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Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command: Good morning, everybody.
This is not one of my favorite things to do, to be honest with you, but it is one of the most important things I do because it is an opportunity for me to stand up and tell the story of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and the civilians that work in U.S. Strategic Command. When you look at that portfolio it is roughly 184,000 Americans that do that job, and that doesn’t count our allies that are partnered with us in many ways and areas. That is 184,000 Americans standing watch today.
So I very much appreciate the invite, and the invite came from a very, hopefully, recognized person to you guys, Jenn Rowell from the Great Falls Tribune. The neat thing about Jenn Rowell, not only that she invited me to speak here today, but she has been writing the story of our missileers at Malmstrom Air Force Base for a long time. In fact, she was telling their story when the rest of the world was not paying attention.
One of the biggest problems we’ve had in the nuclear business, maybe since we started working with nuclear weapons was our nation taking our eye off the nuclear enterprise for a significant period of time starting a little over a decade ago and continuing to just a few years ago. And when that happened, we had a number of significant things. We had a nuclear weapon transported from Minot to Barksdale. We had parts go from Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Taiwan. We had bad things happen in the enterprise, and bad things happen in any enterprise where you don’t pay attention. But Jenn, and a number of other people were paying attention, and they are paying attention to the airmen who are standing watch today.
If you think about the STRATCOM enterprise, the enterprise goes from 600 miles from the North Pole at Thule, Greenland, where we have a number of airmen standing watch for incoming missiles over the poles today, to 600 miles from the North Pole. We have sailors under the sea that have been under the sea for days, weeks, months, standing watch ready for that worst day in the history of the country.
We have amazing people. We have a lot of people that have been deployed multiple times into the theater in Afghanistan. I’ve been deployed, I think pretty much everybody in uniform has probably been deployed a few times. I’ve met folks who have been deployed 15 times. But if you look at our enterprise, there’s a certain element of our enterprise that people don’t think about, they don’t realize.
My deputy commander, a very impressive officer, Vice Adm. Chas Richard, he grew up fifteen miles from me in northern Alabama. One year after me in high school. He went to a rival school. It’s a pretty amazing story when you think about two young people growing up in northern Alabama in public high schools, 15 miles apart, and then growing up and being the commander and deputy commander of the most powerful warfighting command in our nation, that’s bizarre.
But one of the interesting things about Admiral Richard, he’s spent seven years of his life under water. Think about that, seven years of his life under water, standing the watch, ready for that worst day in our country’s history. And because of that, we’ve never experienced the worst day in our country’s history.
So when I stand up I get to tell the story, and I get to tell the story to people like you. But the thing I always have to remember is I actually don’t tell the story, I transmit but you tell the story. So I want to say first of all, thank you for telling that story because if you don’t tell that story people don’t hear. And I’ve noticed, I always wonder why after all this time, because I’m coming on 36 years in uniform now, why after all the time do I get so nervous when I speak in front of people? And I’ve noticed an interesting thing in recent times and that is when I stand up on front of soldiers or sailors or airmen or Marines and I talk to them, I’m not nervous anymore. I’m kind of talking to my family, but when I’m talking to folks like you, when I’m talking to the Congress next week when I testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I get nervous. And I always wonder if I get nervous because my dad is not very good at the computer but what he’s figured out how to do is google John Hyten, and so whatever you guys write, he’s going to read. But there’s an important message in that, is that what you guys write, people read.
So I’m standing in front of 50-100 people here, I don’t know how many people watching on camera, but actually my ability to touch people through this medium is small, but your ability to touch people is huge. So thanks for doing that.
Thanks again, Amy.
The first thing I want to talk about this morning, I think, is the recent United Nations proposal on nuclear disarmament. It’s been in the press a lot the last week. You probably saw Ambassador Haley talk about it as naïve. Gen. Scaparrotti, the commander of European Command, talked about it this week, and he called it unrealistic. Naïve and unrealistic, those are good terms. Those are probably accurate, so I’ll just address it a different way.
One of the questions I get asked sometimes is can I imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and the answer is yes I can imagine a world without, in fact I know what a world without nuclear weapons looks like. Because we had a world without nuclear weapons until 1945, so I ask you to think about your history and think about the six years prior to the deployment of a nuclear weapon.
From 1939 to 1945, in those six years the world in conflict killed somewhere between 60 and 80 million people. If you do the math, that’s about 33,000 people a day, a million people a month are being killed in that conflict for six entire years. And as horrible as the world is today and it is nasty, it is not anywhere near like that. As horrible as the world has been for the last 70 years, and we’ve had challenges. We’ve been through the Cold War, we’ve been through Korea, Vietnam, and we’ve been through Desert Strom, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. We’ve been through all of those pieces, and as horrible as they are, and they are horrible, they don’t even come close to the death and destruction that happened between 1939 and 1945.
