell you what he thinks, not what you want to hear.”

McSally said she has “full confidence” in Hyten’s ability to serve as vice chairman. “General Hyten is innocent of these charges,” she said. “Sexual harassment happens in the military. But it just didn’t happen in this case,” she said. ”I didn’t take coming to this conclusion lightly. I knew the message it could send to sexual assault survivors who haven’t seen all the information on the case that I have,” McSally said. “The process I just witnessed was strong, fair and investigators turned over every rock.”

Space Force, acquisition issues

As vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hyten would oversee the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which reviews requirements for acquisition programs. As a senior member of the Nuclear Weapons Council, the vice chairman plays a central role in ensuring the U.S. safely maintains its nuclear weapons stockpile.

If confirmed, Hyten also is expected to influence the Space Force debate and have a say in its future organization. Hyten was an early proponent of a space service and his arguments influenced a congressional push in 2017 to create a Space Corps.

Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 create a separate space branch although they differ in their approach. The Senate bill sets up a one-year transition during which Gen. John Raymond, the commander of U.S. Space Command, also would run the Space Force.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) asked Hyten to weigh in on the Senate proposal. Hyten said creating a space service will be a “complicated arrangement.” On the Senate bill, he said he is “a little concerned about the level of responsibility we’re going to give to General Raymond here shortly if he becomes the head of the Space Force as well as the head of the new Space Command. I think there’s a good transition in the Senate plan but I think we’re going to have to work together.”

Hyten said a space service should be under the Air Force. “It has to be under the Air Force,” he insisted. “It’s not big enough” to be a separate department, Hyten added. “I think it’s going to be a similar model to the Marine Corps. I think that’s how you keep the bureaucracy from going crazy.”

In written testimony submitted in advance of the hearing, Hyten said, if confirmed, “I look forward to working with Congress to ensure the Department has the appropriate resources and authorities to execute these changes.”

Hyten said the risk to U.S. space assets from China and Russia “continues to increase and expand.” Over the past two decades, he said in the written statement, Russia and China have advanced their space weapons and enacted military reforms to integrate space, cyberspace, and electronic warfare into military operations.

Hyten also noted that, if confirmed, he would push to expand allied partnerships in space situational awareness. “Improvements in SSA will enable us to better determine intent, provide positive attribution of space events and enable the employment of defensive and, when directed, conduct offensive space control capabilities within clearly laid out authorities,” Hyten said in his written statement.

With regard to space acquisitions and technological innovation, Hyten said he supported the Pentagon’s decision to create a Space Development Agency. “Long standing problems can be overcome by pursuing rapid prototyping, shortening timelines for research and development, and reforming acquisition authorities,” he stated. “The Space Development Agency, in coordination with existing service space acquisition organizations, will be working to counter the Department’s risk averse space development culture.”

The SDA wants to move to smaller satellites and proliferated constellations using commercial technologies. Hyten called that “an excellent example of how we can find innovative, commercially leveraged ways to deliver capabilities faster … The SDA is intended to energize our acquisition processes, moving us away from single-threaded complex constellations that make easy targets, toward smaller, more agile, distributed constellations.”

Hyten was asked to comment on recent developments in the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a key piece of the nation’s plan to modernize the nuclear triad. The GBSD is a program to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile to replace the Minuteman 3. Two competitors — Boeing and Northrop Grumman — were expected to compete for the GBSD contract but Boeing dropped out of the competition citing Northrop’s significant advantage as the owner of the nation’s largest manufacturer of solid rocket motors.

Sen Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) asked Hyten to comment on Boeing’s decision. “I always get concerned when competition disappears from America,” Hyten responded. “Anytime we’re in a competitive environment, that puts pressure on schedule, puts pressure on cost. That’s why I was so disappointed when Boeing decided not to compete.” Hyten said he has not discussed the matter with Air Force or DoD leaders. “I know that we have many programs that are well run with a single contractor,” he said. “If I’m confirmed as vice chairman, I will look at that in detail.”

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...