HOWELL: Good evening and welcome again to the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum and to the Institute of Politics. The Institute of Politics [IOP] is a living memorial to President Kennedy with the mission of engaging and inspiring young people to politics and public service. Tonight, the Institute is fortunate to be joined by our esteemed guest, General John Hyten, and our moderator and IOP resident fellow John Noonan.
Since September, John has been conducting a weekly study group on the intersection of national security and politics – and much to our dismay, John will soon return to Washington, D.C. where he serves as the Senior Counselor for Military and Defense Affairs to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. John is a former Air Force officer who has served as a national security and defense advisor to the presidential campaigns of both Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
We warmly welcome General Hyten back to Harvard where he studied engineering and applied sciences as an undergraduate. He was a resident of Winthrop House. General Hyten is currently serving as the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, one of 10 unified commands under the DOD, which is responsible for the global command and control of U.S. Strategic Forces to meet national security goals. Please join me in welcoming IOP resident fellow John Noonan and four star general John Hyten.
NOONAN: Well, general, thank you so much for being here; we’re all honored – you have a great turnout. So I think maybe we’ll just jump right into it. Maybe we’ll keep this at the 100-level since we can get very deep into the subject of nuclear strategy as the discussion goes on. Basic question – why do we have a nuclear deterrent?
General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM): So it’s actually a pretty simple question. The first time I met Secretary Mattis as Secretary Mattis – I met him as General Mattis before, but the first time I met him as Secretary Mattis was set up as an hour just-get-to-know-you meeting, and about 30 minutes into it I realized it was – felt more like an interview than it was a get-to-know-you because I’d been the STRATCOM commander for a few months before I met the Secretary.
And so he asked me all the 400-level questions first, and then right in the middle of the conversation he looked at me and he said, "I just want a simple answer to a simple question: Why do we have nuclear weapons?" And he said, “I want it plain English – no acronyms, no anything.” And so I said, “We have nuclear weapons so other people don’t use nuclear weapons on us.”
That’s why we have nuclear weapons. And it’s really that simple. Now the execution of that is very complicated; it gets into 400-level discussions very rapidly, but the primary reason is that other nations have nuclear weapons, and they have nuclear weapons to challenge the United States, and in order to deter them from using those nuclear weapons, we have to have them and we have to have a ready force able to use them and our adversaries have to know that. If they know that, they’ll never step across that line because they know it won’t turn out well.
NOONAN: So we’re in kind of a unique period right now. We’ve had about 25 years of nuclear drawdown. I get the sense from both the congressional standpoint and the administration standpoint is that we may be in dangerous enough times that we need to hit the pause button and maybe not just reinvest in our nuclear inventory, but we may need to grow it. Obviously, that’s bound by certain treaties; that’s another discussion. But what’s the right number of nuclear weapons? What’s the right number to deter, and what’s the right amount to spend on our strategic force?
HYTEN: That’s not a scientific question; that’s not a math question; that’s an art question. It’s the art of deterrence. The art of deterrence is when the adversaries look at you, do they believe that they can, on the worst day that you can imagine, take a step across that line and be successful in deploying a nuclear capability against the United States? That’s a scary day to think about. But if they look at you and say, “Nope, I can’t because whatever I do, the United States will be able to respond,” and they won’t cross that line.
So what’s the number? Right now, that number is 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons. That’s the number that’s in the New START Treaty. It’s actually more weapons than that because the bombers in the treaty are counted as one even though they can carry more than one nuclear weapon. But that’s the number that’s in the treaty. That’s actually a good number to start from, because the Russians have 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons in the new START Treaty and because of that, it creates a certain element of strategic stability. And in the nuclear business, strategic stability is actually good because you don’t want to fight a nuclear war, and if each side understands that they have ready, available forces, they won’t cross that line. That’s where we’re trying to get.
The 1,550 also makes sure we have enough to counter any other adversary. China has been very aggressively building a nuclear force. Korea obviously has been building a nuclear force. We have the ability to respond to them and still respond to Russia with the 1,550 deployed weapons – and we have them in three different domains: The bombers in the air, the ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] under the ground, and the submarines under the sea. They provide that capability together. And because we operate and practice every day, our adversaries know that and they haven’t crossed the line.
NOONAN: So we’re coming up on a pretty critical period for the START Treaty, the New START Treaty – Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – which you mentioned limits both the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear inventory. As Russia announces new nuclear delivery systems that may exist outside the traditional understanding of the triad, which as you said, submarines, bombers, long range missiles – Russia’s talking about technologies like long range underwater drones that carry nuclear missiles or nuclear-powered cruise missiles that can – that can travel outside of our radar coverage for extremely long ranges. How do you negotiate or renegotiate or renew the treaty, frankly, is probably a better way of saying it, with all these new options potentially out there?
HYTEN: So that’s a question for a diplomat, not a military officer. But, I’ll give you my military advice that I give to my State Department colleagues and I give in the White House – but this is just my military advice. My military advice is that I like arms control treaties that limit nuclear weapons. I think those are good things for our country and good things for the world.
I think when you negotiate with somebody and they have nuclear capabilities, everything should be on the table. Everything that we have should be on the table, everything that they have should be on the table. That’s the best way to negotiate from. Now does that sound radical or rational to anybody? Somehow we have elements that think that that’s a crazy thing. I think that’s where we need to be. So that means if we sit down with the Russians and they have a significant number of low-yield nuclear weapons, all of those need to be part of the discussions. But what I want is a stability regime.