So what changed in 1945? Some people will say the world became better at communicating and resolving conflict. I would say, if I look at the world today, we’re not any better at resolving conflict, we’re really not. That’s why we have a military and that’s why our military has been so engaged in the world, really at war almost as long as I’ve been in the Air Force, and that’s pretty frightening. So the world hasn’t figured out how to deal with conflict.
But what nuclear weapons did is they prevented that major power conflict from ever going horrible, they prevented the kind of war and destruction that you saw in World War II. And somehow, the world has stayed that way.
What does it take to build a nuclear weapon? You need a pile of fissile material about this big, and guess what? I could store that in my freezer, refrigerator at home. So how do we get rid of that? It is just physics, it really is. You can look it up on the internet, it’s not that hard.
So a world without nuclear weapons what does that really mean? Does that mean all the major powers get rid of their nuclear weapons? But they’ve maintained all their fissile material so that they can go out and if something really bad happens in the world and somebody like Kim Jong-Un in North Korea decides they’re going to deploy a nuclear weapon, we’ll run out and grab the fissile material and it will be a race to see who can build the bomb back the fastest because you can build it actually pretty rapidly. Is that a world without nuclear weapons? I would say no, that’s just a world where the nuclear weapons are somehow below the surface, and that’s actually a more dangerous world because then it becomes a race to see who can get the nuclear weapon back the fastest, because it’s just physics. It is not complicated.
You ought to go to the national laboratories in the Department of Energy and talk to the folks that actually build our nuclear weapons. Charlie McMillan, the director of Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico, he can stand up and explain to you in five minutes how a nuclear bomb works, and he’ll explain it in language that you’ll understand. You think it’s complicated, but it’s not. It is just science. It’s high explosives and fissile material, that’s what a nuclear bomb is.
So can I imagine a world without nuclear weapons? Yes, I can. And it’s a world I didn’t like. It’s a world that my father-in-law fought in with Patton’s 3rd Army across Europe and he never liked to talk about it until his last days, and then for some reason he wanted to talk about it. And the things he saw and the things he experienced as he went across France into Germany were horrible. Some of the worst things humanity can possibly do to each other and he got to see them, which is why he never wanted to talk about it.
Somehow, nuclear weapons have kept that conflict down in the past, and our job at U.S. Strategic Command is to make sure that we keep that down now and into the future.
So one of the things I’ll ask you as reporters and editors is to think about how you tell that story. Because if you pull up Ngram, the Google tool that kind of looks at trending terms, and you type in nuclear or nuclear deterrence, what you’ll find is it starts on a rise in the ‘60s, very very active in the ‘70s, peaks in the ‘80s, and then starts to disappear, and it’s been on a downward trend ever since then and to this day.
So if you remember, actually some of you are old enough here to remember, some of you have no clue. But if you look at the history books and you think back to the ‘60s, there are a couple of areas of interesting debate that started. The interesting thing about that debate is it did not start in the United States Navy, the United States Air Force, it did not start in the Pentagon. It came out of universities and think tanks.
There was Herman Kahn at the Rand Corporation who wrote a book on thermonuclear war in 1960. He became caricatured as Dr. Strangelove, but he started a debate in our country about the role of nuclear weapons.
Thomas Schelling at Yale and Harvard has written I think some of the most amazing books on the role of nuclear weapons in the world, and he’s written much more since the ‘60s, but created a debate that enlightened Kissinger and enlightened a lot of those people. And because of that, the media was very very active in discussing the role of nuclear weapons in our country, the role of nuclear weapons in the world.
It was a very healthy debate, and it was a debate back and forth. What is the role of nuclear weapons? What is the role of deterrence? How do we create a world where we have peace and the nuclear weapons are a big part of that peace? That debate was healthy, vigorous and was engaged in our media. And today, when do you see nuclear weapons show up in the media? When the United Nations proposes banning a weapon that can’t be banned. When you see a global zero argument that comes out that says, we should get to zero across the world in nuclear weapons, a weapon that can’t be eliminated. That’s the only time you see it show up, and it shows up and it’s a blip on the screen for a few days, and then it disappears again and we’re back into everything.
But is there anything really more important in our military infrastructure than our nuclear arsenal? I don’t think there is. And you’ve heard the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense of this administration, of the previous administration. You’ve heard the President of the United States say that the nuclear capabilities are the bedrock of our national security. And it is, and it is the most dangerous weapons we have in our arsenal.
