Deterrence in space key to U.S. security

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Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, spoke Jan. 24 at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Rod Searcey

Space is more important than ever for the security of the United States, but it’s almost like the Wild West in terms of behavior, a top general said today.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, spoke Jan. 24 at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. His talk was titled, “U.S. Strategic Command Perspectives on Deterrence and Assurance.”

Hyten said, “Space is fundamental to every single military operation that occurs on the planet today.” He added that “there is no such thing as a war in space,” because it would affect all realms of human existence, due to the satellite systems. Hyten advocates “strategic deterrence” and “norms of behavior” across space as well as land, water and cyberspace.

Otherwise, rivals like China and Russia will only threaten U.S. interests in space and wreak havoc for humanity below, he said. Most of contemporary life depends on systems connected to space.

Hyten also addressed other topics, including recent proposals by some to upgrade the country’s missile defense systems.

“You just don’t snap your fingers and build a state-of-the-art anything overnight,” Hyten said, adding that he has not yet spoken to Trump administration officials about the issue. “We need a powerful military,” but a severe budget crunch makes “reasonable solutions” more likely than expensive and unrealistic ones.

On the upgrade front, Hyten said he favors a long-range strike missile system to replace existing cruise missiles; a better air-to-air missile for the Air Force; and an improved missile defense ground base interceptor.

‘Critically dependent’

From satellites to global-positioning systems (GPS), space has transformed human life – and the military – in the 21st century, Hyten said. In terms of defining "space," the U.S. designates people who travel above an altitude of 50 miles as astronauts.

As the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, Hyten oversees the control of U.S. strategic forces, providing options for the president and secretary of defense. In particular, this command is charged with space operations (such as military satellites), information operations (such as information warfare), missile defense, global command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, global strike and strategic deterrence (the U.S. nuclear arsenal), and combating weapons of mass destruction.

Hyten explained that every drone, fighter jet, bomber, ship and soldier is “critically dependent” on space to conduct their own operations. All cell phones use space, and the GPS command systems overall are managed at Strategic Command, he said.

“No soldier has to worry about what’s over the next hill,” he said, describing GPS capabilities, which have fundamentally transformed humanity’s way of life.

Space needs to be available for exploration, he said.

“I watch what goes on in space, and I worry about us destroying that environment for future generations.” He said that too many drifting objects and debris exist – about 22,000 right now. A recent Chinese satellite interception created a couple thousand more debris objects that now circle about the Earth at various altitudes and pose the risk of striking satellites.

“We track every object in space” now, Hyten said, urging “international norms of behavior in space.”

He added, “We have to deter bad behavior on space. We have to deter war in space. It’s bad for everybody. We could trash that forever.”

But now rivals like China and Russia are building weapons to deploy in the lower levels of space. “How do we prevent this? It’s bigger than a space problem,” he said.

Deterring conflict in the cyber, nuclear and space realms is the strategic deterrence goal of the 21st century, Hyten said.

“The best way to prevent war is to be prepared for war,” he said.

Hyten believes the U.S. needs a fundamentally different debate about deterrence. And it all starts with nuclear weapons.

“In my deepest heart, I wish I didn’t have to worry about nuclear weapons,” he said. Hyten described his job as “pretty sobering, it’s not easy.”

But he also noted the mass violence of the world prior to 1945 when the first atomic bomb was used. Roughly 80 million people died from 1939 to 1945 during World War II. Consider that in the 10-plus years of the Vietnam War, 58,000 Americans were killed. That’s equivalent to two days of deaths in WWII, he said.

In a world without nuclear weapons, a rise in conventional warfare would produce great numbers of mass casualties, Hyten said. About war, he said, “Once you see it up close, no human will ever want to experience it.”

Though America has “crazy enemies” right now, in many ways the world is more safe than during WWII, Hyten said. The irony is that nuclear weapons deterrence has kept us from the type of mass killings known in events like WWII. But the U.S. must know how to use its nuclear deterrence effectively.

Looking ahead, Hyten said the U.S. needs to think about space as a potential war environment. An attack in space might not mean a response in space, but on the Earth.

Hyten describes space as the domain that people look up at it and still dream about. “I love to look at the stars,” but said he wants to make sure he’s not looking up at junk orbiting in the atmosphere.

‘Space geek’

Hyten has served in the Air Force for 35 years. He originally wanted to be an astronaut, but his eyesight was too bad. He got a waiver, and graduated Harvard in 1981 with an engineering degree on a ROTC scholarship. He entered the Air Force thinking he would only do four years. But then he had a close-up view of what a young Air Force officer could find in the last frontier of space as satellites and military space science were booming.

“God, I love space,” he said.

In introducing Hyten, Amy Zegart, co-director of CISAC, described him as a person of unwavering dedication and profound insights who understands the gravity of situations. “A self-described space geek,” she said.

Hyten lauded CISAC for its research and educational work on national security, and said he enjoyed being around people willing to test out new ideas and discuss potential solutions for vexing problems.

Earlier in the day on campus, Hyten met with William J. Perry, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and senior fellow at CISAC; George Shultz, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; and Condoleezza Rice, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Hoover Institution.

General Hyten was nominated for reassignment to head the U.S. Strategic Command on Sept. 8, 2016. He commanded Air Force Space Command from 2014 to 2016.

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Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,