You Have To Hear What Keeps The Head Of U.S. Strategic Command Up At Night

Out of all the presentations and panels at this year’s Air Force Association convention, one speaker in particular had a most important, brave, and sobering message. A message that goes against the “company man” attitude we seem to find in many of the military’s top brass, and one that deals with something we here at The War Zone have been talking about for a long, long time. Instead of worrying about Kim Jong Un’s missiles or Putin’s huge nuclear arsenal, what keeps the head of Strategic Command, General John Hyten, up at night is the cold hard fact that America’s defense industrial complex has lost the ability to “go fast.”

Hyten’s remarks on the topic begin at 25:48, if the player doesn’t take you there automatically when you push play:

In his powerful delivery of an eye opening messaging, the general states:

“I’m very concerned that our nation has lost the ability to go fast. And we have adversaries now, and we see proof in those adversaries that they’re going faster than we are…  Slow, expensive, that’s the way it is…  I’m criticizing the entire process…the entire process is broken…We have to go faster, and we’re not, and it is frustrating the heck out of me. Look at the threat, if we’re not going faster than the threat than it’s wrong.”

He goes on to highlight how the Minuteman I ICBM program met or exceeded all its expectations and objectives, delivering 800 three stage solid fuel rocket ICBMs, silos to put them in, and a very elaborate command and control architecture in just five years at a cost of $17B in today’s dollars—and none of it had been done before. Now, even with all we have learned over more than half a century, it takes 12 to 17 years and $84B to build half the missiles, refurbish the existing silos they will sit in, not build new ones, and the command and control architecture is a separate budget altogether. 

Hyten is on the right path here, and he has to be commended for making such a bold and inconvenient statement. But I think he goes too easily on the defense and aerospace industries. Some outfits have been known to do amazing things with small, agile teams that are less affected by bureaucratic red tape. But often times these units also have the advantage of operating in the classified world with a steady stream of cash that isn’t constantly under fire on Capitol Hill. 

We have talked about this same exact kind of issue many times before. Maybe a post that best encapsulates the technological and industry aspects of this issue is one I wrote called “Broken Booms: Why Is It So Hard To Develop A New USAF Tanker” that you can read here. In it I state, among other things, the following:

“The 1950s saw the first jet tanker built by Boeing and fielded by the USAF. This aircraft was the KC-135 Stratotanker, and 60 years and some new engines later it remains the backbone of America’s tanker force. How on earth could we have gotten the tanker concept that right on the first try, way back then, in a time of drafting tables and slide rules, yet we have so much trouble fielding a suitable replacement 60 years later in an age of iPhones and computer aided drafting? Especially considering these replacements are based on airliners that have been flying for decades, the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330…

…The truth is that the Manhattan Project took far less time than it has taken to procure just a partial replacement for the KC-135 Stratotanker fleet, and this new aircraft is hardly a clean-sheet design… What the hell is so hard about taking an existing wide-body airliner, with an existing track record of millions of hours in the sky, and turning it into a tanker?

What am I missing here?

The KC-135 took from 1954 to 1957, just three years, from the time the jet aerial refueling competition was launched to the time the aircraft became operational. When it comes to the KC-46, it took the DoD and Congress 10 years just to pick an airplane to buy under the stumbling, spastic and downright alarming KC-X procurement initiative…

…Being the word’s preeminent aerial fighting force does not require every single platform to be completely cutting edge just for cutting edge’s sake. Instead, the Pentagon needs to pick and choose where to strategically spend their “cutting edge” dollars and where to spend their “need the hardware on the ramp yesterday” dollars.

Case in point: the KC-46 isn’t any existing aircraft at all, it deviates from the already painstakingly developed KC-767 that the Italians and Japanese use. An aircraft’s whose development is already paid for in full. Instead, the KC-46 combines the 767-200ER’s fuselage, with the 767-300F’s wing, gear, cargo door and floor, with the 767-400ER digital flightdeck and flaps. It then pairs this hodgepodge of components with uprated engines and a “sixth-generation” fly-by-wire remote controlled boom and adds various other US specific sub-systems. So now you have a plane whose components may have been in production for many decades, but has never actually flown in the KC-46A form…

The realities of the crazy KC-X competition aside, the USAF probably would be better served with the already developed and proven KC-767 and thrown out all the gadgetry such as “remote booms” in order to get the hardware out there ASAP at the lowest possible cost and lowest possible developmental and operational risk.

