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Event Recap September 17, 2021

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discusses the future of deterrence

By Jacob Mezey

On Friday, September 17, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense (FD) practice hosted the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General John E. Hyten for an event titled “Toward Integrated Deterrence.” Gen Hyten sat down with NBC News National Security Correspondent Courtney Kube to discuss the concept of integrated deterrence and its role in meeting today’s security challenges. This event is the fourth installment of this year’s Commanders Series, the Atlantic Council’s flagship speakers’ forum for senior military and defense leaders. In line with FD’s mission to produce forward-looking analyses of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare, this event explored how the US Department of Defense is rethinking deterrence for the twenty-first century.

Atlantic Council Board Director and Saab’s Head of Strategic Partnerships and International Affairs, Michael Andersson, opened the event and welcomed the audience. Mr. Andersson reflected on the insights of the latest Commanders Series guest, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, who considered the future of warfare in an era of strategic competition with Russia and China, laying out key themes which Gen Hyten expanded upon in his conversation with Ms. Kube. Mr. Andersson then turned things over to Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, the Vice Chair of the Scowcroft Center. Ambassador Dobriansky introduced Gen Hyten and Ms. Kube, providing an overview of the security landscape which Gen Hyten and the Defense Department are currently operating. Ambassador Dobriansky noted how modern threats are “permeating across multiple domains and theaters” and new technologies “are increasing the pace, scope, and lethality of all fires during combat.” After setting the stage for the discussion, the Ambassador welcomed Gen Hyten, who tackles these challenges daily in his role as vice chairman.

After taking the stage, Gen Hyten pointed out the irony that, despite being invited to speak at the Commanders Series, he is no longer in the chain of command as a member of the Joint Chiefs. He went on to describe the need to bring speed back to the Pentagon. Gen Hyten remarked on the Department of Defense’s attempts to “remove all risk… from the operational side, all risk from the acquisitions side,” which slowed down all defense operations. When it comes to remaining ahead of China, Gen Hyten recognizes that speed will be of the utmost importance and that will require taking some risks and making educated bets in the acquisition process. He also focused on winning “functional battles” in a future conflict, meaning the ability to maintain command and control, joint fires, information advantage, and logistics in a contested environment. Ultimately, the General believes, “it’s all about the people. It’s all about the servicemen and women and their families.”

Ms. Kube then joined Gen Hyten to discuss the future of US deterrence and deterrence. According to Gen Hyten, integrated deterrence is meant to bring capabilities beyond the military’s nuclear and conventional forces to bear in its deterrent posture. Not only do cyber and space capabilities play increasingly important roles, but so do the diplomatic and economic arms of the US Government, as well as the power of our allies and partners. Gen Hyten noted nuclear arms control agreements with China as an important piece of effective deterrence. Prompted by Ms. Kube, Gen Hyten explained that arms control negotiations and agreements are good for stability. Importantly, they allow nuclear powers to communicate their nuclear doctrines to each other and get a realistic sense of each other’s capabilities through a verification regime; “understanding how and when they would use nukes is good.” Gen Hyten noted that deterrence is not just about being able to impose costs and deny benefit to an adversary, but being able to credibly communicate that ability to the other side, expressing that “it is very hard to deter an adversary if all your capabilities are in the black.”

The conversation then shifted to strategic competition with China, with Ms. Kube asking who is winning in the race between China and the United States. In Gen Hyten’s view, “the good news is that [the United States is] winning, but the bad news is that it is not because of what [the United States is] doing, it is because of what [it] did.” While the United States still has the most powerful military in the world due to its development since the end of the Cold War, Gen Hyten warned that US advantage will continue to shrink unless the nation can increase the pace of its own modernization to match that of China. To tackle this problem, Gen Hyten led a fact-finding trip with the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) to technology industry centers like San Jose, California and Austin, Texas to see how the private sector produces innovative products at an extremely high pace. Gen Hyten underscored the value of this trip and reflected that the Defense Department must “do business the way America does business because the innovation of the world is still in America.”

Ms. Kube concluded the discussion by asking the General about his concerns for the future of the US military. Gen Hyten stated that he is always optimistic about the future, but expressed his concern that young officers will not aspire to become generals. In his opinion, part of the problem with the slow pace of change in the Department of Defense is that a long career in the military might be seen as comparatively less exciting and lucrative than a private sector position. However, Gen Hyten reiterated that the best part of his job is “waking up every morning, putting on this uniform, and going to work every day with the best people in the world.”

You can re-watch “Toward integrated deterrence: A conversation with vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen John E. Hyten” here or below. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Jacob Mezey is a Young Global Professional for Forward Defense in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.

Image: Photo: U.S. Air Force