Interview with Lt Gen (Ret.) David Deptula: Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of OTH’s interview with Lt Gen (Ret.) David Deptula. Part 1 can be found here or under the OTH interviews section. In the third and final part of our conversation (to be published in the coming days), Lt Gen Deptula provides his thoughts on command and control, multi-domain operations, Air Force organizational challenges, and the complex future for Airmen and the Joint Force.


Over the Horizon (OTH): So the next series of questions were provided by Dr. Peter Layton – prominent Australian author on defense issues and visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. He wrote a paper earlier this year for the Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force and their Air Power Development Centre entitled Fifth Generation Air Warfare. In July, he also wrote an article for OTH on the same topic.

Lt Gen David A. Deptula (DD): That’s fantastic. I have known Air Marshal Leo Davies, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, for many years. He is a true professional and great guy. Let me tell you, the Australian Air Force hits far above their size intellectually. They are really good, and will have a completely modernized Air Force soon. So, they are very serious about innovative ideas and concepts. Ok, so what is Dr. Layton’s question?

OTH: Dr. Layton asks, “The combat cloud idea assumes everyone on the network shares information and pulls information as they need. In reality, not all participants are equal. There are trust issues in sharing data both within a nation’s own armed forces and with allies, partners, and friends. The combat cloud will most likely be fragmented into different parts with no one common picture. With a distorted and incomplete picture, network participants may end up fighting different wars with an increased risk of engaging targets with less certainty. Additionally, there will be a higher probability of neutral or friendly force mistaken identity or civilian casualties. This information dissonance could degrade combat effectiveness. Is this issue inherent to “combat cloud thinking”? Is there a way around it or must we simply accept this as an operational challenge?”

DD: First, I take issue with the proposition that “there will be a higher probability of neutral or friendly force mistaken identity or civilian casualties.” And, that “this information dissonance could degrade combat effectiveness.” This is very specifically what Combat Cloud is intended to reduce through greater situational awareness of the battlespace. Now, at the same time, I want to be careful with this characterization, because the Combat Cloud will not entirely dissipate the fog and friction of war. That would be foolish to even suggest. In fact, that is what turned people off about some of the promises made in the early 2000’s of network-centric warfare. But, inherent to the Combat Cloud is greater awareness of the battlespace, not less. So, the answer to the question of whether this issue is inherent to combat cloud thinking, I would say yes and no. However, I do not think we just accept it as an operational challenge.

OTH: Next, Dr. Layton asks, “The ‘theory of victory’ that underpins the combat cloud notion (and fifth generation air warfare in general) is that faster decision-making leads directly to operational success — the OODA loop trumps all. Indeed, at the tactical level of fast jet operations ‘speed is life, more is better’ and often making any decisions in an uncertain situation is better than making none — velocity of decision-making beats quality of decision-making. However, is this true at other levels of war and in particular the strategic-level? Is faster strategic-level decision-making better than higher quality strategic-level decision-making?”

DD: Ok, I have a short answer for this one. The point of the Combat Cloud is to achieve higher quality information at greater speed. Those are not mutually exclusive characteristics, as the question seems to imply. I do not believe it is a matter of one or the other. It is both.

OTH: Staying on the topic of decision-making, the OODA loop, and time… An idea that is generating some debate is that advanced data analytics increasingly compresses the decision-making cycle. Do you adhere to this notion?  

DD: Yes, if the output is relevant to the issue at hand. And, if the output can be disseminated to the appropriate decision maker at the appropriate time, then of course data analytics can contribute to compressing the decision-making cycle. But, the “ifs” are very important. First, the data analytics must apply to what the decision maker needs at a particular time. And, that information needs to get to him or her.

OTH: Moving away from Combat Cloud and on to some of your previous articles, works, and thinking. In 2008, Air and Space Power Journal (ASPJ) published an article you co-wrote with then Maj Greg Brown entitled “A House Divided: The Indivisibility of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance” in which you proffered that Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) is interdependent and indivisible and suggested that “ISR will perhaps become the key mission set in achieving our national security objectives.” In your estimation, has ISR become “the key mission set in achieving our national security objectives?” Additionally, technology has changed significantly since that article was written. How has your thinking evolved on the topic since this article was published in 2008?

