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Video // Airman Magazine

We interviewed Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, on Dec. 12, 2017, at USSTRATCOM headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

What is the status of STRATCOM [U.S. Strategic Command]?

The status of U.S. Strategic Command? Really, when you look at the changes that have happened over the years to our legacy as Strategic Air Command … so that came here to Omaha in 1948 with Curtis LeMay. He was the commander for nine years here in this building at the end — lived in my house for nine years. That’s the legacy of this command.

We went through a number of changes. We went through a change where we became a unified combatant command for the first time in 1992, focused on the nuclear mission. In 2002, we brought in space, cyber, missile defense, electronic warfare (EW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and countering weapons of mass destruction. A lot of changes over the years and sometime during that phase we lost our focus. We lost the focus on the nuclear mission in particular. When you lose the focus of the nuclear mission, and that is really the basis of this command, the command struggles with its identity a little bit. But we’ve had a lot of great commanders in recent years that have started bringing us out of those difficult times.

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Bird's eye view of aircraft on a tarmac
F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-18 Hornets and a B-2 Spirit, line the Andersen flight line during Exercise Valiant Shield. Valiant Shield focuses on integrated joint training and interoperability among U.S. military forces while responding to a range of mission scenarios.

Staff Sgt Bennie J. Davis III

Now, the command is back where I believe it needs to be as the preeminent element of our nation’s defense. That starts with the nuclear mission and moves into space, cyber and missile defense. But our strategic deterrent is the first and most important mission of the country, so we take that very seriously. We’re in a very good place right now from a morale perspective. We have 184,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, all who believe in this mission. All who understand the importance of the mission, but I also point out that they expect the country to come through with new modernized capabilities over the coming years too.

So, the young lieutenants, the young ensigns, who are operating the weapon systems today, they expect to see modernized capabilities that are long overdue to be honest and those capabilities are coming, but we have to be consistent in following through on them.

What do you mean when you say that USSTRATCOM is the ultimate warfighting command?

Well, if you walk around and visit this command, it doesn’t matter if you visit the sailors who operate below the sea, the Airmen who operate below the ground, the Airmen that operate above the ground, the Airmen that operate in space and cyberspace, the soldiers that operate the missile defense systems. Wherever you go, you’ll see the ultimate power of this country.

The ultimate power of this country, embodied in our nuclear capabilities, our space capabilities, enables everything that we do. This command is the backbone of our nation’s defense and if it’s the backbone of our nation’s defense, that means it has to be in a warfighting posture every minute of every day, so that our adversaries never have to worry about what we’re doing. They have to worry about what we’re going to do because we’re ready at any minute. If they cross that line, we’ll be there. They have to understand that, and our job is to be ready so that they watch us, see us, and are honestly afraid of the capabilities and power that command brings.

What should Americans know about Strategic Deterrence?

I think they should know that strategic deterrence, first and foremost, is the most important mission of our nation’s defense. It’s the capability that has prevented great power conflict for the last 70 years. People often ask me, ‘what’s a world like without nuclear weapons? Can you imagine a world without nuclear weapons?’ And the answer is, absolutely I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons. I actually know what it looks like. It’s in the history books. It’s the world before August of 1945 and in the world before August of 1945; it was a horrible, horrible world. The six years prior to that, depending on what estimate you look at, the world killed somewhere between 60 and 80 million people in World War II. About 30,000 people a day being killed in World War II. And then you look at our nation’s horrible experience in Vietnam and the tragedy of all the losses we took to our nation’s sons and daughters. Fifty-eight thousand Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. That’s two days of World War II.

So, what this command has done, what strategic deterrence has provided us is the avoidance of great power conflict with that massive, horrendous set of casualties. That’s the first thing that America needs to know about strategic deterrence.

The second thing we need to know is that in the 21st century it’s wholly different than it was in the 20th century. In the 20th century it was the United States with the Soviet Union. It was nuclear versus nuclear. It was how many weapons do I have? How many weapons do you have? How many platforms do I have? How many platforms do you have? That’s deterrence in the 20th century.

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The guided missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728) pulls into the Bay of Naples. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Viramontes)

It’s based on three fundamental precepts: Imposing costs on an adversary, denying benefit to the adversary and communicating that credible capability.