And since I’ve taken command I’ve walked in and I’ve looked at those weapons. I‘ve gone aboard a nuclear submarine, the USS Tennessee, and I’ve watched them do their job. I’ve been to F.E. Warren, I’ve watched that business. I’ve been to Barksdale and I’ve watched the B-52s. I’ve watched the nuclear mission in every element of the triad, and I can honestly say that we’re as ready as we’ve ever been to execute the mission that we have to do, but it’s essentially important that we maintain that readiness as we look into the future.
That readiness will require modernization. So the other thing you see show up in the media from time to time is a debate about modernization of the nuclear triad. Do we actually need a triad? I can’t imagine a world where somehow we say we can have a deterrent capability without the three legs of the triad. The submarines are the most survivable element of it. The ICBMs are the most ready. The bombers are the most flexible. And when you put those pieces together it gives our nation the ability to withstand any attack and respond if we’re attacked, which means we won’t be attacked.
So one of the things that never really went away but I’ve raised back up in U.S. Strategic Command is the original motto of Strategic Air Command. And if you come into Strategic Command today you’ll see that motto everywhere we go. That motto was coined by Curtis LeMay. Curtis LeMay coined the motto “peace is our profession…” for Strategic Air Command. And for Strategic Command, peace is our profession. That applies to the nuclear enterprise, the global strike enterprise, the space enterprise, the cyber enterprise, the missile defense enterprise and the electronic warfare enterprise. It applies to every element of U.S. Strategic Command. So peace is our profession, but when Curtis LeMay coined that term he always liked to say there was a dot, dot, dot at the end. Peace is our profession... and the dot, dot, dot said we’ll be ready if the world doubts that we’re ready to fight that war.
So I published my vision and intent recently, my vision and intent has gone out to my entire command, all 184,000 people, unclassified. You can pull it up on the web and read it if you want. What I tell my command is, this is what I expect us to do, and if you’re doing what’s in this guide and intent, you have the full authority to execute the mission that you need to. If you’re going to go outside that, you have to come and talk to me.
But there’s only three priorities.
Priority one: Above all else we will maintain a strategic deterrent capability.
Now the strategic deterrent capability I talk about, though, is much different than it was in the last century, and it’s something that we need to talk about as a nation because strategic deterrence in the 21st century is completely different than strategic deterrence in the last century. Strategic deterrence in the last century was really focused just on nuclear weapons, and that’s the bedrock, that’s the starting point of the deterrent argument. It has to be. It has to be the number one priority ̶ is the nuclear deterrent capability.
Brad Robertson in his book, Nuclear Weapons of the 21st Century, talks about nuclear weapons being the queen on the chess board. The most powerful piece on the chess board that stands ready to respond to any threat wherever that threat is, and that’s the nuclear capability of the United States. But you always have to remember that the queen is not invulnerable. You have to protect the queen as well. So we have to protect our nuclear weapons. We have to be ready to employ the nuclear weapons.
But 21st century deterrence also requires space capabilities, cyber capabilities, conventional capabilities, capabilities that integrate to deny an adversary. Because we’re not trying to deter space, which as the former commander of Space Command somehow I get quoted as saying we’re trying to deter space or deter war in space or deter cyberspace, but we’re trying to basically explain what deterrence means across all the domains at the same time.
The interesting piece is there’s no such thing as war in space. There’s no such thing as war in cyberspace. There’s just war, unfortunately. And if you’re in a war and it extends into space, then you have to be able to fight that war.
So how do you deter a war extending into space is you develop a capability that if an adversary decides to attack you in space either the penalty on them for attacking in space will be so severe that they don’t want to do that; or if they try, our capabilities are so significant that they will fail, and it’s a combination of both of those things that build deterrence in space.
But you’re not trying to deter space. You’re trying to deter China or Russia or North Korea or Iran. And if you just think about nuclear weapons and having nuclear weapons as your deterrent capability, then you’re fundamentally missing how to deter an adversary. In fact, if you only have a nuclear capability and that’s all you think about, you actually don’t deter your adversary. In many cases, you watch what North Korea’s doing and North Korea’s building a nuclear capability in response to our nuclear capability because they believe that that will give them standing in the world and threaten the United States of America, South Korea, Japan, that part of the world.
So you have to look at it in its entirety. And oh by the way, that’s just not only STRATCOM’s job, that’s our nation’s job because deterrence in totality is a whole of government requirement. It is our nation’s responsibility. I think back to Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn, and I think back to the world of Kissinger and detente and all of those pieces that came out of that amazing debate, and I look for that debate in our country today and I don’t see that debate, and that concerns me.