DD: First, I am pleased that you all are still reading this stuff. As for your first question, I can give you a short answer. Yes, ISR has absolutely become a key mission set because accurate knowledge is the key to success in any military endeavor, and ISR is the linchpin to creating accurate knowledge. With respect to how my thinking has evolved, I would tell you that the advances in technology over the last ten years or so have and will continue to reinforce the points that were made in the paper. One cannot create intelligence without surveillance and reconnaissance, and intelligence is required to fully direct and exploit surveillance and reconnaissance. The Air Force needs to double down on that fact and fight the institutional stove-piped, legacy organizational models that in the past have segregated intelligence and operations. One of the principle reasons I convinced General [T. Michael] Moseley, when he was Chief of Staff of the Air Force, to move remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) out from under the oversight of the [Air Force] A3 over to the Deputy Chief of Staff for ISR (A2) was not as a power move — it was to maximize the use of remotely piloted aircraft as an entire enterprise. Rather than just focusing on the aircraft, which is simply the host for the sensors, we focused on providing the information collected to thousands of analysts. It is the analysts who convert the collected information into knowledge and disseminate it to joint and other agency users. I believe that the whole RPA system needs to be treated like an enterprise. Fortunately, Gen Moseley agreed, and we got to work on doing that. We immediately started treating the entire RPA system along with the analysts as an enterprise. And, yes, I understand the argument that RPA also shoot missiles. But, what do they do the majority of the time? Back then, only about 2 percent of the RPA sorties employed munitions. Yes, I realize that number has grown and we are now up to approximately 20 percent, but RPA — the sensors; the weapons; the dissemination system; the analysis; and the derived products — still all need to be treated like an enterprise. The Air Force as well as the rest of the military is still organized in a pre-Industrial Age, Napoleonic construct of stove-piped functions — A1 through A11 — that many times segregate efforts and lead to sub-optimization of mission capabilities that require the involvement of more than one of these functional areas. While we still need the expertise that personnel in A1 provide, or an intelligence analyst from A2, or an operator in A3, when dealing with a set of capabilities that RPA provide and all the functional elements required to optimize the RPA enterprise, you need all those perspectives. To treat RPA as an enterprise, I assembled an RPA Task Force that consisted of representatives and expertise from each of the deputy chief functional organizations. This move enabled us to treat RPA as an enterprise specifically because it requires expertise from each of the functional organizations. Unfortunately, the Air Force RPA Task Force was disbanded and as a result that has led to “turf battles” of ownership which is a byproduct of the segregated nature and anachronistic functional organizational structure the military still retains. It’s time to move toward organizational structures that enhance integration of effort vice segregation and stove-pipes of excellence.

OTH: In your estimation, has the Air Force postured itself to meet the near-term ISR demands of the combatant commanders as well as the future demands of our nation?

DD: Absolutely. There has been a dramatic shift of resources, both manpower and money, into ISR. I believe there is a growing realization of the value of information as a force multiplier, and we can achieve greater desired effects by capitalizing on better use of information much more than simply by accruing more weapon systems. By the way, this is the underlying premise behind the Combat Cloud vision. For example, instead of relying on traditional approaches that mass fighters and bombers and support aircraft into major strike packages, the Combat Cloud could integrate complementary capabilities across all the service components into a single, combined weapons system to conduct disaggregated and distributed operations in a particular area. Now, the physics of future combat platforms is not likely to change, but how those systems operate within future battle networks must change to realize the potential of informationalized warfare. In order for combat forces to freely access and distribute information, some existing platforms will require modification. But, more importantly, the services are going to need to develop gateways and other infrastructure to seamlessly share information. Every platform — sea, air, land, space, cyber — has to be used as a sensor. Doing that will greatly improve ability to meet combatant commander ISR demand.

OTH: To broaden the scope a little, during your 2015 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee and in a policy paper you wrote entitled Beyond Goldwater-Nichols: Roles and Missions of the Armed Services in the 21st Century, you provided the statistic that less than 6 percent (or 6 of 105) regional combatant commanders have been Airmen. Also, you argued that this historical trend is not in our nation’s best interests. What does the Air Force need to do better to develop combatant commanders?

