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EXCLUSIVE: STRATCOM commander talks about growing up in Huntsville and the future of nuclear weapons


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HUNTSVILLE, AL–In an exclusive interview, Huntsville native and Air Force General John Hyten, the commander of the United States Strategic Command spoke to Redstone Alabama’s Jeff Martin about growing up in the North Alabama city, what’s ahead for STRATCOM, and the future of nuclear weapons.

General Hyten graduated from Huntsville’s Grissom High School in 1977, and then went to Harvard, graduating in 1981 with a commission in the United States Air Force. He says that growing up in Huntsville inspired him to join the space program, and that the Air Force was a way to do it, adding that he “started that adventure in 1977, and I’m still going. So I think the Air Force got it’s money worth.” 

Speaking in an office overlooking Redstone Arsenal’s Von Braun Complex, which is the home of the Missile Defense Agency and the Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic, General Hyten talked about that inspiration, saying “My dad came here with the Apollo program in 1965. And my dad got to work on the Saturn V and I got to see the F-1 engine test here. I got to go to the Cape and watch them build up the infrastructure for the Saturn V. I got to meet Wernher Von Braun when I was in fifth grade. Those things shape who you are and what you want to do.” 

After graduating Harvard, General Hyten went on to numerous assignments, including working on anti-satellite technology at Redstone Arsenal. However, the majority of his career has been spent on leveraging space systems for military use. 

A lot of people don’t realize that they don’t get gas without the space systems that the Air Force provides. We don’t go anywhere in the world and conduct military operations without space”, he said. 

Before taking over his current job at US Strategic Command, he was the commander of Air Force Space Command, based in Colorado. In November, he took over Strategic Command, which commands all of America’s strategic nuclear forces, cyber weapons, and space operations.

At that ceremony, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter described Hyten as someone who’s “helped shape thinking at our government’s highest levels about the threats we face in space”. He also told the crowd that Hyten “has developed a keen understanding of the current and future operational needs of our DoD space force and how to acquire the capabilities we need.  His experience and expertise will be a tremendous asset to STRATCOM as we prepare and face future threats in all domains.”

US Strategic Command has a key mission. Descended from the Cold War-era Strategic Air Command, STRATCOM forces are deployed around the world, on nuclear submarines, flying heavy bombers and in missile silos across the American West.

A lot of people are scared about nuclear weapons, I don’t think anybody likes nuclear weapons. But I know what a world looks like without nuclear weapons, because my father in law fought in World War II. And from 1939 to 1945, when we didn’t have a strategic deterrent, the world killed somewhere between sixty and eight million people in those six years. That’s about 30,000 people a day. Our job is to prevent that from ever happening again”, General Hyten said when asked about his command’s role and the importance of having nuclear weapons. 

But in order to carry that mission out, General Hyten argues that modernization is needed. 

I still have to advocate for them, because if we don’t build them, because if we don’t build those, we’re in a significant problem. Not now, but about a decade from now, some really significant risks could start”, he said. 

The risks he’s talking about could be severe. The newest ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was commissioned in 1997, the newest land based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were built in the 1970s and the Air Force is still flying 1950s and 1960s era B-52 bombers. 

Just last week, the Pentagon announced that work on the Columbia-class submarines, the replacement for the current Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, had hit Milestone B, which means detailed design work could begin. That announcement confirmed that the projected construction start date of 2021 was on track. That news was big to General Hyten, but he cautioned that if the program gets delayed at all, the consequences could be severe. 

“If the Ohio Class Replacement program gets delayed a year, every year that it gets delayed, I lose as the commander, or my successor, I’ll lose one submarine from the strategic force. Two years go by, two submarines drop out. At some point, you lose the sea element of that triad”, he said. 

The “triad” he’s referring to is the strategic deterrent triad. It had three “legs”. Sea-based nuclear ballistic submarines provide one, nuclear-armed bombers provide a second, and nuclear-tipped ICBMs provide a third. Each is separate from each other.

Beyond the sea-launched leg of the triad, other modernization is in the pipeline. The Air Force is working on the B-21 Raider, designed to replace aging B-52s, the Long Range Stand Off Missile (LRSO), designed to replace current air-launched cruise missiles, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which will replace the nation’s ICBMs. Boeing’s proposal for the GBSD is managed in Huntsville.

When asked about those programs, General Hyten seemed confidant about the programs, saying “We’re in a good place on the bomber right now. the work is under way. We need to have some decisions made on the long range, the next cruise missile, the long range missile, we need to have decisions made there. Hopefully those will be made this year. Its interesting though, as the STRATCOM commander, my job is to advocate for those capabilities. The services, the navy and the Air Force in these cases, are actually the people who have to build that. I’m the combatant commander that operates that. But I still have to advocate for them, because if we don’t build them, because if we don’t build those, we’re in a significant problem.”

Missile defense is also a hot topic now, especially with North Korea supposedly preparing to test their own ICBM. America’s missile defense forces are under the US Strategic Command, and the command elements are based on Redstone Arsenal. The operational units are based around the world, some of them in Alaska.

” If you ever look at a map and see how far north Fort Greely is in Alaska, and it’s somewhere between forty and fifty below zero there today. You think it’s cold here in Huntsville, when it’s cold and it may snow half an inch, well, they’re under a thick blanket of snow and its forty below zero. You have soldiers standing watch in case there is a launch against the United States, we have a defensive system, that will shoot it down. That’s their job to defend it all this time. and it’s not just the interceptors, we have a series of sensors, radars at the far end of the Aleutian islands in Alaska, radars in the Pacific, radars in Alaska proper, that are there to sense the capabilities. Then we have overhead space assets that are the bell-ringers, that see the event when it first happens. cue all of those capabilities and its all integrated together through an integrated command and control process to make sure that we’re not surprised, that we can defend the United States against those kind of adversaries that might want to do us harm with an ICBM. That cannot be allowed to happen”, he said. 

But in order for modernization to happen, a federal budget is needed, not another continuing resolution, General Hyten argued, saying that CR’s are not efficient ways of spending taxpayer dollars. “It’s just not a good way to do business. somehow, some day, we have to get past that, and start having normal budgeting processes”, he said. 

I’d like to make sure that we spend the money taxpayers give us in the most efficient way possible. and right now with the way the budget is, we don’t do that”, he added. 

January 9, 2017 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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