So I’m willing to stand up and have a debate on nuclear weapons, on space, on conflict in space, on cyber, with anybody that wants to talk. I’ll be glad to stand up and answer any questions, and I don’t like to do that because I’m an introvert by nature, and if you’re an introvert by nature you don’t like to talk in front of people, so I don’t like to talk in front of people. In fact me and my wife, that’s about my comfort level, but it is so important that we tell this story. And it is so important that the nation embrace what we have to do in this area.
It is so important that we understand that nuclear weapons are going to be here and they’re going to be here for our lifetime, and we have to figure out how to do that.
It is so important that we modernize the triad.
It is so important that we prepare for conflict that extends into space.
It is so important that we have the right authorities in space and cyberspace to respond to a threat in a timely manner.
It is so important that we go fast enough to keep pace with our adversaries who are going unbelievably fast in terms of developing new capabilities.
And we have built a bureaucracy in our country that is very slow to react. We can’t be slow to react to the world that we’re in today.
And one of the best ways to engage the American people is if you engage in a debate and it becomes a public debate, and then the American people demand from their elected leadership, action. The American people are still the most powerful force in this country. And you, as reporters and editors, you that tell the story, have the ability to reach out and touch those American people, more than I do.
I speak in small towns and big towns. I speak in front of large audiences and small audiences. I speak in front of 50 people or a thousand people. But just this place we’re in, Politico now touches orders of magnitude more people than that every day. Each one of you, from the smallest periodical to the largest journal touch more people than I can every day.
So I ask you to help tell that story. And I want you to know that it is an important story.
So one of the things I wanted to do today was make sure I didn’t take all the time just standing up here and talking, but I save time for questions and answers at the end. And I know that Amy is going to moderate those pieces, so right now I’ll end my prepared remarks and I’ll turn it over to questions and answers. So thanks very much for your time and attention.
Moderator: I’m going to take the liberty as moderator to ask the first question.
Representative Smith said last week that the U.S. can’t afford to modernize the triad. You said the opposite today and you’ve said that many times. How do you respond to critics who say you have to make a choice between modernizing the triad or further stressing readiness of the conventional forces?
General Hyten: I’ll just say that, I’ll quote a friend of mine, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force who said just last month, that “Deterrence will always be cheaper than war, and there’s nothing more expensive than losing a war,” so we have to make sure that we balance those equations.
So if you look at the numbers, it’s going to take about 6 percent of our defense budget to modernize our nuclear capabilities. Our nuclear capabilities today are 3.5 percent of our defense budget. So we have to increase it somewhere between 2.5 and 3 percent in the nuclear modernization case. That leaves 94 percent of our defense budget to do the other things that we have to do.
When you think about the survival of our nation, and I think that’s the most important reason we have a military, the most important reason we have a military is to defend this nation. That’s the oath that I take every time that I raise my hand, and I’ve raised my hand many times over the years. I swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That’s what I do, and the backstop of all of that is our nuclear enterprise.
And if you look at what it costs to do that, how can we not spend that money? How can we take a risk of allowing an adversary to think that because we’re now weak in the nuclear enterprise that we can be attacked?
And if you look at what the world has done the last 20 years, since we’ve started de-emphasizing nuclear weapons in our arsenal, just take a look across the entire spectrum of what’s happened the last 20 years. That covers Republican administrations, Democratic administrations, Republican congresses, Democratic congresses. It covers different leadership in the military. But for the last 20 years we went through a period where we de-emphasized nuclear weapons, so did our adversaries de-emphasize? No. Russia completely modernized their entire nuclear force and expanded it, and now it just deployed a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty into Russia. China has completely modernized and built that, North Korea has gone from zero to a nuclear capability in that timeframe. Iran has built ballistic missiles from nothing, they didn’t have it before.
So as we started de-emphasizing nuclear weapons, what did the rest of the world do? The rest of the world did exactly the opposite. So if we’re de-emphasizing nuclear weapons, we’re putting the country at jeopardy, and we can never allow that to happen.
So the number is a big number. I’ve seen the numbers. I can show you 10 estimates, and I hate the fact that estimates show up in the paper. I can show you an estimate that’s $300 million over 10 years; or $300 billion over 10 years. I can show you an estimate that’s a trillion dollars over 30years. I don’t know if any of those numbers are right.
But if you bought a house and you did an estimate about what you thought it would be to build a house, would the first thing you do go tell the builder hey, this is my estimate. Now let’s start negotiating. That’s just a crazy way to build things.