DD: First, this is an extraordinarily important issue. This is important, not just to the Air Force, but to the entire U.S. military and for the effectiveness of joint operations in the future. This issue, however, is not what the Air Force must do to better develop combatant commanders because we are already adequately preparing our officers to assume those positions. The Air Force is doing it in professional development programs like the one you are attending with the Air Command and Staff College. There was not a better prepared or better positioned commander to follow General Schwarzkopf in 1991 to be the commander of Central Command (USCENTCOM) than General Charles Horner. So, why wasn’t he selected? There was not a better prepared or better positioned commander to be the commander of Pacific Command (USPACOM) in 2004 than General “Speedy” Martin. Why wasn’t he selected? In the history of USCENTCOM and USPACOM, there has not been a single Air Force commander, yet in both of those theaters air is the predominant domain for any military operation. If you want to account for the tyranny of distance over the 16 time zones that comprise the Pacific, you don’t do it at 20 knots; you do it at 600 knots. Let’s look at some other examples. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the second phases of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have moved further away from the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 (that initiated the “joint” operating paradigm) than we have closer to it. For instance, there was never a joint organizational arrangement implemented in Iraq or Afghanistan. USCENTCOM merely put “Js” (the letter J) in front of already established Army organizations and that was it. There was a Multi-National Corps in Iraq – MNC-I. There was no JTF Iraq. In Afghanistan, there was an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and there was an organization called U.S. Forces Afghanistan, but it had no service component. In that instance, the Army did not want a service component because they liked it the way it was. A more recent example involves the organizational structure associated with Operation Inherent Resolve, our current operations against the Islamic State (ISIS). Until recently, there were no U.S. combat boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria except some special operators (SOF). The vast preponderance of U.S. use of military force has been airpower. But, the Joint Task Force Commander for Operation Inherent Resolve is an Army three-star General and has been for four tours over the past three-year history of the operation. Why? So, it is not an issue of Airmen being better prepared to assume these roles. Senior Air Force officers know a great deal about the conduct of surface operations. The bottom line is, this issue centers on institutional inertia, service parochialism, and politics. You guys are still operating in an environment where meritocracy means something. Don’t forget, there is no selection board past two-star. Three-stars and four-stars are specifically picked by service and joint leadership, so meritocracy or how well developed one is to be a combatant commander is secondary to the politics of the appointment at the particular time with the particular personalities involved. With respect to the dearth of Air Force officers in regional combatant command positions, Air Force leadership needs to be more aggressive in seeking those roles. This is a very complex issue that goes back a long time, but know that Air Force Airmen are just as prepared — if not more so — than any other services candidates.

OTH: Quick follow-up to the last question, and you might have already answered this. Absent any changes to how the Air Force develops its senior Air Force general officers being selected for combatant command positions, will land and maritime perspectives continue to dominate our warfighting commands, and what does this portend for our nation’s security?

DD: To optimize the solutions our military provides to the nation, it is imperative that the options of exploiting the third dimension of air and space be well understood and considered in military course of action development, planning, and execution. However, the military and the nation’s leadership can’t do any of those activities if Air Force leadership is absent from the key military organizations that are involved. Let me give you another example. We have a Secretary of Defense who is a Marine. Until recently, we had a Deputy Secretary of Defense who was a Marine; a Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff who is a Marine; the former Director of Homeland Security who is now Chief of Staff in the White House is a Marine; the Director of the National Security Council Staff is an active duty Army three-star who has a Deputy who is an Army retired two-star, and the Director of the National Security Council Staff is a retired Army three-star; the USCENTCOM and USPACOM Commanders have always been from a service other than the Air Force. They are all talented and good Americans, but none of them have the perspective of an Air Force Airman. How do air and space options get appropriate and expert consideration when the President is considering military options? It seems every time you hear our leaders speak, all of the examples used put the Air Force into a role supporting troops on the ground. Our leaders must be able to see airpower as an element that can directly achieve decisive effects or as a lead or supported force. This is not about personalities; it is about perspectives. That is why it is important to have senior Air Force officers in key decision-making positions in command. Today there is no one better prepared as a leader to take over USPACOM than General Terry “Shags” O’Shaughnessy. Likewise, in the European theater, there is no one more brilliant and who would make a tremendous next Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and European Command (USEUCOM) Commander than General Tod Wolters.


Lt Gen David A. Deptula, the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, and senior scholar at the Air Force Academy’ Center for Character and Leadership Development, 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 on 3 Oct 2017 by OTH Senior Editors Jerry “Marvin” Gay, Jay Patrich, and Marcus McNabb.

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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