OTH Interview of Lt Gen David Deptula, USAF (Ret): Part 1

OTH Interviewers: Maj Jerry “Marvin” Gay, Maj Jay Patrich, Maj Sean Atkins, Maj Marcus McNabb

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part interview of Lt Gen David Deptula, USAF (Ret). In the first part, Lt Gen Deptula, currently Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, shares his insightful perspective on current and future challenges for Air Force and broader Joint Force leaders. In the second part of the interview to be published separately, Lt Gen Deptula will share his views on the combat cloud, data analytics, command and control, and several other topics related to the future of warfare.

Over the Horizon (OTH): Over the Horizon is excited and quite fortunate to have with us today Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Lt Gen David Deptula. Sir, first and foremost, thank you for your time. The OTH team appreciates your willingness to speak with us today on the challenges facing our nation and their implications for the Joint Force.

Lt Gen David A. Deptula (DD): It’s my pleasure.

OTH: General Deptula, you had a remarkable 34-year Air Force career. Just to name a couple of your highlights, you were the principle attack planner for the DESERT STORM air campaign and later in your career, you became the Air Force’s first-ever Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (DCS/ISR). Since your retirement in October 2010, you have remained extremely busy. Where we would like to start, however, is with your current role with the Mitchell Institute. Sir, the Mitchell Institute’s mission is to “provide creative, insightful policy options that better empower our nation’s leaders by informing the national security debate, educating the public on aerospace power’s unique role in securing America’s global interests, and cultivating airminded talent.” Although the Institute is gaining popularity, some people may not be familiar with its mission and work. Can you talk about how it started, your mission and priorities, what you have been able to do, and where you hope to see it evolve?

DD: I very much appreciate the opportunity to do that, and I hope you’ve had an opportunity to visit the Mitchell Institute’s website . If you have not, I would recommend you go to the site and subscribe so you can get access to the products our team is generating. Our vision for the website is for it to become a useful airpower resource. For instance, the Mitchell Institute is working to create a section on the site for airpower-related references. Throughout my career I often wanted to use or cite a specific source regarding an airpower issue, such as the original Army Field Manual 100-20. During those days, I would have to go down to the library. Obviously, we are in a much different time today with technology. All of this was before the internet of course. Although some historical references and documents can be found on the internet, I want to gather a large number of airpower related documents and historical sources in a single place. That is somewhat of an aside, but I hope you and others are taking advantage of what the Mitchell Institute is publishing already.

OTH: Thank you for that, and please know that we already use your site for research purposes and will continue to do so.

DD: Ok, good. The Mitchell Institute stood up in the fall of 2013 as a result of the Air Force Association realizing the need to accomplish more in voicing the benefit of what aerospace power offers to meet the nation’s security challenges. Since that time, we have proudly served as the nation’s only aerospace power-focused think tank. Recognizing that the defense establishment faces an inflection point amidst significant financial pressures and a shift in the strategic environment, it’s our goal to educate key audiences about the unique policy options that aerospace power affords the country. That’s the main reason why the Mitchell Institute was formed. However, we’re also focused on influencing the resource debate here in Washington. Additionally, the Mitchell Institute aspires to cultivate aerospace-minded policy leaders. We think the best way to do that is to empower and inform dialogue with insightful analysis, and at the same time we seek to provide creative insightful policy options that educate the public and better empower our nation’s leadership.

OTH: Those are certainly ambitious and worthy goals. Transitioning now to questions centered on the future of warfare, thinking back over your own career and all of the changes you personally experienced or witnessed, how has the conduct of war changed as we transitioned from the Industrial Age into the Information Age?

DD: What I would tell you is our military is still undergoing a transition from the Industrial Age of warfare to the Information Age. Even if the military could achieve a fully functioning “combat cloud” today—what I mean by a “combat cloud” is rapid, ubiquitous, and seamless sharing of information—it is highly unlikely that the military would make the most of that new system. The reality is, the Department of Defense and its respective service branches are still aligned in an Industrial Age fashion with employment doctrine still based on traditional attrition and annihilation strategies of warfare. For instance, hardware—airplanes, ships, tanks, satellites, and other weapon systems—still serve as the centerpiece of military strategy and operational employment. A key precept of the “combat cloud” construct—Information Age warfare—is that while materials remain important, information is a co-equal priority. It has to be considered as such when addressing everything from policy and budget decisions to mission considerations. So, we are moving into the Information Age, but progress must be accelerated. At the same time, we must also recognize that information and knowledge are of no greater value today than it was in the past. However, what has changed is the ability for data to be assimilated, synthesized, and delivered immediately so that the data is useful. And, based on your team’s background, I know that you all get it. The problem is, the institutional leadership of the services still do not. We have built an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) enterprise that is capable of making the source of the information transparent, the analysis good enough to be predictive, and the dissemination of the information extremely rapid, but we have to do a much better job and establish institutional objectives to achieve that vision. One of the biggest challenges the Department of Defense faces is that they are too slow in adopting the advantages the information age yields.