Those three elements are the same in the 21st century, but the means in which that deterrence is created is completely different. It’s now a multi-polar world; it’s a multi-domain world. And because of that we have to worry about any action that we take anywhere in the world impacts more than one person. And if we do something with our relationship with China, that impacts Russia. If we do something that impacts Russia, it impacts North Korea, it impacts Iran, it impacts the global – so deterrence is a multi-polar problem.

And then you have to worry about space and cyber. And there can be catastrophic events that take place in space and cyber that could wholly change our country forever. We have to avoid those catastrophic space and cyber events at the same time as we’re deterring a nuclear conflict. In order to do that, you have to put them all together. So, you have to think about the multi-polar aspects and the multi-domain aspects.

There are certain things that are the same, and certain things that are very different. The fundamental precepts are the same, but holy cow, the means are very different.

Is there anything else you’d like to elaborate on, about the way ahead?

I think the biggest change that will happen in this command is that instead of being focused on our seven stovepipes which we are right now, which are nuclear, space, cyber, missile defense, electronic warfare, analysis and targeting. Instead of focusing on those seven stovepipes, we’re going to have to focus on integrated effects. It doesn’t matter where they come from. The domain doesn’t really matter. What matters is the perception of our adversaries. We have to take all the capabilities that we have and be able to deliver a deterrent effect or, if required, a decisive response to an event on the globe using all the capabilities that we have. We shouldn’t care where they come from. So we shouldn’t have a command that is really seven different stovepipes. We should have a single command focused on strategic deterrence and decisive response. That’s where this command is going now. And when we get there, and we will get there, this command will go from what is already the most powerful command in the country to a completely different even more powerful command, because the power will come from the integration.

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Men work on a drone at night
Airman 1st Class Steven and Airman 1st Class Taylor prepare an MQ-9 Reaper for flight during exercise Combat Hammer, May 15, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.

Photo // Staff Sgt. Nadine Barclay

Do you think we’re doing more with less? Or is this the new normal?

I’ll say thanks for that question, and then I’m going to insult you because I hate that question.

I don’t think that we do more with less. I think we do less with less. When we have less, ultimately we do less. I don’t think there’s anything – when we tell people to do more with less, they do the best they can, and maybe the overall margin of their effect is greater, but if we have less, we do less. When we have less capability, we provide less of an effect on the battlefield. That’s just the nature of the beast.

As I look forward and I look at the way our budget is moving in pretty much all of our mission areas in this command. It doesn’t matter whether it’s nukes, space, cyber, EW missile defense; all of those missions are actually growing. And when the budget grows and more capability comes in and more people come in, that’s when you improve your capability.

So what this command is going to be doing is it’s going to be doing more with more. Our goal is not to make that more just go on a normal line, it’s to make that more accelerate as we bring new capabilities on, so we take better advantage of them. The integration gives us a geometric advantage over the capabilities that we have.

So we’re going to build more capability using the additional resources that are provided to us, both human resources and monetary resources, and build a more powerful command. But you do more with more. You don’t do more with less.

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Corporal Mark Rood, cyber network operator, Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, maintains network connectivity during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Photo // Cpl. Joseph Scanlan

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job as the commander?

I love that question because believe it or not, it’s not sitting here talking to you. The best part of this job, without a doubt, is any day I get to spend with the 184,000 men and women that do the work. The 184,000 Americans that volunteer to come to work, doing missions that are some of the most significant missions our country could ask, and doing so without a lot of public fanfare.

The communities that we live in take great care of us and they know the importance of what we do, but the nation as a whole doesn’t understand the silent warriors that operate in this command. When I get to spend time with them, it’s glorious, and it’s fun at times too. There are certain parts of my job that is not fun, but time with them, even the most difficult missions; it’s amazing.

I’ll tell you a quick story, it’s probably my favorite story in my 13 months in command, and it’s not an airman story. It’s a sailor story. It’s on board the USS Tennessee.

So I’m from Alabama. When you grow up in Alabama, one of the first things you have to do is declare – Alabama or Auburn. So when I was in first grade, I declared for the University of Alabama. Even though I got my master’s degree from Auburn, I declared for the University of Alabama, which means for the rest of my life I’m an Alabama fan. And that’s critically important to my family, friends, community, and well-being.