The other thing I get from the New START Treaty that I think a lot of people don’t realize is the New START Treaty has a verification regime with it. That verification regime allows the United States to see the Russian strategic nuclear capabilities up close; it also allows the Russians to see the United States’ strategic nuclear capabilities up close. I don’t mind showing our capabilities to the Russians; I don’t know what they think about us showing up, but I don’t care.
It helps me to understand exactly what their capabilities are when I can see them and when I can send experts over to look at them and make sure I understand what that is. That’s how we prevent surprises. And you want to prevent surprises – so arms control is a good thing, but my basic advice is I like it; I want everything on the table; now it’s up to the diplomats and the administration to decide, in the overall context of everything else that is going on, is that in the best interest of the United States? But from a STRATCOM commander’s position, that’s why I like those kinds of treaties.
NOONAN: The President just announced his intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Agreement. I’ll try to keep this question more from a military planner standpoint taking your good point that you’re not a diplomat. Why is the Russian violations of the INF Treaty a problem from a military planning standpoint? And I think perhaps more controversially, why does the U.S. need – I don’t want to say new tactical nuclear weapons because it’s actually a very old capability, as you know – but new matching capability in that range?
HYTEN: So there’s multiple reasons and you’ll have to ask the President for his own personal thoughts, but from a STRATCOM perspective, here’s what I see when I see the INF Treaty: I see a treaty that I desperately want the Russians to be inside of – and they’re not, and they haven’t been for a number of years. They have deployed capabilities that violate that treaty. That’s not good.
The United States has stayed in that treaty through the entire time of the Russian violations; we’ve stayed in that treaty and worked through diplomatic channels to try to pull them back into that treaty because that’s – again, like I said before, that’s where I want them to be, but they chose not to go there.
So the President said, “We can’t be the only nation in the world that’s abiding by that treaty and still be able to defend ourselves.” Because China is also not part of that treaty and they’re building a significant number of capabilities that can challenge us in the Pacific with weapons that we’re limited from building because we’re a party to that treaty.
Now there are other ways to deliver the capabilities that we need in the Pacific and we’re working on those, but the bottom line is we had a treaty and we’re the only person abiding by that and at some point in time, the United States has to say, “That’s enough,” and the President a few weeks ago said, “That’s enough,” and now it’s our job to figure out how to deal with the situation.
There’re all kinds of elements of that treaty about how you come out of that treaty. You’d have to talk to the State Department about the wheres and wherefores of how you work those kinds of pieces. So, there’s still a lot of work to go on in that yet, but as a military leader of STRATCOM, I have to be one of the combatant commanders that now has to figure out how to deal with a world that wouldn’t have the INF Treaty.
NOONAN: Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Gerasimov, has written and spoken about a policy or a strategy, “to escalate to deescalate.” I don’t want to tangle this up too much, but essentially means they could escalate with a tactical nuclear weapon and then say, “Let’s pump the brakes and talk.” Why has that concerned U.S. military planners besides the obvious reason and what’s the responsible response to that?
HYTEN: Well, the real interesting thing about that is it’s not just General Gerasimov. Vladimir Putin announced that doctrine one month after he was elected the first time. That’s - he announced it in April of 2000. He was elected in March of 2000. He announced that doctrine in April of 2000 and he also announced that he was going to increase the investment in nuclear weapons by 50 percent, and he’s then increased that investment multiple times over the years.
Why is he doing that? Is he doing that because he’s worried about something inside Russia? No – he’s doing that because he’s concerned about the United States – because he watched us; he watched us through the 1990s from Desert Shield to Desert Storm to Allied Force and he watched the amazing conventional force that we’ve built that can dominate any conventional battlefield and still can today. And he said, “We have a challenge and we’ll reserve the right to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield if we have to and we need to go build those.”
And then in 2006, he said, “We’re gonna modernize the entire nuclear arsenal and we’ll have that done by 2020.” Now I won’t tell you, because it’s classified, exactly where he is on that, but they’re working toward that and we’re just now beginning the modernization of our nuclear program. So our nuclear capabilities are safe, secure, ready on arrival today and they will be for the entire time I’m the commander.
I have no concerns about my ability to execute the mission I’m given, but I worry about the commander after the commander after me. Will they still be able to do that? So we’re gonna have to invest as a nation in these capabilities, and it’s expensive. But the commission to review the national defense strategy just reported out today – and I didn’t get the chance to read the whole document, but I saw that they did the analysis and quoted the numbers. At the highest investment required, it’ll be 6.4 percent of the defense budget. I think we can afford that.
NOONAN: So I certainly remember pulling shifts in a 40-year-old missile silo – or alert facility is the more accurate term.
HYTEN: They’re a little older now.
NOONAN: That’s right – yeah – and breathing that old recycled air.
NOONAN: You know, one of the common critiques you hear is that we can either make do with the systems that we have in place – God knows the B-52 bomber, the backbone of our bomber fleet, has been around long enough and will continue to be around for quite a while and ranking member Adam Smith, who is I believe the heir apparent to the House Armed Services Committee chairmanship, has staked out going after nuclear modernization as a key cost saving initiative. Why can’t we either get rid of a leg of the triad or just, you know, pump the brakes on that modernization effort and maybe put the money elsewhere?
HYTEN: So I’m the commander of STRATCOM; my job is to give military advice to the President and, when asked by the Congress, to give military advice to them. So when Congressman Smith asked me – and he has – I’ll tell him next year the same thing I told him last year and the year before is that as the STRATCOM commander, my advice is that we need to have a force that can respond to any threat that is in the world today.
