U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten Has a Need for Speed

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Profile | Gen. John Hyten

Commander

U.S. Air Force Space Command


The Need For Speed

Even before U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten assumed leadership of Space Command in August, his priorities were clear: prepare the service’s space enterprise for another round of sequestration budget cuts, now slated to take effect in 2016; choose among various alternative constellation architectures for implementation starting in 2017; and position the nation’s space capabilities to operate reliably in a rapidly evolving threat environment.

These priorities haven’t changed much since the Harvard grad was vice commander of Space Command, a position he had held since May 2012. Hyten’s current job is the culmination of a military space career whose origins date to 1965 when his family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where his father worked on the Apollo program. As a boy he watched Saturn 5 rockets launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and in the fifth grade he met the legendary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

The challenges he faces today stem from many things including funding and political instability, the march of technology and a rising threat that manifested itself in dramatic fashion with China’s destructive anti-satellite test in 2007.

Hyten spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss. A video of the full conversation is available here.


You recently completed your Commander’s Intent, which outlines your priorities for the next three years. What does that document include and what should we expect in the next couple of years?
The mission is to deliver the capabilities we need. Our vision is to be the best in the world. We need to figure out how to go fast in doing that because the world is moving tremendously fast right now. The nations that are operating in space are doing different things every day. We need to figure out how to stay ahead of them. Priority No. 1 is to win the fight we’re in today. We have capabilities that are essential to everything we do and every military operation today. Priority No. 2 is to prepare for the fight that may come tomorrow. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring but there are new and increasing threats in both space and cyberspace we have to prepare ourselves to deal with. Priority No. 3 may be the most important and that is to take care of our airmen and their families because our airmen are the people who do the mission.

How does Space Command do that?
My direction to the men and women of Air Force Space Command is: You’re authorized to do whatever you need to do, talk to whoever you need to, go wherever you need to go and do the things you need to do in order to make this intent a reality. I don’t want them coming to me unless it’s something that’s different from the intent. If it’s different from the intent, we need to talk about it. We just need to go faster every day.

If we were to talk three years from now, how would things be different?
I would hope that we have established more real-time capabilities. Right now if you look at the capabilities we have, they’re really pretty remarkable. But where we’re lacking is our ability to fully immerse and deal with the command and control of those capabilities in a real-time fashion in a contested scenario.

How would you describe Space Command’s speed now?
It’s near real-time and it differs depending on the mission. Some missions we’re more effective than others.

What has happened since China’s 2007 anti-satellite test that has led U.S. officials to increasingly sound alarm bells about these kinds of capabilities?
Those kinds of capabilities continue to mature. There have been tests this year. Fortunately they didn’t create a kinetic mess like the test in 2007 did, but nonetheless they continue to mature those capabilities. Other folks around the world continue to mature those capabilities. As they mature, that’s what we need to respond to.

Sequestration is still on the table. How is Space Command preparing for that possibility?
So in 2013 we laid off half of our civilian contractor workforce and then we moved to shut down basically everything we could on the ground-based side. Many of those decisions are difficult and some of them came back to bite us. Now if we go below where we were in ’13, what do we do in ’16?

So what do you do in 2016?
We’re working through a plan. We’ll have to shut down some things in order to comply with the law. And when we shut things down, it will have an impact. But I hope not to go there.

Congress appropriated $220 million this year to develop an American rocket engine. Does the Air Force have a strategy?

RD-180 test fire. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center photo
RD-180 test fire. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center photo

There’s a strategy. It’s not fully fleshed out. The quick summary is we have good partnerships with NASA, we have good partnerships with industry on a significant amount — tens of millions of dollars — of technology work that we know needs to be done. We also have put out a request for information that said, “As you look toward a new engine what are the possibilities out there?” There’s huge interest from industry across the board. We have a plan to continue that process leading to a request for proposals next summer. The [congressional] language is pretty complicated but the intent is pretty straightforward. The intent is to get off the RD-180. Now we have to start working on that.

Is it possible to do that by fiscal year 2019 as Congress has directed?

We’ll have to work with industry to see how we get there. That’s an aggressive schedule but I think Congress put an aggressive schedule there on purpose. It wasn’t a mistake.