So I’m on board the USS Tennessee, and I’ll just say the Tennessee, the state of Tennessee does an awesome job taking care of that submarine. That submarine is the sixth most powerful nuclear nation in the world all by itself – live nuclear weapons, live sea-launched ballistic missiles all on board, 160 sailors commanded by a Navy commander of the equivalent of an Air Force lieutenant colonel and that submarine’s got orange everywhere. It’s got ‘Go Big Orange’ on signs. It has a Phillip Fulmer signed football onboard. It has Peyton Manning’s jerseys. It has national championship this and national championship that everywhere, it’s the Tennessee.

And so we go through all the stuff we have to do, and my team is on board, and we get to the end and we’re just cruising under the Atlantic, and I’m walking down and I’m talking to sailors and I walk up to this one sailor and I asked the typical general officer question, ‘so sailor, where are you from?’ ‘Sir, I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.’ ‘Really? So you’re an LSU [Louisiana State University] fan?’ ‘Oh, yes sir. I live, breathe, die LSU football. My brother went to LSU, my father went to LSU, and my father played football at LSU. LSU is everything to me.’ I said, ‘really? So what’s it like to be stationed on the Tennessee?’ And he looks at me and he goes, ‘well, Sir, at least it’s not the Alabama.’ Which caused the entire staff behind me just to crack up. That’s like the funniest thing and he goes, ‘what did I do?’ You know, what’s wrong? I said, ‘I’m from Alabama.’ ‘Oh, sir, I’m so sorry.’ I said, ‘no, no, no. If you’re from Louisiana, if you’d said something else there would be a problem. This is not a problem.’

The amazing thing is that once we hit that point, then I was just … I wasn’t the four star general; I was a guy from Alabama. And the whole conversation changed the rest of the day. We could break down and talk just about anything at that point.
So it’s funny how the littlest things create the biggest event. But the classic line, “Well, Sir’ – without even hesitating – ‘at least it’s not the Alabama.’ Just brilliant.

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During exercise Stellar Avenger, the Aegis-class destroyer USS Hopper (DDG 70) launches a standard missile (SM) 3 Blk IA, successfully intercepting a sub-scale short range ballistic missile, launched from the Kauai Test Facility, Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF), Barking Sans, Kauai. (U.S. Navy photo)

In your position, you’re in charge of the global command and control for U.S. strategic forces. What does that responsibility feel like?

It’s pretty significant. It’s something that I think about a whole lot, but I try not to think about it too much. I know that sounds like a dichotomy, but if you think about it too much, it can overwhelm you. I have to think about it a lot, though, because it is my number one job. It’s the job I have to be ready to execute at any minute, any day. And in this room right now if something happened, we’d kick you out and I could sit right there and I can conduct an operation for anything. If I wanted to, I could go downstairs and operate from the battle deck. I can go downstairs and operate from the GOC [Global Operations Center]. I can operate from the basement of my house if I have to.

The global command and control of our strategic forces is my number one job. And the one thing that’s different about this command over any other combatant command is that the actual execution of the nuclear mission flows through the combatant commander, it flows through the four-star. So because of that, I have to train regularly to be ready. I have to go through scenarios. I have to go through evaluations. The Joint Staff comes out once a year and evaluates me and the staff on our ability to conduct that mission. So it is very important and it’s also daunting because the sheer scope of the nuclear capabilities – ignoring space, cyber, missile defense, everything else – the sheer scope and power of the destruction that could be created by our nuclear capabilities causes me and I think any rational human being, pause. You actually play an exercise and we have to play an exercise that goes all the way through nuclear war. When you get to the end in a nuclear war, it is not exciting, it is not a good thing and it is a sad thing; it’s very sobering. Every time we get to that end, you look around at the staff and the staff is deflated. If we get to that point and oh by the way we’re really good at that, but if we get to that point, that means that we’ve failed at our first priority, which is deterring that conflict, because we don’t want to get into that war.

The first role of a nuclear weapon is to prevent the use of a nuclear weapon on us. If we fail at that, then we’re in the worst possible situation for the country.