Sure, the KC-767 may have slightly less range, or it may use 1000 more feet of runway when totally grossed out on takeoff when compared to the KC-46 Pegasus “frankenplane,” but if we can get it cheaper and faster, and it will be more reliable, who really cares? Any slight capability lapses will only impact a tiny percentage of the theoretical missions the plane may actually be called to perform during service. Furthermore, when compared to the ancient KC-135 that the USAF already has in droves, the KC-767 is an upgrade of epic proportions, so why jeopardize a program with added development time, cost and risk for relatively minor performance improvements?

…As far as development goes, to a large degree, the aerospace industry in America has lost its way. It is sad but true. Sometimes a boom can be just a boom. Not everything has to be Star Wars and Steve Jobs. Just because you can apply new technology to something does not mean it is beneficial or cost effective. But considering the “show it on Power Point and they will buy it” proven business model that exists, with the Pentagon being the suckers they are, how can you really blame industry for piling on the expensive tech, even if it is not needed?

Still, big aerospace defense contractors need to look back in history and find out how incredibly complex problems (at the time) were solved so efficiently and without the incredible technological benefits we enjoy today. Maybe there is a systemic issue in our engineering educational process or within the the workflow itself that has hampered our ability to create fast and cost effective solutions to relatively straight-forward problems.”

Sadly, the article still rings true today. The KC-46 is further delayed for various reasons, one of which includes problems with the boom chronically scraping the skin of the aircraft it refuels—fine if you are flying an A-10, not fine if you are flying a radar absorbent material coated B-2, F-22, or F-35. 

KC-46A during testing., USAF

One way the USAF can break the habit of long development cycles—at least in the tactical aircraft domain—as well as solve a whole list of other issues including pilot shortages and operational budget shortfalls, is by moving toward an increasingly unmanned fleet. I detail all this is my piece “The Alarming Case of the USAF’s Mysteriously Missing Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles” that you can read here.

There are some signs that the Pentagon is slowly coming to terms with unsustainable procurement practices. For instance, more investments in the development and fielding of so called “rapid capabilities” are being made, along with investments into research programs that aim to unlock the possibilities of today’s latest technologies and manufacturing techniques to build weapons cheaper and faster than using traditional processes. Budget austerity (relatively speaking) has also slowly begun changing the Pentagon’s affinity toward buying “and the kitchen sink” weapon systems that are loaded with features beyond their basic requirements list to more streamlined systems that can be upgraded later down the road. 

Additionally, programs like the B-21 Raider are being tailored to avoid requirements creep, spiraling costs, and massive developmental timetables. But it will take more officers in leadership positions to come to terms with the reality that Hyten describes so well and to demand change and enact policies that will help realize those changes. If the Pentagon cannot make systemic changes in the way it develops new weapons and capabilities, or even simply replaces old hardware with conservatively updated new hardware, parity will become further within our competitors reach, and in some key areas we will fall behind our potential enemies. This invites major risk on both a military and geopolitical level. 

Hyten greets SecDef Mattis at STRATCOM headquarters in Nebraska. , USAF

Also worth noting in the General Hyten’s address was his clear response to a question regarding the threat posed by an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). The EMP threat is a murky one to say the least. Some see it as an overhyped boogeyman whose danger has been perpetuated by the survivalist, doomsday prepper, and to some degree, the science fiction communities. Others see it as an incredibly deadly asymmetric weapon, one that would be ideal for a rogue state like North Korea to use against the U.S. and its allies. 

Recently Pyongyang threatened exactly that, which does add some validity to the threat itself, not to mention they now have the delivery systems to make the possibility of using such a tactic a reality. The truth is that Americans are far more likely to suffer similar effects from a series of cyber attacks than from a high-altitude EMP (HEMP), but still, Hyten makes it clear that it is a grave threat—one that Strategic Command is prepared to survive, but the rest of country clearly isn’t (fast forward to 41:30 if the video doesn’t take you there directly):

Among other things, the general states:

“An EMP pulse is a very dangerous threat, and it’s a realistic threat. If you are not nuclear hardened it will basically shut down any operational computer in the range of the EMP… I was asked if STRATCOM was prepared to respond to an EMP attack, and the answer is yes because we have nuclear hardened satellites, nuclear hardened command and control shelters, we can respond to that etc. But our nation as a whole really has not looked at EMP, we have not looked at the critical infrastructure that could be damaged by EMP, and we need to kind of take a step back and look at that entire threat because it is a realistic threat.”

That is a sober assessment from the man who knows nuclear systems and their implementation probably better than anyone in the United States. 

The video has a ton of other great tidbits of information, like how Hyten wants to move ground based sensor systems that America’s rickety missile defense system relies on to a space-based system, and some interesting insight into work-life balance for a man who has his own SCIF in his basement. 

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