We should be able to build it at an affordable price. We should be able to afford 6 percent of the defense budget to do that, when it’s the most critical thing that we do in the military.
Moderator: How do you do that in the era of budget instability that we have right now? It’s looking like we’ll have another continuing resolution. So that’s kind of becoming more and more the norm.
General Hyten: Let’s take a look at the entire nuclear enterprise, and when I took command in November I laid the nuclear enterprise modernization plans out across the table in my office, and I looked at the bombers, the ICBMs, the submarines, the weapons, the nuclear command and control. I put them all on the table, and we actually have a plan, and it’s in the budget, and they’re all budgeted today to deliver. And they all deliver in about 15 years, just in time to replace the systems that are dying, every one of them. And if you’ve been in this business for very long and you look at that you say I already have a broken program, I just don’t know where it is.
So how can we say that we can’t modernize? Which piece do you not want to modernize? Do you want to not modernize the ICBMs? Let the ICBMs die? So now we’re one failure of the submarine force. One technical failure away, one intelligence failure away from losing our ability to respond to a nuclear attack. Because the bombers aren’t on alert today.
If you want to take the bombers away from the force and make them conventional only. If you do that, then the bombers are the only element that the President of the United States can employ and recall once he’s employed them.
Do you want to take the submarines away? The most survivable element, the one that nobody knows where they are today. Do you want to take that piece out?
How do you not do that? And if you look at the overall cost, it is a cost that the country can afford, the country has afforded in the past, and the country will have to afford in the future. I don’t think it’s a choice.
Audience: Brian Bender with Politico.
You mentioned Russia modernizing, you mentioned China modernizing over the last couple of decades. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about this concern about an arms race. In other words, I think former Secretary of Defense William Perry has talked about this, and he worries that while it is naïve to think you can get rid of nuclear weapons, as we go into this modernization, as we see other countries getting more and more advanced, how do we prevent going back to the bad old days of the Cold War where it’s how many missiles do they have? We need to have just as many and get into this cycle where we’re seeing another buildup and possibly the chance of a miscalculation, something akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis. How much do you think about that?
General Hyten: One of the reasons that I have stated since actually before my confirmation hearing, during my confirmation hearing, in the recent testimony I had in front of the Armed Services Committee, that I am a big supporter of the New START Treaty, the New START levels, is that provides a limit. I publicly said that we don’t need to expand our nuclear forces. We need to modernize our nuclear forces to make sure that they’re safe, secure, reliable and ready for the next 100 years. We have to go down that path.
But I believe that there’s a role for arms control in this discussion, and the role of arms control is to keep the numbers in a reasonable place. But the arms control treaties have to be I think bilateral at first, but they have to be verifiable as well. I believe New START is both of those things. That’s why I support that structure.
I think if you take those pieces away from our nation, then you run a risk of not knowing exactly how much you have to have in order to deter the adversary. And what it really turned into in the early days when we didn’t have any arms control agreements is you never knew how much was enough. We understand how much is enough now. 1,550 deployed warheads are enough to deter Russia; and their 1,550 are enough to deter us. I think that’s a good way to look at it. That’s why I’ve said that for a long time now, I’ll continue to say that. But I also point out that that’s not my job. My job is to make sure that the forces underneath that are always ready, and we are today. We just have to make sure we’re ready tomorrow and into the future as well.
Audience: Conventional prompt global strike. I think one of the issues that isn’t talked about enough is the fact that the U.S. seems a lot less willing than other nations to use nuclear weapons. So what role does conventional prompt strike play in your portfolio? And how do you do that without indications and warning systems?
General Hyten: We have a conventional prompt global strike capability today. The key term in there is prompt. So just a month ago we deployed B-2 bombers out of Whiteman carrying conventional Joint Direct Attack Munitions to attack terrorist targets in Libya. Eight-four targets destroyed; eighty-four separate bombs employed; and the bombers took off from Whiteman and landed in Whiteman. That’s a global strike capability.
But if you look at the airborne layer of that, in order to employ that it’s a 24 to 72 hour process to plan, fly, deliver. It’s an amazing capability, and to me in the world today that also provides the President a fairly prompt; but is that fast enough in all scenarios? And my belief is it’s not. I think we need to have a capability that is more prompt than the 24 to 72 hour cycle, and that’s why I continue to advocate for the development of the conventional prompt strike capability.
I also believe that a sea-based version of that is the most effective because the sea-based version is less threatening than a ballistic missile coming out of the United States. Because a ballistic missile coming out of the United States is very hard to explain to somebody that’s looking at that on a radar, whether that’s nuclear or conventional.