BE-4 rocket engine. Credit: Blue Origin
BE-4 rocket engine. Credit: Blue Origin

United Launch Alliance has teamed up with Blue Origin for an RD-180 engine replacement. How does that fit into your engine strategy?
ULA has teamed with Blue Origin for the BE-4 as the Atlas 5 replacement. In order to go down that path, they’ll have to match that engine because [the BE-4 is] a methane engine and not a kerosene engine like the first stage of the Atlas 5 is right now. One of the challenges we have is to develop a technology — and I think the intent of Congress is liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon, we’ll have to work with Congress on whether we’re limited on the technology or not — and figure out exactly how to build an engine that any part of industry can use. You usually match an engine to a rocket.

How do you envision incorporating disaggregation into next-generation space capabilities?
Disaggregation can work for certain mission areas in a big way, it can work in a small way for certain mission areas and it may not be a solution in other mission areas. What we’re going to bring forward is, in every mission area, an answer that incorporates disaggregation and a number of other things to give us that ability we need in the future. Disaggregation will be a big part of every consideration we have for every future constellation. But it’s not the be-all-end-all solution. It’s a mission-by-mission issue.

When will we begin to see elements of a more disaggregated approach to the military space enterprise?
If you look at our requirements, we need to start the recapitalization of the current programs. If you need to start them in the early part of the next decade, we’ll have to start considering it in our future years defense plan in the fiscal year 2017 budget. You will see details of what we believe those capabilities are going to look like. The near years will be a space modernization initiative program that will lead and feed those programs. You’ll see those pieces tied together completely in the FY ’17 budget.

How do you see the way the Air Force acquires satellite communications changing?
Operationally, satellite communications that integrate the Navy’s narrowband capabilities, Air Force and Army wideband capabilities, the Air Force protected capabilities, along with commercial capabilities. They have to be integrated so you can move, in a threatened environment, not only from one channel to another channel but from one frequency to another frequency. We’ve started down that path and now Congress has said you need a single service focused on the acquisition of those capabilities.

Congress suggested the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
They suggested SMC. I’m not sure exactly what the right answer is, but I know that it’s better if you’re a buyer and you have the ability to look at an enterprise. You can get a better price. SMC is a plausible solution; I just don’t know right now if it’s the best solution.

The fourth WGS spacecraft. Credit: Boeing
The fourth WGS spacecraft. Credit: Boeing

What comes after the last of the Wideband Global Satcom satellites currently under contract?
We need to work through the entire wideband analysis. The analysis of alternatives is going to evaluate acquiring that from a commercial capability, acquiring that on a commercial model, acquiring that on a long-term lease, acquiring that on a number of different places. Again, we’ll have to show some of our cards in the ’17 budget because even though the analysis won’t be completed at that time, we need to start putting those pieces on the table so we have a way to get after the future. But I think it’s important to not look at just a traditional model.

How are the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program satellites doing?
The first two satellites were launched in July. They’re going through checkout right now. We’re taking a very deliberate approach to checking the satellites out to make sure we understand exactly how they work, exactly how the systems are characterized, exactly what we see and understand. It’ll still be a couple of months before we get to an initial operational capability as we walk through that deliberate approach. But I can tell you they’re doing well. They’re healthy and I’m not going to get into the operational details.

How will the Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) contract be used?
We’ve already done a hosted payload on the infrared side. We need to look at hosted payloads on the communication side. We can look at hosted payloads on the situational awareness side. The great thing about HoPS is now we have a contract vehicle to do that. On the communication side, we need to work with DISA [the Defense Information Systems Agency] and other partners. We need to understand the acquisition approaches. We’re going to look through mission area by mission area to take advantage of those kinds of capabilities.

When should we expect a decision on the launch of the last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite?
I think you might see a decision in the next few months. They’re working within the Department of Defense and the executive branch of the government on exactly where we’re going to go.

What is the status of the payload for the GPS 3 satellites, whose technical issues delayed the program?
The initial capability was delivered to Lockheed Martin. It’s integrated into GPS 3 Flight 1. It’s gone through the initial testing. Everything looks good now. We’re pleased with the final delivery of that capability. The measure of success is, will it work and then can payloads 2, 3 and 4 come after that, because those satellites are basically lined up at the plant waiting for those payloads to come in. I’m optimistic now we’re past that problem and be able to get through. As for the competitive piece, whether its nine or 10 and beyond, at some point we’ll have a competitive payload. At some point down the road we’ll move to a digital payload.