In order to do that, I have to have a triad because the Russians have a very significant triad that is poised against us each and every day and if I don’t have that, I can’t guarantee that the United States will have the ability to respond – which means I can’t guarantee the security of this country. Therefore, we need all three legs of the triad.
And I also say that there’re savings available in the nuclear force. You want to know how to get those savings? Sit down with the Russians and say, “You know, 1,550 is actually, you know, not the right number. Maybe it’s 1,400.” There’s a certain minimum number that we need to handle all of the threats that we have in the world, and I won’t go into what that is, but we have analysis that we can give the diplomats to help them negotiate.
But if you want to save money, change the threat. Don’t change our level of security in this country – change the threat. If you change the threat, then I’ll be glad to give you a different piece of advice on how to save or how to secure this nation. It’s – to me, it’s really that simple.
NOONAN: So you mentioned the report on the President’s new National Defense Strategy, which for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it identified Russia and China as the main existential threats to the United States, which was I think something everyone understood, but it was a shift in focus in the Defense Department and the Interagency.
Brass tacks – do you think a country like Russia or a country like China, if not restrained by a U.S. and maybe a British and a French nuclear deterrent – would they use these weapons in combat? And I take the point that you’re not a mind reader.
HYTEN: So, I’m not a mind reader, but I have to look at the way the world is, not the way the world I wish was – that’s probably not English, but hopefully you understood what I said. And the way the world is, we have weapons that can destroy this nation and we have adversaries that have spent enormous amounts of their gross national product – way more than we have – to build those weapons. And I can’t assume that they’re building those weapons just because they think they’re cool or it gives them some kind of status in the world or – I have to assume they’re building those weapons to challenge the United States of America and threaten the United States of America, and so therefore I have to have forces ready to respond to the threat that is deployed against us – and it is deployed against us every day.
So that’s what we do. That’s what we do at STRATCOM every day to make sure that we’re ready. That’s the way the world is. You know, I – if you’re interested in nuclear deterrence and thought, I would recommend that you go listen to President Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009. If you’ve never pulled that up on the Internet, you should pull it up and listen to it because it describes the world we wish existed and the world that I think multiple presidents for years have hoped would exist and our national policy has deemphasized the role of nuclear weapons in our security since the Cold War ended in the early ‘90s – we’ve deemphasized the role of nuclear weapons.
But that’s not the way the world turned out and President Obama saw that. He had to start the modernization program. The new nuclear posture President Trump put out emphasizes it more and says we need to accelerate those issues to get after it, but President Obama looked at it and said, “Man, the world did not go the way we hoped it would," and therefore we have to secure this country. And every president, democrat or republican, takes an oath as President of the United States and as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and every President I’ve worked with closely takes that unbelievably seriously, and even though he didn’t want to go that direction, he had to go that direction to make sure we could secure this country. So it’s not a democrat issue, it’s not a republican issue – it’s an American issue and Secretary Mattis likes to say, "America can afford survival,” and that’s what it’s about.
NOONAN: So on the – I don’t want to belabor the point of treaties, but I think it’s fair to say we’re in a somewhat unique time. From a military planning perspective, we have this constellation of Cold War era agreements; we talked about START, we talked about INF – there’s also Open Skies Treaty out there; there’s also Conventional Forces in Europe. Is there a future, taking your point that you like, from a military planning perspective, arms control treaties, is there a future for bilateral arms control agreements in a multipolar world?
HYTEN: I think there is. Again, get Andrea Thompson or Secretary Pompeo or somebody to answer that question in detail, but the reason I think there is, is because just looking at it from a military partnership perspective, bilateral agreements are a whole lot easier than trilateral, a whole lot easier than multilateral.
When you sit down with another nation, it’s real easy to figure out their – what’s in their interest and what’s in your interest and it doesn’t take long to figure out where you have common interests. You add a third party to the table, it gets really complicated. You add multi parties around the table, it gets really complicated.
So I think the starting point is with bilateral discussions and then you expand it into other areas. That’s the way I’ve tried to work it in military partnerships. I think it works pretty well, but you’d have to ask the State Department how they look at moving in that area.
NOONAN: Sure. Let me just switch gears for just a minute to space where you have a long professional and academic expertise. I read your 2004 paper when you were a colonel about weaponization of space and what that means and I found, I think, the most interesting element of your argument from a moral perspective, and one of the anecdotes that you used, or historical lessons, was an American farmer found that it would be very useful to put caterpillar tracks on farm equipment; 10 years later, the British and French ended up using that in World War I and actually helped end the war using that technology, putting it on tanks.
And you draw some very interesting parallels to space in that paper. Obviously, it’s been 15 years since you’ve written it; some things have changed since then. But I think the fundamental moral question still exists, which is, “Is weaponizing space inevitable or is space already weaponized and what’s the future?”
HYTEN: So some of the fellows that I spoke to earlier in the room – where are the fellows? Raise your hand real quick. See what I was talking about when I said, “Be careful what you write as a colonel – it will come back multiple times, and you’d better remember what you wrote because somebody’s gonna ask you about it 15 years later?” Son of a gun – here we go.
So when you – when you look at that example, it’s already there. We haven’t put weapons or built weapons that operate in space, or deployed weapons. I was on a program back in 1985 when it was us and the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union had a co-orbital anti-satellite program and we had an F-15 anti-satellite program and we shot down a satellite in 1985 and we created a field of debris; fortunately, it was in low earth orbit and it all reentered in about a decade.