There’s ways to do that, because we can make a phone call and tell people exactly what it is before it happens. But I think the President, in all scenarios, conventional and nuclear, needs options and I think we should have more options than just the global strike capabilities of our bombers or the nuclear capabilities. So I think the President should have more options to consider.
Audience: General, following up on that. When the Navy deployed the guided missile submarine, we got into that debate as to whether our adversaries could detect the difference between if we launched a TLAM or something like that compared to, if that was conventional rather than a nuke. There still is that concern. And if you launch it from a submarine, somebody’s going to think it’s an SLBM, not a TLAM. So how do we get away from that concern?
General Hyten: I believe that we don’t need to use the submarines. I believe we can use surface ships. Surface ships fundamentally change the equation. And oh, by the way, we have conventional cruise missiles on surface ships today. I believe that the surface Navy provides the effective way to do that and it provides flexibility because you can put the Navy, it is the global Navy. We can put the ships where we need to in times of crisis. I believe that we can do that where we don’t create the ambiguity that is the problem of the nuclear submarine force. A nuclear submarine force, by definition, nobody knows where they are exactly. Even I don’t know exactly where they are. I can, in a different room I could tell you approximately where they are, but exactly? Nope. And there’s a reason for that. But that means that our adversaries don’t know where they are either, which is the point. So I don’t want to change that element of the deterrent equation on the nuclear side. But I believe the surface Navy provides options and that’s what I’m advocating for.
Audience: Sir, thanks for doing this.
We ought to have this discussion. I’m not hearing it, though, in the world as a whole.
Can I just sort of shift you a little bit? I’m hearing a lot about transnational, transregional, multi-domain warfare. And somehow that’s a different strategy. In the Strategic Command, how does that shape how you look at the world?
General Hyten: I’ll ask you to read my Commander’s Vision and Intent, but I’ll give you a hint at something that’s in there. Look at the mission of Strategic Command and then look at the vision.
The mission of Strategic Command today is to execute our missions, and we’re unbelievably good at each of those missions, space, cyber, global strike, nuclear, electronic warfare, intelligence, and missile defense. Those seven missions, we’re really good at them, but we’re good at them in their own stovepipe.
So the vision that I have for Strategic Command is that in the future we’ll be able to provide integrated global capabilities in support of other geographic combatant commanders to effectively fight as one team, one USSTRATCOM team, providing the capabilities that we have across the world.
So the challenge we have is how do we integrate those multi-domain, multi-function, and transregional capabilities? And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, he is absolutely of the belief that that will be the challenge of the United States, but the power of the United States in the future. Because when we figure that out, that will give us a fundamental asymmetric advantage over our adversaries.
And there is a huge relation to the strategic deterrent discussion that we just had a while ago, because still when we talk about strategic deterrence, we talk about deterrence in general today, we only talk about it in stovepipes. We only talk about the nuclear deterrent or the deterrent capability we have in space or the deterrent capability we have in cyber. We don’t think about it from a global perspective. The global perspective of how do we deter our adversaries? How do we deter Russia? How do we deter China? How do we deter those capabilities? How do we build the relationships but have the backstop of the powerful capability across all the functions, all the domains to make sure that nobody can fight it?
So the challenge is, how do we command and control all those things better? And what we’ve built over the years is a command and control system that actually command and controls the stovepipes. It doesn’t command and control the enterprise.
So as we move forward in the future, I think one of the next fundamental changes in warfare will be, the Chairman called it global integration. The Air Force calls it multi-domain command and control. But when we figure that out, that will be a huge advantage for the United States and provide a significant deterrent to any adversary that would want to challenge us in any of those domains.
Audience: Sir, the Special Operations Command does something like that. Is that something that you study?
General Hyten: I’ll tell you an interesting dynamic about that. If you look at the Unified Command Plan, there’s geographic combatant commands and then there’s three functional combatant commands. Think about that term, functional combatant command. I just described the United States Strategic Command to all of you. Somehow, we’re looked at as a functional combatant command, providing functions to the joint force. Special Operations Command is looked at as a functional combatant command providing function to the joint force. What we are is we’re global warfighting commands that provide global warfighting things that integrate those kind of capabilities. And it’s important for the joint force to understand that what we provide is global capabilities that have to be integrated in geographic combatant commands. I think that is the fundamental change that’s happening, but not everybody yet fully understands the importance of making that transition. The Chairman understands that. I believe the Secretary of Defense understands that, and we’re going to go down that path because the other nine combatant commanders also understand that. We’re going to go down that path and we’re going to figure out how to do that because we can. It’s something this nation can do. We’ll just have to figure it out.