OTH: You alluded to the various current and future challenges the Department of Defense is facing. With that in mind, how would you evaluate the Air Force’s or Air Component’s current ability to provide Joint Task Force Commanders with an optimal mix of capabilities and forces?

DD: First, I appreciate your inclusion of the “air component” in the question. Too many people in positions of authority inside the Pentagon and in Congress still do not understand that the military services do not fight. The services organize, train, and equip, and provide components to a Joint Task Force Commander who actually does the fighting. Your question shows that you all get it. Unfortunately, too many do not. So, I would tell you that there is no component that provides a greater mix of capabilities and forces to the Joint Task Force Commander than does the United States Air Force. Let me give you a couple of examples. Today, our joint forces have the highest battlefield survivability rates, not only because of advances in medicine. Survivability rates are so high also due to our ability to rapidly transport our wounded to critical care facilities. And, how do we do that? By air. Today, unlike conflicts of the past, our joint forces go into combat with more information about the threat and have better situational awareness that is provided in near real-time. And, where do they get that information? From air and space through cyberspace. Today, unlike the past, our joint task forces are able to operate with much smaller numbers across great distances across inhospitable terrain because they can be sustained over the long haul…by air. And today, navigation and precise location anywhere on the surface of the Earth for both peaceful and combat applications is provided by an Air Force GPS constellation from space. Finally, not only do joint forces receive firepower from the air when they need it, but the adversaries posing the greatest risk to our nation are being directly attacked from the air. Over the last decade of the 20th century and the first 17 years of the 21st century, Air Force Airmen have created a structured capability that has become ubiquitous. As a result, the Air Force has become an indispensable force. Now that is both a blessing and a challenge. I am sure you have heard the Chief of Staff of the Air Force say we have made it look easy when it is not. As a result of that, too many take what we do today for granted. The solution for that is education and improved awareness.

OTH: Understanding the ubiquitous nature of Air Force and Air Component capabilities, we would like to delve into a little more specificity with the latest conceptual trends vis-à-vis the Air Component. Sir, when you hear Multi-Doman Operations or Multi-Domain Battle, what does that mean to you?

DD: Honestly, those are new labels or descriptors that describe what we have been doing since the advent of warfare. First, there was warfare on the ground, then on the sea, and then from the air. Space became an operating domain in the middle of last century, and cyber became one toward the end of last century. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 was a step toward realizing the benefits of greater integration of operations across domains. And now, “multi-domain” terminology is a maturing of that realization in order to optimize our warfighting capability. Today we need to reach beyond “interoperability” to achieve “interdependency” among the domains that exploit the advantages of each in a highly integrated fashion. But, to me, “multi-domain operations” is simply the latest attempt to describe what was intended to be accomplished with joint operations.

OTH: Some of the our team just came back from the Multi-Domain Battle Symposium with General Perkins. Our team has been talking a lot about the concept, and we are interested in the work The Army is doing on the multi-domain concept. The way General Perkins seems to characterize the concept is: 1. it is not something altogether new and 2. the new facet of this old concept is a deepening interdependence that calls for a more holistic approach to jointness. That slight but important modification toward recognizing and leveraging that interdependency requires an adjustment to how we approach the problem set. The combat cloud seems to fit neatly into this idea and the multi-domain construct.   

DD: Yes, it does. But here is what is extraordinarily challenging as we try to mature and actualize the Combat Cloud. It is the dichotomy between who is developing during the concept development phase, and then who does the employing. It is really tough because each service comes up with its own ability to increase and enhance situational awareness. The Navy is the furthest ahead with their concepts of Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) and other initiatives that allow them to integrate information exchange across different operational elements. The Air Force has a number of disparate datalinks and the joint world is working to bring forward a number of joint programs, but we cannot afford to build segregated systems in each one of the service components. When we go to fight, we must be able to fight as an integrated whole. That is one of the biggest future challenges for multi-domain operations.

OTH: That is a perfect segue into our follow-on question. With respect to multi-domain operations, how would you characterize the Air Force’s role today and in the future?

DD: In all sincerity, the Air Force is at the forefront of multi-domain operations because of our operating perspective. We routinely operate with a global and operational, or theater-wide perspective. And obviously, we operate at the tactical level. Our Space Operators circle the globe every 90 minutes. Our Airmen fly across the width of a deployed Army division in 90 seconds. What takes a soldier in the Army 25 years to master, we have Lieutenants traversing that area in 90 seconds. Our cyber warriors operate at the speed of light. Now, we do that today and we will continue doing that in the future to even better effect because that is our mission. So we will continue to hone our skills to optimize our performance given the advances in technology. It is important to recognize that our sister services possess and operate aircraft, and they operate in space, and they operate in cyberspace. But here is the difference—the air, space, and cyberspace elements of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps are rightly dedicated to facilitating the core functions of their parent service—that being operations on the ground, at sea, and in the littorals. However, there is only one U.S. Air Force. We are not just another air arm, but rather a service specifically dedicated and structured to exploit the advantages of operating in the third dimension. It is this unique and specific focus that keeps our nation on the leading edge of the challenges we face. I have been fond of saying that is what makes aerospace power America’s asymmetric advantage.