The Chinese did the same thing in 2007; they did it at a higher orbit – that stuff’s gonna be up there for a hundred years plus. I realized two things: Number one, space is already weaponized because what’s a weapon in space? So let me ask you this: So what kind of car did you drive here tonight?
NOONAN: Well, my car’s in Washington, D.C., but we’ll – for academic purposes, we’ll say an Audi.
HYTEN: Okay, so it’s an Audi – nice car. Really nice car – so I gotta think about that for a second. Okay. So you’re driving an Audi; do you consider that a weapon?
NOONAN: Well, in the wrong hands, sure.
HYTEN: In the wrong hands? Sure. So you’re gonna outlaw Audis from the roads of America to keep America safe?
NOONAN: I certainly hope not.
HYTEN: I certainly hope not – because you like driving that Audi, don’t you?
NOONAN: I do.
HYTEN: I do – I like driving my truck. Our truck – sorry, Laura. But it’s – but if you put that in the wrong hands and somebody takes it, turns it into a group of people and destroys and kills people, you’ve just now made that Audi a weapon. What does it take to destroy something in space? It takes a satellite with a sensor and maneuver capability. I just described 90 percent of our on-orbit constellation. I just described 90 percent of the Russian’s on-orbit constellation and 90 percent of the Chinese – so is that a weapon? Nope.
We use it – it’s a surveillance satellite; it’s a space surveillance satellite; it’s a missile warning satellite; it’s a GPS satellite. It’s not a weapon, but if I take it and I drive it into somebody next to me and I destroy that object, I just made it a weapon. So, did I weaponize space by deploying a surveillance satellite? No, I weaponized it by the actions I took.
Now I can build a satellite for specific purposes, but how do I discriminate between what’s a weapon and what’s not a weapon? So it’s already there. It is a military domain. It is a warfighting domain today that we conduct military operations from and our adversaries know that and they are building weapons today to deny us that capability and they’ve already built those weapons, deployed them, and announced it to the world.
The Chinese have done it and the Russians have done it. So they’ve already said, “We have weapons.” They’ve announced it. Why do we think that it’s not weaponized? It is; therefore, just like every other domain, that’s a warfighting domain – we have to figure out how to defend ourselves. And oh, by the way, there’s a deterrence element there, too. We want to deter conflict from moving into space and we want to deter kinetic operation from going into space, God forbid, because of the debris field that that would create for not just our generation, but for generations to come.
I don’t want to go in that area. In space, I have the same fundamental mission I have in all other domains that I operate in: To protect this country and our allies. I also have a secondary mission in space and that’s to protect the environment. So I don’t want weapons that create debris. I don’t. I’ve said that in pubic multiple times and people look at me like I’m crazy – but I’m not, because I grew up loving space and my dad worked on the Saturn V and I still look up at the stars and it just blows me away. And I want my kids to be able to look up and still have that same dream and I don’t want to be the one that destroys it, so I have to keep that domain secure against adversaries that are building debris-creating weapons.
That’s a tough position to be in, but we can figure out how to do that if we engage the minds of this country. We can figure out how to build a resilient space architecture that can fight and win and we can figure out how to deny that environment to an adversary without creating debris. We can do that.
NOONAN: So just from a practical standpoint, let’s say the worst does happen. You know, the military was initially the primary user of space, but today we’re all customers of space, for lack of a better term. Assume that a conflict broke out in space – that the scenario that you described occurred. What would be the impact on everyone in this room and just civilians were at large?
HYTEN: Well, it depends on what was attacked. So anybody in this room ever use a cellphone? So you understand if our GPS constellation was attacked, most of the apps on your cellphone stop working. The timing source stops working. You know, if you went – anybody get cash out of an ATM every once in a while? That ATM is timed off the GPS timing signal. Why? Because it’s a ubiquitous global timing signal.
Why would you build some hugely expensive clock to sync all your – when it’s free for everybody? Why wouldn’t you just use that? So we do. So we use that. We have a comm architecture that goes through space. All of our communications go through space. Our ability to fight as a military is critically dependent on it. Every military operation from humanitarian ops to full combat ops is dependent on space. If certain capabilities went away, our country would have significant challenges.
General Dunford, in a big global exercise – he’s the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – he stopped the exercise in the middle and he just looked at all the combatant commanders and said, “So what’s our most important priority right here?” You know? And we were in the middle of a wargame, so it doesn’t matter what it was, but you’ve watched the news; you understand how conflict happens, how you gain and maintain air superiority, how ground maneuver forces come in, what the role of the Navy is. You understand all those pieces. He said, “What’s the most important job that we have?” Job number one?
To prevent the use of nuclear weapons and the use of catastrophic space or cyberspace actions by an adversary on the United States of America, because they could create significant damage to our infrastructure as well through space or cyberspace. And that always has to be at the back of our mind in any competition and any conflict that we foresee in the future – it’s the most important thing. Space is a piece of that element.
NOONAN: You talked about cyber, and I don’t want to get too far out of your lane here, but as we grow more reliant on the Internet and cyberspace to power our economy – to power our lives really – what would you consider a catastrophic act of war purely on the cyber front?
HYTEN: So cyber was in my command until six months ago – so six months ago we stood up a separate cyber command, so now that’s General Nakasone’s concern. But, here’s my biggest concern is somebody taking down our power grids. I mean, hopefully that should be obvious to everybody. Our power grids are operated off digital networks. If they’re operated off digital networks, then they have cyber connectivity – so you have to be concerned about a cyber-threat in those areas.
