Gen. John Hyten left U.S. Strategic Command’s soon-to-be former headquarters building to a shower of applause Friday as hundreds of workers “clapped-out” the outgoing StratCom commander and his wife, Laura, on his last official day of work.
On Monday, the Air Force general hands over leadership of the Offutt-based command to Adm. Charles Richard, the Navy submarine officer who once served as his deputy.
The change-of-command ceremony will take place in the atrium of StratCom’s new $1.3 billion command-and-control facility, minutes after the building is officially dedicated and named for Gen. Curtis LeMay, who brought the Strategic Air Command to Offutt Air Force Base in 1948 and went on to lead SAC’s nuclear mission for the next nine years.
LeMay’s name is moving with StratCom from the current headquarters building, which opened in 1957.
So far, about 1,900 of StratCom’s 3,200 headquarters employees have moved into the 914,000-square-foot headquarters, which Hyten described as a “weapons system, not a building” in an interview with The World-Herald last week.
“If everything goes according to schedule, we could all be in by Christmas,” Hyten said.
The workers that remain are primarily weapons operators, and those in charge of nuclear command and control. He said the very last piece to move will be the Global Operations Center, the famous, and secretive, underground command post that monitors worldwide threats around the clock.
“The operational equipment is the last to move over,” Hyten said. “I have a rule, and I’m sure Admiral Richard will, too, that we don’t move over until we’re 100%. Not 99, but 100.”
But testing of the systems in the new operations center is scheduled to begin this week.
“We’ll actually start doing full up exercises with all that equipment,” Hyten said. “We’ll run real data, and real capabilities through it, we’ll check and make sure it’s running.”
The “we,” however, does not include Hyten himself, who is moving on to a new appointment as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the No. 2 position in the uniformed military hierarchy. His new boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, is scheduled to attend Monday’s ceremonies.
Hyten’s three-year tenure has been marked by “out with the old, in with the new.”
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Since he took over in November 2016, StratCom has spun off its cyberwarfare and space defense duties to U.S. Cyber Command, in Maryland, and U.S. Space Command, in Colorado.
A few jobs left Offutt as a result. But others were gained when StratCom took over and began to unify the nation’s antiquated nuclear command, control and communications structure, which the military calls NC3.
NC3 involves oversight of the daily readiness and security of the command and control system, though not the highly classified launch orders that would be used in a crisis.
Until 2018, NC3 was spread out over several military commands and managed by a committee at the Pentagon. The NC3 system was rocked by a series of scandals from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, which prompted the change.
Hyten said StratCom is seeking funds to modernize the command-and-control system, though the pace of improvements is threatened by budget gridlock in Washington.
“In the last 13 months, we’ve grabbed hold of that enterprise, and we understand that enterprise a lot better than we did,” he said. “We’re further along at this point than I thought we’d be.”
Hyten’s biggest push has been to keep funding on track for a massive modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons and the systems that deliver them. Currently the nation’s nuclear defense relies on missiles, gravity bombs and warheads carried by submarines and bombers — almost all of which are 30 to 50 years old.
Russia has already begun modernizing its nuclear arsenal, Hyten said, and China is bringing new weapons online, too.
In a 2017 report, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of modernizing the U.S. arsenal at $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years.
Even with some pushback from House Democrats this year, Hyten said he is satisfied with progress on nuclear modernization during the past three years.
But he warned that there is a long way to go.
“We got a late start. We should have started this modernization program as much as a decade ago,” Hyten said. “That puts a lot of pressure on the system, and a lot of risk. We’re trying to figure out what we can do to relieve that risk.”
Although the costs are high, Hyten believes they are a bargain considering how heavily the U.S. relies on its nuclear weapons to defend itself and its allies.
“Even in the height of modernization, we’re still only about 6.5% of the defense budget. For the capability that secures our nation more than any other, I think that’s a pretty fair price to pay.”
If the U.S. hopes to reduce the cost of nuclear modernization, Hyten said, it’s time for new arms control talks. The 2010 New START treaty limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece.
“Arms control helps improve our strategic stability, especially nuclear arms control. So I support that,” Hyten said.
He said the two sides could safely reduce their arsenals, if they did so in tandem. And he noted that Russia is building new types of weapons that aren’t covered by New START, such as cruise missiles and torpedoes that are nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed.
He said the U.S. was wise to quit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was negotiated in 1987. Russia stopped complying in 2014, he said, while the U.S. formally withdrew earlier this year.
“You really can’t have a treaty when only one party is abiding by the treaty,” Hyten said.
While Hyten’s StratCom legacy will be his push for nuclear modernization, his career came close to ending in scandal. In July — after his nomination to the Joint Chiefs slot — an Army colonel who had been relieved of her position on the StratCom staff for toxic leadership accused him of sexually assaulting her in 2017.
An Air Force investigation found no support for her allegations, but she repeated them to the Senate Armed Services Committee before Hyten’s confirmation hearings.
He denied them, strongly and repeatedly, under close questioning by committee members. The committee ultimately voted 20-7 to advance his nomination, and the full Senate confirmed him on a 75-22 vote.
“The process was unbelievably detailed, unbelievably aggressive (and) thorough … and got to, I believe, where the truth was,” Hyten said.
He acknowledged that sexual harassment remains a major problem in the military.
“The numbers show we are not getting markedly better, and we should,” Hyten said. “Everybody that comes in the military deserves to work in a place that treats them with dignity and respect at all times. Any time that doesn’t, we have to do better.”