Audience: Sir, recently before Congress, you rejected the distinction between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and the context was the Russian doctrine escalate to de-escalate.
I wonder if you can explain more your reasoning behind rejecting that distinction and what we should do in response to that threat if we see it as strategic rather than tactical.
General Hyten: I guess that’s a multi-pronged question so I’ll give you a multi-pronged answer.
The first thing is that I don’t think the Russian doctrine is escalate to de-escalate. To me, the Russian doctrine is to escalate to win. So the purpose of their escalation is to win the conflict because they believe we won’t respond. Therefore, that decision that they would consider is not a tactical decision that is a strategic decision. Therefore, I don’t think there’s any nuclear weapon that can be employed in the world that doesn’t have a strategic effect. I think it’s somewhat foolish to consider deployment of a nuclear weapon, which there have only been two in anger in the history of mankind, and somehow the third deployment of a nuclear weapon would be tactical. I just think that that’s a little bit silly.
I think that a nuclear weapon is going to be strategic in its effect, and if I look at the Russian doctrine I also see it’s strategic in their decision calculus. So I want the rest of the world to understand the commander of Strategic Command, which is only one element of our national response structure, but the commander of Strategic Command, if I see a nuclear weapon deployed I will consider that a strategic action, and my recommendation to the President of the United States will be along those lines. Mr. President, we’ve just had a strategic attack on X, Y or Z, and then we’ll see what the President wants to do, but that’s how I look at it.
Audience: General, one of your subordinates commands, Air Force Space Command. There was an airman from Air Force Space Command killed in Syria within the last 48 hours. Can you explain to us what an airman from Space Command is doing in Syria?
General Hyten: I can’t tell you exactly what he was doing in Syria, but I can tell you generally. It’s one of the interesting things that’s very misunderstood in our country. If you’re conducting a military operation anywhere in the world, anywhere in the world, space is fundamental to the execution of that military operation.
I was the Director of Space Forces in 2006 in Central Command, and when I was Director of Space Forces, at that time, guess where I was? I was in Iraq, Afghanistan, all up through the Middle East. I was in Fallujah, Ramadi, Balad, Bagram and Kandahar. Just pick it. So why was I as the Director of Space Forces there? Because there were fundamentally things going on that required space support and space capability in those areas. There were Marines in Fallujah and there was a Joint Space Support Team in Fallujah run by a Marine lieutenant colonel with an Air Force captain and a bunch of soldiers whose job was to bring space capabilities at the time and tempo of the battle to the Marines in Fallujah.
So I can’t tell you what the airman specifically was doing in Syria, but anywhere we have military operations, you will find space people deployed in the Army divisions, in the Army BCTs [brigade combat teams], in any ground maneuver unit, you’ll find space people deployed. And that young 25-year-old airman was doing his job, and in the overall scheme of things, a lot of people say well, it’s a really small piece. But I can’t tell you how important the effects he was creating on the battlefield are, to everybody that’s there. And it’s tragic that we lost that young man, in kind of a strange way for a 25-year-old. But nonetheless, space is embedded in everything that we do. So any place you have American military people, you’re going to have space people.
Audience: John Donnelly, Congressional Quarterly Roll Call.
The Defense Science Board, among others, has advocated development of new options for maneuvering lower yield nuclear warheads instead of just air delivered, talking basically about ICBM, SLBM. The thinking, I think, is that given the Russian escalate to win, if you like, or escalate to de-escalate doctrine, the United States needs to have more options.
What do you think about, that is my question. Especially in light of the fact that there are those who are concerned that this further institutionalizes the idea that you can fight and maybe even win a limited nuclear war.
General Hyten: Thanks for the question, and congratulations on being elected president of this organization. So good luck in the next few years.
But we’re going to look at that in the Nuclear Posture Review over the next six months. I think it’s a valid question to ask, but I’ll just tell you what I’ve said in public up until this point, and as we go into the Nuclear Posture Review. Any time we have a Nuclear Posture Review, and especially under a new administration, the new administration gets to kind of open the aperture, look at the entire force structure, and when we do a Nuclear Posture Review say this is what we need, this is what we don’t need and those kinds of things.
So I’ll have my blinders off. But in the past and where I am right now is that I’ll just say that the plans that we have right now, one of the things that surprised me most when I took command on November 3 was the flexible options that are in all the plans today. So we actually have very flexible options in our plans. So if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the Secretary of Defense and the President and the entire staff, which is the Attorney General, Secretary of State and everybody, I actually have a series of very flexible options from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke that I can advise the President on to give him options on what he would want to do.