Can you imagine the entire power grid on the east coast being taken down – what that would do to the economy of this nation? What that would do to the lifeblood of this nation? That’s a significant issue. We have to be able to defend ourselves there. But cyber, in my view, is just another place where you do military operations.
We do other operations there, too. Everybody here that’s got a phone – you live in that area, so you want that area to be free and open. So do I. I want space to be free and open for everybody to use. I want the air – I want to be able to fly anywhere in this world that we can without restrictions. I want to be able to take a ship and drive that ship with cargo anywhere that we need to go.
It’s the same fundamental problem, but now we have military challenges in there, so we need to deal with the military challenges in cyber like we deal with military challenges in all other domains – which means if somebody attacks us, we have to be able to defend ourselves and attack back.
NOONAN: So if we just pull that thread a little more, what – let’s say the East Coast power grid was taken down and you have incontrovertible evidence that it was a foreign actor. What option do you bring to the President and what do you advise?
HYTEN: So there’re a few things in our National Defense Strategy, the National Security Strategy, that talk about that issue in space and cyber. And one of the big changes that – it’s really emphasized in space, but it applies to cyber, too – is that the United States policy now is that if we’re attacked in those global domains, we will respond at a time and a place and a domain of our choosing.
In other words, we don’t say, if we’re attacked in cyber, we’re only gonna respond in cyber; if we’re attacked in space, we’re only gonna respond in space. In fact, if we’re attacked in space, my recommendation probably is not gonna be to attack in space because of the challenges that we have in protecting the environment. I’ll say, “Let’s go another way. Let’s go in cyber.”
If we’re attacked in cyber and we know who did it, then somebody’s committed an act of war against the United States. We have to figure out how to stop that from happening ever again and defend ourselves and show the adversary that further action will not be in their interests. There’s a deterrent element of that and there’s a warfighting element of that and you have to apply both effectively to create the domain.
There’s a lot of literature in deterrence about the escalation ladder. As a STRATCOM commander, you should know I hate the escalation ladder. I hate it with a passion. I hate it when my folks bring me, you know, concepts that put us on the escalation ladder because my direction to them is, “Give me an option that gets me off that ladder, not on that ladder.” If I’m on that ladder, we’re losing. Get me off the ladder.
And sometimes I’ll have to do something in another domain with other options of our national power, maybe using different elements of our government, to get us off that escalation ladder. It’s the same way in cyber. You’ve gotta get off the ladder. But it doesn’t mean you have to respond in cyber.
NOONAN: You have an incredibly interesting position in the U.S. military; I think it’s unique from any other senior military leader. Could you just describe – any maybe this is a parochial question, but just describe your unique responsibilities; your obligation to the President of the United States; your obligation to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines underneath you and the challenges inherent in just being really at the ready all the time.
HYTEN: So the first part of that question – and I need to emphasize that – is that in many ways, I’m the same as all other combatant commanders; there’s just one exception and the one exception is the execution of the nuclear mission. The execution of most operations in the military are directed by combatant commanders but delegated down to component commanders – air component, land component, maritime component – to actually execute the missions. But the nuclear mission is not delegated – it is my responsibility. And so that means I always have to be connected – and I’m connected right now.
Always have – you know, we used to have these backpacks that we had to bring everywhere we went. Now it’s just a little phone. Isn’t that amazing? But I always have to be connected because if something really, really bad happens, the President of the United States is gonna want to talk to General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Secretary of State Pompeo; Secretary of Defense Mattis; and me. And he’s gonna ask me for my recommendations on what to do and I have a whole team of people and experts in this business that know this business backwards and forwards and that will give me the advice, but ultimately it’s my responsibility to give the advice directly to the President and to make a recommendation on what to do.
And it’s interesting how people so misunderstand how that process works. It’s actually a very collaborative process with the President and the SecDef and the Chairman and the SecState if we’re attacked about what we would do. And it’s a complicated – very, very complicated set of options that I have to walk through with the President before he can decide what to do. Now only he can decide what to do, but it’s my responsibility to present those options to him. And God forbid I ever have to do that for real, but we practice it each and every day.
We talk about it with the President quite a bit, but we practice it without the President every day to make sure that we’re ready, we know we’re ready, and also that our adversaries know we’re ready. That’s what we have to do. And that is – that wears on you, to be honest. That responsibility does wear on you because it is the unique thing about STRATCOM.
NOONAN: So you talked about just the robust and complex planning and decision-making process that thankfully has never been tested maybe outside perhaps the September 11 attacks, and those were more limited in scope than what STRATCOM would deal with – although I would just note, as a historical tidbit here, that President Bush did end up going to Offutt Air Force Base…
HYTEN: He did.
NOONAN: … your headquarters, on the 9/11 attacks and using your command facilities there. But one of the things we anticipate as technology advances, and particularly nuclear delivery technology advances, is you’re not gonna have a whole lot of time to make decisions. How do you squeeze that complex planning process and decision-making process into 20-30 minutes?
HYTEN: So that’s also an area of our business that is, I think, misunderstood, is that the only case where we only have a few minutes is a mass attack from Russia. And oh, by the way, we practice what we’d do with a mass attack from Russia, you know, very, very frequently to make sure we know what we’re gonna do.