I’ve heard you say there’s no such thing as a war in space. Can you explain what you mean by that?

You don’t fight a place. You don’t fight space. If you get into a war, it’s with somebody. That somebody is going to use all of their power, all of their elements of their national power, to try to defeat you in conflict. And they may want to take that war into all kinds of different realms. They may want to take it into a strategic realm; they may want to take it into the air. I think we’ve proven over the years that challenging the United States in the air in the last 50 years is not a good idea. But they’ve also watched what we do in space, and they understand that we obtain huge advantages from our space capabilities that literally allow us to see anywhere, communicate anywhere, and precisely drop weapons anywhere. All of that is enabled by space. They understand that if they get into a conflict with us, they want to take away that advantage, which means they may want to extend the war into space. But if they do, then it’s just one element of this larger conflict. The conflict is not about space; it’s about the United States versus an adversary. If you think about the place, you’re liable not to be able to deter your adversary. You have to think about the adversary. What do I have to do to defeat them, to defeat their strategy? If their strategy happens to involve space, well that’s a part of it, but it’s only a part of it. It’s not the only thing.

And the reason it’s important to understand is because if we get involved with whatever adversary it is, and they take the war into space, well, there’s a geographic combatant commander somewhere in the Pacific or in Europe or in Central Command somewhere, that is responsible for that adversary, and the first thing I want to know is what’s going on with that adversary? Not what’s going on in space? So that’s why there’s no such thing as a war in space. War could extend into space, but that will just be a piece of a larger puzzle.

What should Americans know about our defensive capabilities?

First they should know, 24/7, 365, we have Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, on duty and ready to defend the homeland. It’s a mission that we take incredibly seriously. It’s a mission that is no-fail. It’s a mission that they should feel very confident in our ability to succeed in. Yesterday, as an example, was watching our Airmen in action and to watch as the missile launch occurred, how they were postured and ready to defend.

You have the critical domain of space that has no rules of engagement or definition of what constitutes an attack. How do you deal with that?

Well, right now, actually we don’t deal with it as well as we should. We’re coming up with new rules of engagement now for our Airmen, soldiers, sailors that operate in that domain. We don’t have any international norms of behavior like we do in the other domains. When you fly an airplane and you fly it across the Pacific, and you could go into a number of different pieces of airspace. Go to the Atlantic. Go to Europe. Go through numerous different airspaces.

But you understand what the rules are. You understand who you have to talk to, how do you have to talk, who do you have to talk with, what the right distances are away from other aircraft, distances away from other territories, what rules you have to follow to stay on your flight plan. All those kinds of things have been established in long terms. The sea, the maritime domain, has even a longer set of rules.

But in space, there are no rules, no norms, so we’re all making it up. So right now, if an operator goes to work in the United States military, he or she goes to work in the space domain and has no rules of engagement. Every other domain, even cyber, has a set of rules of engagement. But in space, there are no rules of engagement. So if something bad happens, you know, a lot of people say, ‘well, you have freedom of maneuver. You can do whatever you want because there’s no rules.’ But you’ve been around enough Airmen, if you’re a really sharp airman and you’re operating in a domain and something really bad happens to you, what are you going to do? You’re actually not going to do anything. You’re going to call your boss, who’s going to call his boss, who’s going to call his boss, who’s going to call his boss, who will eventually call me, and I’ll call the secretary of defense and the secretary of may call the president. And all this time, the adversary that’s doing something has freedom of maneuver, not us.

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Men monitor radar panels
U.S. Air Force Capt. Zachary Proano, left, 23rd Bomb Squadron radar navigator, and Capt. Andrew Parlsen, right, 23rd BS Navigator, conduct a training mission on a B-52H Stratofortress over Nev.

Photo // Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder

So our goal is to make sure our Airmen, and soldiers, sailors and Marines that operate in the domain, have a set of rules. So we’re going to develop those rules, but we’re doing it on our own. That’s actually not healthy. We should be doing it in concert, especially with our allies, but in concert with the international community, to have the basic norms of behavior. Norms of behavior are things like debris in space is bad. Because an accident that occurs in the air, as tragic as it is, all that debris comes to the ground right away, but if it happens in space, that debris is there for a long, long time. It can be decades, centuries or maybe even forever. That can ruin the environment for us, for our kids, our grandkids. And the president announced yesterday, we have a desire to go to the moon and Mars again. But if we ruin the domain, then our kids won’t be able to look up and dream, and that’s how I got started in this business, by looking up and dreaming. I want to preserve that for all the generations to come.

