After Military Social Media Flubs, 4-Star Promises Improvements

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The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

The U.S. military has a mixed history with social media. Most recently, the U.S. Army came under fire for what many considered an inappropriate Facebook post about a Nazi fighter.

One of the Pentagon's top officers says the military still has a long way to go to reach Americans online effectively.

"I think the challenge that we have right now is, we're still adjusting to social media," Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with Military.com on Thursday. "Now, social media is very, very stressful on the timing of information. I think we're still adjusting to learning how to effectively do that."

The military's top leaders have been on a mission to better connect with the public. But the message sometimes falls flat on social media, whether they're trying to clarify a statement or to connect with potential new recruits.

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It doesn't help that bad actors and adversaries are also watching the message, Hyten said.

He gave an example of a New Year's Eve tweet by U.S. Strategic Command that seemed to equate dropping bombs with the ball drop in New York City's Time Square. The post received a harsh response from the public.

"When I was at STRATCOM, we screwed up a couple things really bad [on] social media. I had a public affairs officer who was being clever. ... He [had] just received a B-2 [Spirit] video of dropping a very large bomb. So he said, 'What a perfect time. I'll put that out on New Year's Eve,'" said Hyten, who was head of STRATCOM prior to moving to the Joint Staff.

"[Sometimes] you end up screwing up," he said, adding that it became a lesson learned for the command. "But you have to still be able to push out your message. You just have to learn how to do that. So I think we're still learning [the best ways to] try to push out the message, and because of that we're still making some mistakes."

Hyten spoke on a number of other topics, from Space Force to the threat of "unstoppable" missiles. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: The Pentagon has spelled out to the best of its ability what the Space Force is supposed to do, but that hasn't stopped the general public from thinking that the newest military branch is supposed to fight off aliens someday. In your mind, what kind of culture does the Pentagon need to foster in order for the Space Force to be successful, and what's the message it needs to project to everyday citizens?

A: On the Jimmy Kimmel show the other night, after the Space Force announcement, they [reenacted] the vice president swearing in Gen. [John] Raymond [the first-ever Chief of Space Operations]. And there was "Gen. Raymond" with his uniform on, and then with an alien head on top. And it was funny. Steven Carell is about to do a show on Netflix about Space Force, and I can't wait to see it. If you're a space geek, which I am, you just hope they get the technical stuff correct. ... But when we look at the military people that are going to be a part of this, and right now there's 16,000 people … that are under the Space Force ... it's real simple: They need to have a warfighter's attitude.

Number one, figure out how to defend and protect themselves at all times … defend this nation at all times, and then to deny advantage to an adversary in a time of conflict. And to do it in a way that is advantageous to the United States and our allies. There'll be lots of humor and lots of jokes, and a lot of them will be funny. And I hope I can laugh along with everybody else. But this is deadly serious business. And it's all focused on war fighting. ... And if we make it any more complicated than that, we will actually screw up.

Q: Is that part of the reason why Congress wrote language in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to limit redundancy and bureaucratic bloat?

A: I think that's a great observation by Congress. And they're going to watch us like a hawk. And I've told the leadership in Congress that I applaud that and I support it. Because you can see how it could get out of control real easy. ... If you create the same overshoot, a structure that you have in the United States Air Force for the Space Force ... the overhead would just be outrageous. The good news is, is that we're all aligned. The secretary of defense, the president, the vice president, the secretary of the Air Force -- none of them want that overhead. We have the ability to design it from scratch. And Congress has said, "We'll watch you, and you'll have to come see us ... every 60 days to make sure that this is not happening."... That is their attitude, their approach, and I think it's perfect.

Q: In 2018, you spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School, saying,"If you want to save money, change the threat. Don't change the level of security in this country, change the threat," referring to an enemy's behavior. I know at the time it was a broad-stroke way to talk about Russia's military advancements in recent years, but is that thought process synonymous with Iran's recent aggression?

A: That idea … is synonymous with every potential adversary we face on the planet. We don't want war. It's sad to me that people look at the military and think we want war. If you've ever experienced war, you don't want [it]. It should be the last resort. I was at Dover [Air Force Base, Delaware, where casualties are returned to the U.S.] the night before last, and those days are horrible days. Horrible days for families. Horrible days for the soldiers that were friends of the ones that were killed. You don't want those days, so the best way to do that is to avoid war. The best way to avoid war is to deter that war from happening. And so if the threat changes, that means our military posture can change. So that's China, Russia, Iran, North Korea …. Every nation state … has to be a whole-of-government approach, and the Defense Department is just a piece of that.

Q: You mentioned you had concerns about Russia's "unstoppable missile" -- that the U.S. isn't completely prepared to stave off its hypersonic missile technologies -- during a Senate hearing in 2018. Russia recently claims to have unveiled its Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. How would you characterize its alleged advances in hypersonic tech?

A: That was a continuing conversation in that hearing.

[Hyten's spokeswoman, Maj. Trish Guillebeau, provided the full transcript of Hyten's remarks from the March 2018 hearing: "Our defense is our deterrent capability. We do not have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us. So our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat."]

We don't have the ability to shoot it down, but there's an "except" to that. And the "except" was what we've been defending ourselves with all along, which is our strategic deterrent. Our ICBMs, bombers, submarines. That provides our ability because the adversary can't do anything about our ability to respond if we're attacked. So the defense against the [supposed] Avangard is our strategic deterrent. We don't have a traditional missile defense capability against that because we have not developed it, but we do have a deterrence approach. But if anybody attacks us with those weapons, we'll be able to respond in an overwhelming fashion. So they should never think about using those weapons.

Q: Deterrence doesn't seem like a one-size-fits-all approach. How is the Pentagon tailoring deterrence for specific threats?

A: When you talk about deterrence, two things: Number one, deterrence is a whole-of-government responsibility. It's not just a military responsibility, and you have to use all the tools of the government in order to effectively deter. In my last job, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. The elements of deterrence really have not changed. The elements are the ability to impose costs on an adversary, the ability to deny benefit to that adversary, and the ability to communicate it credibly to that adversary, so they understand it. ... What we have to improve in this country is we have to improve how we communicate that to our potential adversaries.

We have so many different avenues of communication. Now with the media, with speeches, with social media ... we have so many different elements, and it is very, very difficult in the United States to align all our messages so we have a clear, concise piece of the terms. ... That is the big challenge in a free society. How do you align all those different pieces?... So the elements haven't changed, but the means have changed.

Q: In the last few years, the U.S. has seen massive disinformation campaigns on social media. How do you work through disinformation, and do you believe the Pentagon is at a crossroads in choosing to take a more reactionary approach instead of trying to get out ahead of a story?

A: Some people call me "Pollyannaish." But I have a fundamental belief in the truth, that the truth is the most powerful thing that can be brought to bear on any problem. And if you just tell the truth, and you tell it straight, and you tell it right out, then truth is more powerful than any misconception. .... But you have to be aggressive with the truth, and you have to tell the truth right up front. Ideally, if you're aggressive with the truth, you're ahead of false narratives that come. And by the way, false narratives have been around forever. ... [Reporters like you] … validate your sources as best you can, and you report on it. Most times, you're right. Sometimes you're wrong. And sometimes the source had information [that] was bad. Most times, it's just an honest mistake. And the way the press has worked in this country forever is it tends to be self-correcting. So, again, I was called "Pollyannaish" recently because I just have this hardcore belief that the truth is the most important thing in this country.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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