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On Point: Q&A With Gen. John Hyten, USAF (Ret.)

Gen. John Hyten, USAF (Ret.), the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now a senior principal at Pallas Advisors, identifies key shortfalls regarding the U.S. military.

Gen. John Hyten, USAF (Ret.), the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now a senior principal at Pallas Advisors, identifies key shortfalls regarding the U.S. military.

Where has the United States fallen short in regard to Russia?

Russia invaded Ukraine for the second time last year. Somehow the United States was caught by surprise. It is upsetting for me that that could even happen, but it’s absolutely crystal clear. You have to understand that Vladimir Putin is Russia and Russia is Vladimir Putin and that’s the way it is. If you actually study the adversary, it is crystal clear exactly what was going to happen and how it was going to happen. Vladimir Putin said what he was going to do.

We stopped studying Russia 30 years ago. We need to go back and study Russia again. In the Russian Revolution from 1917 to 1921, 10 million Russians died. In World War II, 17 million Russians died, almost all male, again 15% of the population just a generation later. And Russia holds that as a badge of pride. So now, 200,000 casualties, 60,000 dead and trench warfare again in Europe. That is what’s going on today. But we are surprised.

How about China?

What Putin says, Putin does. What Xi Jinping says, he doesn’t always do. He doesn’t do it unless it is aligned with his strategy. If it’s not aligned with the strategy and he is not going to do it, it is disinformation. And that’s part of the Chinese culture. But if we don’t get after understanding China and understanding Russia, we’re going to continue to make serious mistakes.

How can the United States improve its stance versus our adversaries?

Another one of the mistakes we’ve been making that I don’t understand either is that our nation has forgotten what deterrence really means. Just forgotten. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I was in a meeting with the others who were trying to understand the challenge we had moving toward a Chinese threat, and we were frustrated because our force, even on the Joint Staff, didn’t fully understand what China was doing and didn’t understand what it would take to deter them. I asked if they could tell exactly what the Soviet force structure was in the 1970s and the Soviet nuclear doctrine, and they could. It didn’t matter where you were in the military then, that is what you had to do because you had to understand your adversary. But walk around today and ask what the Chinese nuclear doctrine is, and people say, “I don’t know.” People don’t understand.

How can the U.S. military more readily harness innovation?

On my last trip with the JROC [the Joint Requirements Oversight Council], we were going to American industry, seeing big industry but also a lot of the small industries, some of the innovative companies that nobody’s heard of. When you do that, you realize that the United States still leads the world in innovation. That innovation is easy to find in the small companies, but it’s actually hard to find in the big defense companies. Why is that? Because the big defense companies have figured out how to respond to their customer and their customer is asking for a certain thing, and they make enormous amounts of money by delivering that thing. It is a symbiotic relationship, but it is not by nature innovative.

If you’re going to innovate and you’re a big defense company, you have to actually do it outside of the box. You can’t do it in the box because the box doesn’t want innovation. The Department of Defense doesn’t know how to buy it. We think we can buy software like we buy tanks.