Hyten Lays Out Priorities as Pentagon’s No. 2 Officer

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten, now two months into the job of second-highest ranking Pentagon officer, said Jan. 17 he will tackle three main priorities: giving sound military advice to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and President Donald Trump, revamping acquisition, and improving deeply rooted personnel problems like sexual assault and suicide.

Hyten, who spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discussed his shift from serving as the four-star head of US Strategic Command to a post where he holds a bird’s eye view of people and programs across the Defense Department. He began the job Nov. 21 after facing sexual assault claims that slowed his Senate confirmation process, though an Air Force investigation found the accusations were unsubstantiated.

Since becoming vice chairman, Hyten helped guide the US through the recent flare-up in tensions with Iran, in which a US drone strike killed a high-ranking Iranian general and the country retaliated by firing rockets at American personnel in Iraq.

Providing his best military advice to the President has occupied most of his time so far, he said: “It’s been a very busy world.”

“We put together very, very good courses of action to brief the Secretary of Defense. It’s the job of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] to bring those options to the President of the United States,” Hyten said. “We’ve had very interesting conversations in the Pentagon and very interesting conversations in the Oval Office.”

Those discussions are open, thorough, and well-supported by US intelligence sources—and the advisory process works, he said. 

“I’ve been very impressed, in my less than two months in the job, about how well the interactions with the President of the United States is,” Hyten said. “It’s more frequent than I thought it would be.”

As head of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, the high-level group that approves the design needs of military technologies in development, Hyten now has a unique platform to push ideas for acquisition reform.

He often criticizes how long it takes the Defense Department to buy and upgrade its systems, saying that speed and risk-taking gives adversaries an upper hand over the US.

“What I didn’t want to do is just jump in and say, ‘Blow up the JROC,’” he said.

The current system, which asks contractors to create designs that meet particular requirements and waits to deliver the final product until all requirements are met, needs to give way to more iterative, flexible programs, Hyten argued. That thinking is spreading across the department, particularly for software programs.

The Joint Staff wants to think more about how systems should be used together, not how they should be built.

“What we’re trying to do now on the Joint Staff is we have a concept that we’re working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to basically build a singular joint warfighting concept with a number of different elements underneath it,” he said. “The elements underneath it are service concepts and capabilities but also these joint concepts like command and control, joint logistics, things that have been orphaned in the process. … Our job is to find the capabilities and attributes that we need without getting into the system design.”

On Jan. 21, Hyten will bring in a special assistant to offer a fresh perspective on a portfolio of issues plaguing military families, from subpar privatized housing to mental health and special needs children. Military.com first reported on the new position Jan. 16.

Hyten said he’s open to ideas for how to handle sexual assault reporting, but added that cutting out the chain of command is unlikely to lead to a better system.

On suicide, he added that the Pentagon may never get to zero. But “we’ve absolutely failed” to treat mental health like they would any other medical issue, and to shrink the number of those who kill themselves each year.

“When the mothers and fathers of our nation give their most precious item in the world, their sons and daughters, to the United States military, they expect a better environment, a better world, and they expect us, the leaders of the military, to take care of them,” Hyten said.