So I’m very comfortable today with the flexibility of our response options. Whether the President of the United States and his team believes that that gives him enough flexibility is his call. So we’ll look at that in the Nuclear Posture Review. But I’ve said publicly in the past that our plans now are very flexible.
And the reason I was surprised when I got to STRATCOM about the flexibility, is because the last time I executed or was involved in the execution of the nuclear plan was about 20 years ago and there was no flexibility in the plan. It was big, it was huge, it was massively destructive, and that’s all there. We now have conventional responses all the way up to the nuclear responses, and I think that’s a very healthy thing.
So I’m comfortable with where we are today, but we’ll look at it in the Nuclear Posture Review again.
Audience: Just to clarify, what’s changed exactly in 20 years? The nuclear weapons are pretty much the same.
General Hyten: Nuclear weapons are the same.
Audience: It sounds like you’re saying the conventional capabilities have now gotten so much better. Do you have more options on the high conventional end?
General Hyten: You do. If you just look at it, and I should have seen it, but just because I wasn’t deeply immersed in the nuclear business I didn’t see it. But I’ve been involved on the conventional side for the last 20 years, and if you think about the improvement of our conventional capability over the last 20 years, they’re enormous. Our conventional capabilities are mind-boggling, and a lot of that was because of the integration of space and precision strike and a lot of those capabilities that fundamentally changed warfare. But they improved our conventional capabilities significantly.
So we have some very significant conventional things that we can do to an adversary that is a very powerful effective response that could I think fundamentally change the equation.
Again, the President of the United States, he gets a vote. He is the President. He’s the Commander-in-Chief. So we’ll take a six month look at the Nuclear Posture Review and we’ll understand exactly where we are.
But the one thing that I’ll be adamant in the Nuclear Posture Review is that we need a triad. We need an effective triad. We need all the capabilities of that triad. That is what I’ll advocate for the most during the Nuclear Posture Review.
Audience: You mentioned in your opening remarks the critical need to have this debate, the nuclear debate. Is the Nuclear Posture Review the format to do that? Or, and if not, how and where does that start?
General Hyten: The Nuclear Posture Review is not the place to have that debate because the Nuclear Posture Review will be inside the government with civilians and military alike, but people that have been involved in that for a long time.
I believe where the debate has to start is in the academic community, in the federally funded research and development corporations, in the think tanks in this town and across the country, because I think that’s where you get different ideas. I’m coming on 36 years in the military. I like to think that I’m a flexible thinker. I like to think that I’m innovative in how I think about things, but I’ve been wearing this uniform for 36 years. Therefore, the ideas that I come up with are based on 36 years in uniform. The idea that somebody at Stanford or Harvard or Nebraska Lincoln or RAND or MITRE come up with are based on a fundamentally different view of the world. That’s the, what I hope we start in that debate.
So what we’ve done at STRATCOM is we’ve reached out and formed what we call an Academic Alliance, and the Academic Alliance has 35 members -- universities, think tanks, FFRDCs [Federally Funded Research and Development Centers] who get together from time to time. In the summer at a Deterrence Symposium in Omaha, but also at various times around the country we go out and speak in those circles. And there’s something very interesting going on, and the something very interesting going on is that there’s almost two generations now of nuclear thought. One is the thinkers that have been thinking about nuclear weapons since Schelling in the 1960s and then there’s this new group that’s under the age of 40 that have a different life experience and they’re starting to think and write, and I’ve seen some really interesting things come out of that.
So I want that part of our country to start engaging in this debate again.
Audience: Is that Alliance going to establish a report or make recommendations?
General Hyten: You’ll see reports. You can look at the Strategic Studies Quarterly from last June, and you’ll see articles written by members that were there. It’s a book about, I don’t know, half an inch thick with a number of significant papers, very good papers, very thoughtful.
And the other interesting thing that you should know about them is that I don’t agree with everything that’s in the book. It’s a STRATCOM-sponsored symposium, but I don’t agree with everything that was written.
But we’re going to publish those and put those out for people to respond to because I think a debate, by definition, is between two sides of an argument. It’s not one side of an argument, just getting together and talking about the same thing over and over again. In many cases in nuclear weapons, it’s the same people getting together time and time, talking about the same thing. Broadening that to a broader audience is hugely important.
Moderator: Sir, thank you very much, and I really appreciate you taking time to come out and talk to us.
General Hyten: Thank you guys for your time as well. Thanks very much. I appreciate it.