Every other scenario actually has lots of time for the President to make a decision and I’ve watched Secretary Mattis go through that, I’ve watched Secretary Carter go through that, I’ve watched – I’ve sat down with national security advisers, White House staff, gone through that – and since we’re in the house where Secretary Carter lives, I’ll just use him as the example.
We played a full-up exercise involving all of the principals – Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State – previous administration Secretary Carter was the Secretary of Defense – and I can’t tell you what the scenario was or what happened or how we did or anything like that because it’s classified, but I’ll just tell you there were at least 10 times – because I’ve listened to the tape multiple times now – there were at least 10 times when Secretary goes, “Mr. President, I know there’s a sense of urgency here, but you don’t have to make a decision right now. You can actually reach out and call somebody if you want to. You can reach out and find out what the hell’s going on. You can reach out – if you want to talk to another military commander, you can talk to another military – if you want to find out what’s going on in area A, you can talk to the commander that’s in area A. You can do a number of different things.”
Now if this attack is real, the United States is gonna take a horrible loss – but the thing about our nuclear force is that unless it’s a mass attack from Russia, we always have the ability to respond with overwhelming firepower. And because of that, he actually has time to reach out and talk to people. And that’s what we encourage him to do, because we don’t want the world to end that way. Nobody does. So we practice as many scenarios as you could possibly think of.
We just finished our biggest exercise of the year, Global Thunder. Yep – that’s the name of it, Global Thunder. It kind of describes it. And we played a scenario this time that we had never played before – but it involved multiple players; it involved experts from the intelligence community playing the adversary and it puts us in different positions where you have to really come up with very different options – and all options aren’t nuclear.
You think about the STRATCOM war plans – and you know, the history books talk about the single integrated operational plan – the SIOP; it talks about our O [operation] plans; it talks about – but our O plans actually have a lot more in them than just nuclear because we want to give the President as many options as he can to respond effectively and get us off that escalation ladder and keep this country safe.
So, it’s a complicated thing, and the biggest challenge honestly is, you know, having that conversation over a telephone or over a radio with the President because you have to explain all this in plain English – and man, we are good at acronyms in the military and I can tell you from meetings with the President, if I use too many acronyms, it’s not very pleasant for me. The good news is my wife about 10 years ago when I started speaking in public, every time I’d use an acronym, she would speak up from wherever she was sitting and say, “What’s that mean?” And so, she kind of broke me of the habit. So I’d be interested – I may have to go back and listen to this, but I betcha I haven’t used very many acronyms today.
NOONAN: I haven’t felt like there’s anything I’ve needed to translate, so…I think you’re right.
HYTEN: There you go.
NOONAN: I think this is a good opportunity to open up to questions for the audience. We have four microphones on the left and right; we have some up in the upper decks up there. We just ask that you state your name, keep your questions short, and please, please – for everyone’s sake – put a question mark at the end of your statement.
AUDIENCE: Yeah – hi. Jay Gleason. If the United States presumably needs nuclear weapons in order that no other country will use nuclear weapons on us, doesn’t that same logic apply to other countries as well? Many countries, of course, feel that the United States itself is the greatest threat, especially after Libya and Iraq. North Korea looks at Libya and says, “Well, if Gaddafi didn’t have his nuclear weapons, he wouldn’t have been overthrown like this.”
So, I mean, Russia spends, in real dollar terms, less than 10 percent on its military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about than we do – and China, less than a quarter. So, I mean, don’t the military industrial complex exaggerate these threats in order to have greater budgetary authorization and greater sway and power within the, you know, political process? What is a threat? And how to do measure it? And who is the real threat?
HYTEN: You bet. So a bunch of interesting questions in that comment – thanks for ending it with a question mark. We – you know – so I’ll start with other countries- that’s kind of where you started – and then I’ll talk about the other piece.
So other countries. One of our roles is we’re party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and we entered into that with other nations of the world to try to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Almost all of the nations of the world signed up to that because we didn’t want weapons to proliferate.
In order for them not to proliferate with a number of our allies, I have a role in providing extended deterrence – nuclear deterrence – to many of our allies: The Republic of Korea, Japan, Australia. We provide that extended deterrence so they don’t have to build their own nuclear weapons. And we provide commitments to them that if they’re attacked, that we will respond in their stead. And they believe that and therefore they don’t go down.
When that is doubted and you see countries like Japan – Japan, who was attacked with nuclear weapons – talk about building their own nuclear weapons in order to defend themselves – I don’t want weapons to proliferate. I want weapons going the other direction. I want fewer weapons in the world; therefore, I think we have to sit down with the other nuclear nations and figure out how to do that.
Now what Russia and China are doing with nuclear weapons – I can tell you in with uncertain terms that the numbers you quoted were wrong. Russia and China spend significantly more of their gross national product on their defense than we do. In dollar terms, they’re spending less, but in terms of their buying power inside their country and what they spend as part of their gross national product, they’re spending significantly more.
China’s investments are becoming more and more significant and their focused on what? Not our conventional firepower. They’re not trying to match us there because that’s unaffordable for their economies right now. What they’re trying to match us is in their strategic capabilities – their space capabilities, their cyberspace capabilities, their nuclear capabilities. That’s where they’re spending significant portions, to challenge us there. That’s why we have to be able to respond there.
I know – I read Eisenhower’s warnings about the military industrial complex. He’s one of my heroes and I think those warnings are real and everybody that’s an American citizen should always be concerned about the military industrial complex. You should be. But the military is there to protect our nation and when we don’t have the means to protect our nation, that’ll be a bad day. Right now, we have overwhelming capabilities to meet any threat in the world today – and some people don’t think that’s true, but I believe it’s true.
