Q&A with Gen. John E. Hyten

Gen. John E. Hyten is Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position he has held since November 2019. In that role, he heads the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. A Harvard engineer with a master’s in business from Auburn, he has led Air Force space acquisition, served as commander of Air Force Space Command, and as head of U.S. Strategic Command. He spoke with Air Force Magazine Editorial Director John A. Tirpak recently about strategic requirements, roles and missions, budget trades, space, and the industrial base. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Q. Twenty-year hardware programs are a thing of the past. How can you accelerate the JROC process to the speed of relevance?

A. You’d think with the title Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC), that our focus would be on joint requirements, but in many cases we just validate service requirements and try to ensure joint interoperability.

I have a good working relationship with both Undersecretary Ellen M. Lord [head of Defense acquisition and sustainment] and the service acquisition executives. We know we have to do something different. The biggest difference is going to be, rather than the JROC just validating service requirements, it will focus first on joint requirements and then hold the services accountable for meeting them. 

We’ll deliver a new joint warfighting concept late this year, and under that will be a number of joint supporting capabilities: joint all-domain command and control, joint logistics, long-range fires, information advantage. We’re going to figure out how to write joint requirements so the services can go fast, but not require every detailed technical requirement to come up through the JROC. That’s one way we’ll speed things up.

Second, we’ll look at cost and schedule as key performance parameters. In certain cases, that can speed up delivery time. It’s right in line with a number of the service concepts, including Dr. Will Roper’s and the Air Force’s Century Series concept, where you go a little bit at a time, and that’s how you go fast.

The JROC dates back to 1986, and if you look at what Congress meant for it to do, it’s exactly this. We’ve just slowly drifted away from that over time.

Q. All the services are pursuing missions outside their charters. Do you think we need a new Key West Agreement on roles and missions?

A. I’m one of the Air Force officers that does not believe it’s time for another Key West Agreement.

But you’ve hit on the next big transition in military operations, and if we do it right, it will give us a strategic advantage over any future adversary: joint all-domain command and control.

From the very beginning, everything’s been lines on a map. We drew lines to show each service, ‘this is your area’; this is theater; this is immediate, the forward edge of the battle area.  All those terms really come out of Key West.

As we move into the next generation of capabilities, I think the lines on the map will disappear. Because you’ll have Army capabilities that can both defend a maneuver unit or, if used in a different way, can provide theater long-range strike. You’ll have Navy platforms that can defend themselves or provide long-range strike from the same platform. You’ll have the same capabilities in the Air Force. Each service is going to have the ability to do defense as well as long-range strike, from their own formations. 

The Joint Staff and the JROC will have a role in defining long-range fires, but not in terms of dividing it up between services.

Then, we have to seamlessly integrate all those domains—including space and cyber—and command and control them effectively to create the battlespace of the future. That’s why JADC2 is really the key to everything.

Q. How do you avoid unnecessary duplication of effort? 

A. That’s not the role of the JROC; that’s the role of the DMAG, the Defense Management Advisory Group, which does the budget. We have joint requirements that have to be met. If there’s duplication, we’ll eliminate those in the budget.

If we don’t walk over each other, we can make great progress. We tend to try to do everybody’s job. If we just do our own jobs, that’s one of the best ways to move fast.

Q. You’ve complained that the Pentagon “studies the heck” out of space capabilities. How can that be sped up?

A. If the Space Force needs to develop capabilities to defend themselves in their own domain, they really don’t have to come to the JROC for anything. The head of the Space Force can define what he needs, and go as fast as he can, because that’s his domain. If the Space Force is developing capabilities to support the other services and commands, then they have to be integrated, and the JROC is the place where you do that. 

I signed out a JROC memo, 16 July, which made the intent very clear about how that’s going to work. 

Q. The National Defense Strategy is two years old. Is it time to refine it? 

A. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) was well received because it’s coherent—it holds together from beginning to end—but maybe more importantly, it’s the first threat-based strategy that we’ve had in a couple of decades.

Around the turn of the century we transitioned from a threat-based planning structure to a capabilities-based planning structure, because we really didn’t understand what the threat was going to be and, therefore, developed capabilities to deal with any threat that comes along. The problem with that is, you tell potential adversaries what the capabilities are, so they can figure out exactly what to do to counter them. 

The NDS focuses on the threat and defines modernization we need to deal with great power competition. We also have to maintain readiness to deal with the problems of today. The challenge is how to balance the two. 

The only way to pay for that without taking exorbitant near- or long-term risk is by retiring legacy capabilities that are no longer part of our readiness for today or our modernization requirements for the future. We’re going to have to work really hard with Congress to figure out how to do that. 

