The United States’ ability to develop military technologies is being hamstrung by a “brutal” bureaucracy with a risk-averse culture which is preventing it from adequately countering China’s arms development, according to the Pentagon’s second-highest-ranking officer.
“The pace [China is] moving and the trajectory that they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it,” said Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Defense Writers Group meeting on Oct. 28.
“It will happen.”
Bureaucracy Stunting Military Development
Hyten, who is set to retire this month after two years as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, lamented the slow turnaround time for research and development in the U.S. military. He noted that the average time he expected new projects to take was 10 to 15 years. That process goes even longer at times if there is cause for significant oversight, he said.
To put the pace in perspective, Hyten compared U.S. efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) during the Cold War with similar efforts today.
During the 1960s, Hyten said, the United States researched, developed, and deployed some 800 rockets in just under five years during a push to counter similar development by the Soviet Union.
The United States’ current efforts to develop its next generation of ICBMs, on the other hand, began in 2015, and the weapons aren’t expected to be fully operational until 2035.
“We can go fast if we want to,” Hyten said. “But the bureaucracy we’ve put in place is just brutal.”
Hyten underscored that the dangers posed by such bureaucracy are becoming more clear and more imminent. He told reporters that the United States conducted nine hypersonic weapons tests in the past five years. China, meanwhile, has conducted hundreds.
“Single digits versus hundreds is not a good place,” Hyten said.
A hypersonic missile is a new type of weapon that’s both fast and maneuverable. With a maneuverable trajectory that isn’t confined to a fixed parabolic arc of a ballistic missile, they can evade current missile defense systems.
The general specifically acknowledged that the Chinese regime recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle in secret, the existence of which was only made known through the media months after the fact.
Such a capability could have been countered long ago, had bureaucracy not gotten in the way, Hyten said.
That’s because the United States has sought to remove virtually all risk from the development process over the past two decades, the general said, which has significantly stunted the research development of new defense capabilities. Chief among those capabilities were U.S. hypersonic weapons.
He offered the example of the HTV-1 and HTV-2 systems, American hypersonic glide vehicles not dissimilar from the one recently tested by China. The systems were first tested in 2010 and, after one failed test, subjected to years of investigation. After the second failed test, the program was scrapped.
“We were developing hypersonics ahead of everybody in the world and the first test failed,” Hyten said. “The first test of everything fails.”
“So the first test fails and we have two years of investigation into why it did fail. Two years. Then we launch again and it fails, and we failed. This time it was two fails and we canceled the program and we stopped.”
Hyten contrasted this approach with Cold War-era efforts during which the United States rapidly developed weapons systems through trial and error: failing, studying those failures, and implementing fixes until systems were functional. He singled out the development of Discoverer 14, the first-ever spy satellite, as a counterpoint to current processes.
“Discoverer 1 through 13 failed in about 18 months, and Discoverer 14 happened and it worked,” Hyten said. “If you want to go fast, that’s what you do.”
A Risk-Averse Culture
The unwillingness to suffer failure in the development process, according to Hyten, is preventing the U.S. military from adequately competing with, and countering China. To fix that, Hyten underscored that the current culture of risk aversion would need to be done away with.
“We have to understand risk and development,” Hyten said.
“Failure is just part of the learning process and if you want to get back to speed you better figure out how to put speed back into everything again, and that means taking risk, and that means learning from failures, and that means failing and moving fast.”
“But we have not done that,” Hyten added. “This country better do that or, eventually, even though they’re behind, China will pass us.”
Hyten noted that, due to the combination of bureaucracy and risk aversion in the Pentagon, the department was struggling to create technologies when they were needed. What takes years at the Pentagon, Hyten said, takes six months in the private sector.
One odd ramification of this state of affairs, Hyten noted, is the over-classification of military technologies.
Military leaders, wary of red tape and political interference, have taken to classifying as much of their projects as possible because fewer people with access to the project means fewer people who can slow it down, Hyten said.
“We are so over-classified in what we do,” Hyten said. “So over-classified.”
Ironically, the push to classify as a means of speeding up development may have the effect of weakening national security in the long term, he said. This is because the obfuscation of military technologies prevents the United States from adequately demonstrating its strength to potential adversaries, thereby undermining its ability to successfully deter conflict.
“How do you expect to deter everybody if you keep everything in the black?” Hyten said. “The last element of deterrence, that we don’t do, is communicate it credibly to our adversaries.”
“You can’t actually deter your adversary if everything is in the black, you know?” he added.