I want to have the overwhelming capability now and in the future because fundamentally we’re the ones that will have to send our greatest treasure – our sons and daughters – to fight our wars overseas. And wars happen. Wars won’t be eliminated. But I don’t want them to go without overwhelming superiority and that means expense. So I wish the world was a different place – I really do, but it’s not. And my job is to make sure we can always defend this nation and our allies against any threat. And it starts with the threat that could end our nation – that’s the nuclear threat.
Thank you for the question. Sir?
AUDIENCE: My name is Steve Gallant. In Daniel Ellsberg’s must-read book, he says that the U.S. actually has a first-strike policy to be able to threaten or carry out a limited first strike and have enough in reserve so that no country will respond to that first strike and he points out 25 specific instances where the U.S. threatened a first strike. So my question is ‘Can you confirm or deny that the U.S. has a first strike? And do you think such a policy makes it more risky for a general nuclear war that would have obvious consequences?’
HYTEN: No. So I can’t confirm or deny.
AUDIENCE: So you can’t confirm or you can’t deny that we have a first strike?
HYTEN: So what I can do is I can state what our policy is, and our policy is very clear; it’s in our National Defense Strategy and it’s in the Nuclear Posture Review. You can look it up and you can read it, and I’ll paraphrase it here because I can’t quote it exactly, but it says, “The United States will only use nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances.” Then it says, “Extreme circumstances are defined as – and it goes through attacks on our nation by other nations using nuclear weapons or existential threats against this nation in other areas that we reserve the right to respond with nuclear weapons.” That’s what our national policy is and that’s what my command is responsible for executing.
AUDIENCE: So there are 25 specific cases that are not existential threats. Also, can you comment on the danger of threatening or carrying out a limited first strike?
HYTEN: I just stated what our policy is; that’s when we would use nuclear weapons. That’s the time that the President of the United States has told us to be ready to use nuclear weapons. That’s the only time. The 25 – I’ve read the Pentagon Papers, I’ve read Daniel Ellsberg’s book, and I was very young when that book was written, so I can’t comment on what those 25 cases were, but I understand what you’re saying – but I can tell you that the policy now is exactly what I said it was and that’s exactly how we plan and would use nuclear weapons if, God forbid, we ever had to.
NOONAN: So I think we have one…
NOONAN: Sorry, sir – we’re running a little low on time, so we’re gonna have to go up to the left field deck here.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for coming today, general. My name is Joshua; I’m a first-year student at the college – and today’s bipartisan report on the status of the U.S. military stated that with respect to hypersonics in particular, the U.S. finds itself trailing China and perhaps Russia as well. And so I understand that hypersonics have been a great area of focus for you, and so I was wondering what steps do you think we should take to regain the lead on technologies such as hypersonics or artificial intelligence?
HYTEN: So again, I haven’t read the whole commission’s report, but I did meet with them and I’m actually looking forward to reading the whole report and – because I know the people that were on it; I know they’re gonna have really good advice for us. So I’m gonna assume for the purposes of this question that you quoted the report correctly, and what I’ll say is that there are areas in hypersonics where the United States leads both China and Russia and there are areas in hypersonics that we trail.
I believe that when it comes to that critical technology, the United States should always lead in every element of it. Now where we are in the overarching view of hypersonics with Russia and China – that’s for a different discussion, but we should not be trailing in any aspect of it and there’re a couple of areas where we are. So when I think about dealing with hypersonics, I think we should aggressively pursue hypersonic technology, but that’s not my first concern.
My first concern is that we have to always maintain our strategic deterrent. I’m the STRATCOM commander. So what’s the most important thing I need when it comes to hypersonics? I have to see the threat so I can respond to the threat. So my biggest plea to the Department of Defense, the administration, and Congress is that we develop sensor technology that can see and track hypersonics so I can see where they launch from and be able to attribute an attack to that nation because that is what enables our strategic deterrent – and that means my entire force structure that I just defined earlier is now a viable deterrent long into the future.
So I have to have warning and characterization capabilities and hypersonics is a very challenging mission for that. That’s why I’m advocating for a low earth orbit satellite constellation that can see and characterize that threat – because that’s the only way we can do it globally, and we actually have the capability to do that right now. So we need an aggressive hypersonic program, but we have to have a warning program for that as well.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
HYTEN: Thank you.
NOONAN: General, just for the benefit of the audience who may not know what hypersonics is, could you give a quick description?
HYTEN: So a hypersonic is a really fast missile. So that’s a little bit over-simplified. So a hypersonic weapon starts off initially on a ballistic trajectory, but then it basically turns and flies down close to the Earth and then flies at a very, very high rate of speed to its target. And because it’s not ballistic and because it’s, in many phases of flight in a hypersonic glide, not a powered flight, it becomes very, very difficult for our current systems to track. That’s why we need additional systems to track and make sure we understand that threat. That’s the simple version of what a hypersonic weapon is.
NOONAN: Perfect. Yes, sir?
AUDIENCE: Hey, Elliott Fenton. So you mentioned a few times during your talk about how we need to modernize our nuclear force in response to new threats in the modern era, but also you mentioned that unless basically Russia launches everything they have at us, we have a lot of time to respond. And surely we have, I think, enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world a few times over, I think. So no – not so?
HYTEN: Not true.
AUDIENCE: But you did mention, I think, in the...