How did the Air Force prepare you to be a joint commander?

So the Air Force prepared me to be a joint commander in a number of ways, schools certainly, joint schools, a lot. Training exercises, exercises in the Pacific, exercises in SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command], Blue Flags, Red Flags. I worked for the United States Army for a year. I worked a joint assignment at Cheyenne Mountain, [Colorado]. But I think the most important thing that the Air Force did for me is they deployed me into a joint combat environment where I had to work in a real live mission, in theater, with soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines, to achieve a common objective, to try to defeat an enemy, and an enemy that was very nasty and doing very nasty things. The most important thing it taught me is that it doesn’t matter what uniform you wear, it matters what competency you bring to the fight and what can you do to help defeat the adversary. That’s what it’s all about. And I tell you, I learned in an assignment in the Army when I was young, the value of mission command, and the value of mission-type orders. I saw that work very well when I was deployed. I’ve seen commanders that use different kinds of techniques where they give very specific orders. I don’t like that structure. I learned a lot of that from the joint environment.

It’s funny how much I learned as an airman and how much I learned as an airman in a joint community. And the learning in the joint community is actually a lot more accelerated than when you’re in an all blue suit community. The reason is because you’re quickly out of your comfort zone and you’re forced to defend why you think the way you think and you’re forced to listen to what other people think. The power of different ideas coming together is a lot more powerful than a single idea.

How do you play the long game in warfare when information and technology move so fast?

The ways you have to do that is you have to stay ahead. Actually my biggest fear is not Russia, China, North Korea, Iran or even violent extremism. My biggest fear is that the country’s lost the ability to stay ahead, and we’re moving slowly now, very deliberately, where we have adversaries that are moving unbelievably fast.

When technology is moving fast, somehow you have to stay ahead of that game. You have to leverage the technology to your advantage. Why? Not just because it’s good for the United States, but our adversaries are leveraging that technology to try to counter us, which means it’s a game of us versus them. And I want us to be dominant in that equation, which means we have to figure out how to go fast when you take advantage of technology. We can’t be slow on that piece. We have to train our people to be very technical. The Air Force in particular is a very technical service. We have to train our Airmen to understand the technical capabilities that the world has today and figure out how to take advantage of that. We have to take advantage of cyber. We have to take advantage of space. We have to take advantage of the air, because isn’t that the mission of the United States Air Force? To fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace? It’s really that simple, but if you don’t understand those three technical domains, you can’t really take advantage of it.

So I’m a little bit concerned right now that we’ve become so confident in the dominant capabilities that we have and we are the most dominant power on the planet today and we will be for the coming years. No adversary should misunderstand that. But 10 years from now, 20 years from now, if we’re not careful, somebody could catch up to us. And I believe we can never let that happen, so we have to stay ahead of technology.

Are we afraid to fail? And is it going to affect our ability to modernize?

I don’t think our people are in a place where they’re afraid to fail, but I think the system that we are operating in is afraid to fail, and that’s a dangerous thing. I compare it to what North Korea’s doing, what Kim Jong Un is doing. When you see how fast he’s building new rockets, how fast he’s building new missiles, and new warheads and testing them.

Two years ago everybody was laughing at him because he failed all the time, but he’s not failing anymore because he launched, he learned, he launched again and he learned, and pretty soon he didn’t fail anymore.

We put so much pressure on our system developers to succeed in every test that they do, that we lose sight of what’s really important. What’s really important is how fast can you get a capability that’s ahead of our adversaries and put it out in the field? And I just look at some of the news reports over the last two years where we had a singular failure, for example, in missile defense. We have a test and it doesn’t work. Sometimes that was maybe intentional that it didn’t work, sometimes it was unintentional. And we said, ‘disaster, missile defense system fails test.’ Guess what? Our missile defense tests have failed a lot less than Kim Jong Un, and he continues to move out and move fast.