OTH: Switching gears a little, you have been a proponent of the “sensor-shooter” approach to acquiring and employing weapons systems. What do you think the “sensor-shooter” Air Force of 2035 looks like?

DD: Physically the Air Force of 2035 is going to look like the one we already have with the capabilities in our current inventory. Hopefully there will be some surprises. I think two capabilities that have the potential to make huge differences by 2035 are directed energy and the maturation of cyber warfare. My vision, and the ultimate in effects-based operations, is to compel an adversary to act in accordance with U.S. strategic interests without that adversary even knowing that they have been acted upon. That is a far cry from killing people and breaking things. But ultimately that is what we want to be able to do, which takes you into a completely different realm of achieving desired effects and outcomes. So, by 2035, we will be going in that direction. I would also offer that the key to getting there involves thinking beyond the constraints that traditional military culture imposes on new technology. Some of you might have heard me say this before, but I will use the example of 5th Generation aircraft. People call the F-22 and F-35 “fighters.” But, technologically they are not just “fighters.” More precisely, they are F, B, A, E, EA, RC,AWACS-22s and 35s—they are flying “sensor-shooters.” Similarly, so is the new B-21. Why are we calling it a B-21? I am pragmatic, so I know this historical—albeit anachronistic—nomenclature is going to be around for awhile more. However, in reality, the B-21 is a long-range sensor-shooter. The B-21 is going to have capabilities much, much greater than bombers of the past have had. That is why I believe that as we move into the future, new aircraft are more properly described as sensor-shooters. Their advantage comes from enabling Information Age warfare inside contested battlespace whenever we desire. However, that is only if we exploit their nontraditional capabilities to the degree that those capabilities become accepted as the new traditional. Modern sensor-shooter aircraft enable the kind of interdependency that I spoke of earlier. They are going to be key elements in what will become the Combat Cloud enabling all our forces to work in an interdependent manner capitalizing on shared information.

OTH: Obviously, it is not enough to merely possess and operate these sensors and platforms, we must also be able to adequately command and control (C2) these supremely complex capabilities. In your estimation, how do we most effectively C2 the sensor-shooter force of 2035 that you just described?

DD: First, C2 of those forces must significantly change because of advances in technology, concepts, and threats. While the increase in information velocity is enabling dramatic increases in the effectiveness of combat operations, there is also a huge downside as a result of our culture. If you take a look at what has happened with the introduction of modern telecommunications and the ability to rapidly transmit information between various levels of command, there are many examples of Information Age operations where tactical-level decisions were usurped by commanders at the operational, and even strategic levels of war. This phenomenon is occurring daily in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). The construct of centralized control and decentralized execution has devolved into one of centralized control and centralized execution that has reduced effectiveness in accomplishing mission objectives. We have slowly evolved into the Soviet model for C2—not for the same reasons, but because technology enabled that degree of control. Today’s commanders have to discipline themselves to operate at their respective command level. In the future, when we are faced with a significant threat that challenges us in the air, space, and cyber domains, you are not going to have time to do a 48-day evaluation to determine whether or not you can use a particular munition for a given target (as has been occurring in OIR). The challenges of emerging threats, information velocity, and advanced technologies demand more than just a mere evolution of current command and control paradigms. Instead, it is going to require a new approach that capitalizes on the opportunities inherent in those same challenges. We are not going to be able to achieve success through incremental enhancements to current C2 structures. That method of incremental change invokes an Industrial Age approach and frankly, has lost its currency and a lot of its meeting. So, the requirements of Information Age warfare demand not spiral development, but modular, distributed, technological maximization that permits and optimizes operational agility. That kind of agility cannot be achieved without dramatic changes to our current C2 concepts of operation. We have to move toward distributed C2 concepts, and shift that old centralized control and decentralized execution model to one of centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.

OTH: Sir, you have no arguments from our team on that.

Lt Gen David A. Deptula, the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, retired from the United States Air Force in 2010 after 34 years of distinguished service. During his career, he accumulated over 3,000 flying hours, to include over 400 combat hours, and commanded at all levels. His last assignment was as the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) where he was charged with transforming America’s military ISR and drone enterprises. As the Headquarters Air Force’s A2 (HAF/A2), he orchestrated the largest increase in drone operations in Air Force history. Lt Gen Deptula is a renowned leader and pioneer in conceptualizing, planning, and executing national security operations from humanitarian assistance to major combat. Additionally, he was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign and commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s. Later in his career, Lt Gen Deptula served as director of the air campaign over Afghanistan, commanded two joint task forces, and was the air commander for the 2005 South Asia tsunami relief operations. Lt Gen Deptula also served on two congressional commissions tasked to outline America’s future defense posture.

This interview was conducted by Jerry “Marvin” Gay, OTH Senior Editor, on 3 Oct 2017.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

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