HYTEN: We used to, but not anymore.
AUDIENCE: Okay. Well, I guess that’s good. But what I was hoping you could, A, elaborate on what specific threats you foresee either now or in the future that we might not be able to respond to with our current stockpile and also why we need to modernize if, you know – do we necessarily need to keep track of these other people or do we just need to have enough to deter them?
HYTEN: So the – you know, it’s a – the answer to the question may not be what you’re expecting. So the answer to the question is the triad – the reason we have a triad, the reason there’s each element of the triad. The bomber is the most responsive – or, I mean, the most flexible leg of the triad because if launch a bomber, I can fly it for a significant period of time and then the President can always call it back. So it provides a set of flexibility.
The submarine is the most survivable leg of the triad. It’s very hard to find a nuclear submarine on nuclear patrol because it is quiet all the time. It’s almost – it is impossible really for our adversaries to find and target that.
And then we have 400 ICBMs that is the most responsive leg – that if I have to, I can respond right away. But it also creates a huge targeting problem for our adversary because there are 400 separate hardened targets that will require basically an entire arsenal of weapons to take out.
So because I have that, the reason that I can respond is because no matter how the adversary attacks the United States, the capabilities will still survive and I can respond. That’s why we have a triad; that’s why we have those three legs – because nobody can take out all those legs, which is what the President needs.
So as I look to the future, what we have to do is we have to always be able to make sure that those legs of the triad remain viable. If they stop being viable, then we’ll have to change and produce something new. But as long as we can detect and characterize the threat coming at us, then the three legs of the triad I can foresee well into the rest of this century will provide our nation the ability to respond.
NOONAN: I think we have time for one or two more. Coreen, do you want to take number one?
AUDIENCE: Hi – thank you for being with us, general. My question is about China and Russia in terms of defense technology development. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how we might be trailing the Chinese and not necessarily the Russians – but how do you suggest the DOD adapts to just the new climate of R&D [research and development] in the global community, especially when we’re looking at the Chinese kind of outpace us in certain areas of defense tech?
HYTEN: So it’s kind of my favorite question right now because it leads me into what I worry most about. So you’d think that I worry most about Russia or China or our nuclear arsenal or space or – you know, all the things we’ve talked about tonight. But what I worry most about is somehow, over the last 35, 38 years of my career, the United States has lost the ability to go fast. And everything now is so expensive. And those two things go together.
General Schriever built a three-staged solid rocket Minuteman ICBM in five years, deployed 800 of them, for $2 billion. Yes, that was 1964 dollars, but if you do the math, it’s $17 billion in today’s money. The current – the next generation ICBM, 400 three-staged solid rockets, half the size of the original fleet – he had to build all the infrastructure, all the command and control. Most of that stuff already exists.
Current estimates are initial capability 2029, final capability 2035, somewhere between $84 and $100 billion. I don’t know where we lost the ability to go fast, but I watch our industry in the commercial sector go unbelievably fast where they dominate the world in many, many sectors, and it’s really only in the defense industry where we’ve lost the ability to go fast.
And why did we lose it? Because we lost the ability to understand risk and take risk whereas entrepreneurs and investors will take risk, and take risk means you have to go fast in order to keep up. And if you don’t do that, you can’t keep up. So we have to regain the ability to go fast and be affordable and use the taxpayers’ dollars in a wise way because when you take that long to build weapons systems, it’s not the best use of our taxpayers’ dollars.
Now we can afford our security, but we have to be better in being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money – and if we don’t, you should hold us accountable – every one of you. I’m a taxpayer, too, so that drives me to worry about it. But we’ve gotta go fast again.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
NOONAN: Last question.
AUDIENCE: Hi – my name is Jackson Grigsby and I’m a junior at the college. And my question was, considering the development of AI [artificial intelligence] as well as hypersonics, something that scares me is perhaps the idea that our adversaries would develop some kind of autonomous response or that we would develop some kind of autonomous response.
So my question is do you think the government would ever adapt an autonomous response? Or would a human always be behind the decision-making of responding to a perceived threat given that that threat was, you know, credible considering our detection?
HYTEN: Yeah. So one of the most intimidating moments that I’ve had as a speaker as the STRATCOM commander was in Canada last year standing up and speaking with Eric Schmidt on the role of AI in the future of defense. And so, the moderator actually asked both of us that question – so here’s my answer is that AI can help us do a lot of things.
It can help us in the nuclear mission. What it can never do is pull the trigger. The trigger has to be pulled by a human that decides, based on everything that he or she sees, feels, understands, that that response is now required. And that can’t ever be done by a machine even with full AI capabilities. AI can assist us in executing a military campaign, executing things faster, doing things more efficiently – but it can never be involved with the fundamental decision of starting a war and, God forbid, starting a nuclear war.
That can only be the job of a human; that responsibility is solely the Commander in Chief of the United States. You’d have to ask Russia and China and North Korea how they do it, but it’s – it’s in a similar position and we have to make sure we have mechanisms to make sure that our leadership makes good decisions. And we do have those in place today and those can never change. But there’s a significant role for AI in every element of military operations – just not being the first to pull the trigger.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
NOONAN: That’s a great place to wrap up. General, this has been a fascinating discussion; I know we could probably go on for another hour easily. We know you’re accountable to tens of thousands of people, so on behalf of the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, I want to thank you sincerely for sharing your time with us today.
HYTEN: Thanks to Harvard for that. Thank Senator Cotton, too.