Q. In the past, whole systems were retired at once, to obtain the savings of shedding their logistics tails. The services don’t seem to be doing that.™

A. It’s more cost-effective to retire whole systems. That’s a fact. If you go back 5 to10 years, various services tried to do that. Congress, I think rightly, criticized us in many cases because the near-term risk of doing so was too great. 

For near-term readiness, you have to maintain a certain amount of legacy capabilities, which will by definition be less efficient than retiring an entire family of capabilities. That means we have to pay a little bit of a premium for them.

But we need to do that consciously, and have a clear plan on when we would retire an entire family in order to reap the full savings.

Q. Even before the pandemic, flat budgets were expected. What will be the priorities in the ’22 budget?

A. The National Defense Strategy defines the nuclear enterprise as being right at the top of the list. We decided as a nation to not modernize the nuclear enterprise when we really needed to, and that was about 15 years ago. So now we’re doing it. It’s affordable—but will be expensive—and we have to make sure we do that right. 

Continuing modernization of our critical capabilities is priority two. Readiness is 2A. Then, acquiring the capabilities we need in space and cyber. 

Q. Can you give us a preview? The trade space is usually modernization, readiness and people. Where can you economize? 

A. We have to figure out what we’re going to stop driving, sailing, and flying, and I don’t think we have to impact readiness if we do that correctly. And we have to retain the right people; otherwise all that ‘stuff’ doesn’t matter. 

Q. Automation and artificial intelligence is surging. Can you do the job with fewer people?

A. In certain areas. The definition of an unmanned platform is there’s no man or woman in the cockpit. But the personnel requirements to operate unmanned aerial systems are actually pretty large. So we have to look at it with a clean sheet of paper.

Space and cyber have huge opportunities for increased automation. The latest littoral combat ship has a very small crew; most of that ship is automated. So we’re going to be increasing automation. But moving to unmanned systems doesn’t solve the problem.   

Q. The Guard and Reserve can scarcely be called a strategic reserve anymore; they’re fully engaged. Should those organizations be rethought?

A. I think it’s time for us to look at the Guard and Reserve with a fresh set of eyes.

About a month ago we had over 100,000 National Guardsmen on Active duty in support of COVID, and in support of governors around the country for all of the issues after the murder of George Floyd. That’s not a strategic reserve; that is an employed force. It puts a huge burden on our civilian employers. At the beginning of the coronavirus, we planned to bring them on for less than 90 days. Well, they’re still on, and they’re probably going to be through the rest of the year.

Over the last few years, we put so much capability—medical capability being one—into the Guard and Reserve that when we have to do an operation, we can’t do it without them. 

We are demanding so much from them. We have to figure out a different model. 

Q. The Air Force is restructuring the Air and Space Expeditionary Force to improve its presentation of forces for global needs. Are you expecting that from all the services?

A. For the last couple of years, the Joint Staff has been looking at a different Global Force Management construct. We’re trying to create blocks of ready forces that can be used both for contingency purposes as well as to support what the Secretary calls Dynamic Force Employment, DFE missions. 

The bombers in the Air Force have been very successful in that and are really leading the joint force in defining that DFE construct. 

If you can maintain your readiness with a different force management construct, and build your readiness at the same time, and still support the combatant commands, that’s the best of both worlds. 

This has been there, on paper, for over a year. But we didn’t really have the readiness in the force to allow it to be fully realized. Now, we’ve reached a maturity in readiness that allows this construct to work. 

Q. Is the creation of Space Force an opportunity to finally get rid of the ‘pass-through’ part of the Air Force’s budget? What are your thoughts on that?

A. I have pretty strong thoughts on that. That’s not the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s decision, though.

Budgets have to be transparent. The people responsible for the budget should be accountable for it and with the pass-through—that’s not the case.

I will continue to advocate, as an adviser, for transparency and accountability in our budget. Improvements can be made in the pass-through area. I think we’ll get there someday. It may not be soon.

Q. In the industrial base, the U.S. is down to one or no suppliers in certain key capabilities. Does the U.S. need to go back to 1980s-like surge capacity?

A. It is a huge issue. Over the last 20 years, we’ve allowed the second- and third- tier supply chain to deteriorate significantly. We have to have a concerted effort, structured by Secretary Lord, to get after rebuilding that. We have to invest with our prime contractors to make sure that they can have the second- and third-tier vendors they need to build the supply chain. 

One of the lessons we’ve learned the hard way from the coronavirus, is that when you have a supply chain that is dependent on Asia and China, and you really want to move fast, you have a difficult problem. We cannot have a supply chain that does that, so we have to rebuild it. That’s going to take investment. But we can do that under the programs we have, if we do it smartly. 

That is way up high in my worry list, but it’s not high on my things-to-do everyday list, because I am the requirer, not the acquirer.