We have to step up and we have to be not afraid to fail. We have to understand that failure is part of the success.

Adm. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, he had a classic line early on. He said, ‘we learn nothing from success, we only learn from failure.’ If that’s the way you learn and you have to be willing to take that on. That’s not fail to fail, that’s fail to succeed. That’s what we have to remember.

Throughout your career, who were some of your mentors and what did you learn from them?

I don’t get asked that question that often, but I think about it a lot because I keep expecting somebody to ask it to me. Very few people ask that question, for whatever reason.

The interesting part about my story is that, you know, the other way to refer to that question is who is your mentor? I didn’t have a mentor. I had about 100 mentors. Because I have a mentor from every assignment I’ve had in the Air Force. I had mentors when I was a kid. My dad was one of my mentors; my mom was one of my mentors, my brother, and my sister. I got to meet Wernher von Braun [aerospace engineer and space architect] when I was in 5th grade. I got to meet him in 1969, August of 1969. Literally, less than a month after a man walked on the moon for the first time. An American walked on the moon for the first time. So you meet Wernher von Braun and it’s like, you know, I can’t believe that I’m actually getting to do that.

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A jet prepares to take off from a carrier vessel
An EA-18G Growler from the Shadowhawks of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73).

Photo // Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Trevor Welsh

Then I get to operate in space, and I get to work with some of the best people. That first assignment I had a colonel, [Robert] Bob Hedges; Lt. Col. [James] Jim McEwen; Capt. Ed Seward, two chiefs: Sharp and Martinez, that took care of me. Right from the beginning, and taught me how to love the Air Force. That was a little bitty program office at Gunner Air Force Station, in family housing, in the Air Force automated system program office. How does the blind kid from Alabama start from there as a second lieutenant, grow up to be the commander of Strategic Command? It’s impossible, unless every assignment you have along the way, somebody takes ahold of you and helps teach you. And every assignment I’ve had, and I’ve had just amazing people: [U.S. Air Force] Gen. [Merle] Hart, [U.S. Air Force] Gen. [Thomas] Moorman, [U.S. Air Force] Gen. [Lance] Lord, Gen. Chilton, Gen. Kehler, [U.S. Air Force] Gen. [William] Shelton, [U.S. Air Force] Gen. [Joseph] Ashy. You can just, the list is almost endless of everybody that reached out and touched my career. [U.S. Air Force Lt.] Gen. [Michael] Hamel. I’ve left literally 100 people out. Because if you’re going to be successful, I think you don’t worry about finding a mentor. I think what you worry about is doing the best job you can and then mentors find you and somehow it works that way.

Are there any quotes or anything that you live by?

I don’t have my wallet on me because I figured I’d be sitting for an hour, so I didn’t want to have a wallet on me, but I carry some quotes around with me. One of them is from [Gen. of the Army during and after WWII] Omar Bradley. Omar Bradley had to lead one of the most violent, destructive, successful campaigns in the history of modern warfare, and his quote goes something like, ‘You have a choice. To preserve the peace or go to war, and those that don’t preserve the peace have to deal with the consequences of going to war.’ And as I sit here in STRATCOM, the number one goal is preserve the peace so we don’t go to war, so we don’t have to deal with that piece. That’s the deterrence message all on its own.

I have a great fondness for [U.S. Army Gen. George] Marshal and [U.S. Army Gen. Dwight D.] Eisenhower and the partnership they had. I love the quote from Gen. Marshal when he was given the job of commanding the allied invasion of Europe by President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt. Marshal looked at President Roosevelt and said, ‘can I think about it overnight?’ Just of all the strange quotes, thinking about it overnight. That’s actually one of the smartest things probably a human ever said. Because he thought about it overnight and he came in the next day, and the next quote was, ‘Mr. President, thank you very much for the offer.’ It is the greatest general’s job in the history of our country. Right? The invasion of Europe. He said, ‘you don’t want me to do it, you want Eisenhower.’ ‘Why do I want …’ ‘Eisenhower will do a great job, and if I’m not here as Chief of Staff of the Army, who’s going to work with Eisenhower and MacArthur in the Pacific? Because MacArthur respected Marshal and Eisenhower respected Marshal. I will hold the Army together and hold the nation together.’

So the fact that he made a personal, talk about service before self, all the way through his life. All that stuff.

So those things pop into my mind a lot.

What’s it going to be like to, if and when we do take footsteps on the moon again, or possibly even Mars? For you, what would that feel like to see that happen?

It would feel like I was ten years old again. It will actually feel that way. I’d feel like a little kid.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was at my great-grandfather’s house in Port Huron, Michigan, watching it on a little black and white television. I remember the feeling. I remember the feeling when I met von Braun less than a month later. And that put me on a path, and that’s the path that I’ve stayed on for my entire life, but it all goes back to July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The fact that I got to meet both of those gentlemen over my career. The fact that I’ve got to know and be friends with astronauts. Again, I’m blind, so I can’t be an astronaut; I wanted to be an astronaut. That’s what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t. But the Air Force gave me a waiver, and let me come and serve in the Air Force, and I fell in love with the Air Force. Then I got into space, and I got to do all these other things besides space to help defend the nation. It’s glorious. But it traces back to that magical day, July 20, 1969.

Whenever it happens and it will happen again, I will be alive when it happens. I don’t care if I’m 70 or 80 years old, whenever it happens I guarantee I will feel like a little kid again.

Do you think light pollution has stifled space exploration? Or have people stopped looking up and asking bigger questions?

No, I think we’ve stifled the younger generation. “We,” being the nation’s leadership. And I’m now one of the nation’s leaders, so I have to put myself in the category, because it’s our job to motivate the next generation. President Kennedy did it in the early 1960s. And also he said we’re going to go to the moon by the end of the decade. Put a man on the moon and return him safely. But he also talked about sea of peace or a theater of war. What is space going to be? And it’s up to us.

He talked about all those things. He motivated the next generation.

I think if we have a project in NASA that is ultimately going to Mars that the momentum will start building.

If you look back at history and I like to look at that part of history. After the Kennedy speech, there was this huge outpouring of support for going to the moon. And then President Kennedy was assassinated, and President Johnson came in. And then there was this bill, this enormous bill, oh by the way, it’s about $100 billion in today’s money, so in the overall scheme of things, how much is that? But anyway, that was a lot of money that we were going to have to pay to do that. So there’s a lot of pushback. Are we going to go there or not? And the nation as a whole, President Johnson at the lead, said we’re going to go, we’re going to do it, and we’re going to pay the bill. Congress passed the money to pay the bill and then people got excited.

Then a tragedy happened. January 1967, with [U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Gus] Grissom, [U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Edward] White and [U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Roger] Chaffee all dying in the accident. Thirty months later we walked on the moon, getting there on a completely different rocket than blew up in January 1967. Thirty months.

So this country can do amazing things when we’re motivated. I think it’s our job to motivate the youth. I think when NASA puts us on a plan to get to Mars, or Elon Musk does it, or Jeff Bezos does it, or somebody does it, as soon as — just look at the excitement that happens from Elon Musk flying a supply ship to the space station, but taking the first stage and flying it back. I bet you remember watching that TV. I’ll bet you remember getting excited about it. Everybody gets excited about that stuff. Now multiply that by a thousand, and that’s going to be when he or Bezos or the United States or all of us are going to Mars, because the whole country will be watching, and that’s when the youth of America will get excited.

Anything else you want to add?

Going back to my favorite day. My favorite day is when I get to spend time with the youngest folks. If you go into the missile fields today, go into missile holes and talk to two lieutenants, they’re doing amazing things. And they love serving their country. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Wyoming or Montana or North Dakota or Colorado or Nebraska, wherever they happen to be, they love it.

We have people that are under the water today. My deputy, [U.S. Navy Vice] Admiral [Charles] Chas Richard, grew up 15 miles away from me in Northern Alabama. One year behind me. Rival high school. He’s spent seven years of his life underwater. Somewhere around today there are ensigns, lieutenants, sailors, under the water. I met a chief of the boat one time that spent 17 years of his career under the water. That’s just amazing to me, the commitment.

So the last thing is just thanks to all the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who choose to serve our country because they are what make this country the best, without a doubt.