Interview with Lt Gen (Ret.) David Deptula: Part 3

Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of OTH’s interview with Lt Gen David Deptula. Parts 1 & 2 can be found here & here, respectively, or under the OTH interviews section.  

Over the Horizon (OTH): After he became Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General David Goldfein made Multi-Domain Command and Control (C2) one of his top three focus areas. In an AFA Warfare Symposium speech in March he stated, “Victory in future conflict as I described it to you, will go to that leader who can control his or her forces to create multiple dilemmas from multiple domains and achieve the precision speed, and is able to maneuver forces both kinetic and non[-kinetic].” In 2014, you penned an article discussing C2 of aerospace entitled “A New Era for Command and Control of Aerospace Operations” in which you discuss the air component’s ability to C2 operations across the air, space, and cyber domains. If I could ask, what does effective air component C2 look like for multi-domain operations now and into the future?

Lt Gen David A. Deptula (DD): Air component command and control has to keep up with the changes that are coming about due to three major interrelated trends which I cover in the paper you reference. The trends are emerging threats, new technologies, and the increasing velocity of information. Since the design and establishment of our air operations centers (AOCs) and combined air operations centers (CAOCs), the changes in these three areas have been dramatic. Now it is time to determine how we achieve success in future operations by either evolving our current C2 concepts of operations, organizations, and processes — or do we need to seek fundamental change to each of these elements. I would suggest that future success will not occur through incremental enhancements because Industrial Age approaches to warfare have lost currency, as previously discussed. We are not going to be able to achieve operational agility without dramatic changes to our current C2 concepts of operation. Those changes have to include new organizational paradigms for planning, processing, and execution; new acquisition processes for C2 capabilities; and finally a determined effort to match new C2 paradigms to emerging threats and technologies shaped by the pace and exchange of information.

OTH: Along with the types of changes you characterize, are there any other immediate or long-term technological and process-oriented changes that need to be made by the Air Force to achieve General Goldfein’s vision?

DD: To expound upon where I left off, our current AOCs are the outcome of C2 lessons learned from Operation Desert Storm. Now and in the future, however, we are/will be facing a much different set of operating conditions. C2 architectures and organizations need to evolve in advance of the pace of threats, information, and technology. I alluded to this before, but centralized control and decentralized execution have been a fundamental C2 tenet for airpower. While that construct remains fundamentally sound, threats and technologies are driving us to consider an approach of centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution. Because of technological advances and increases in the speed of information — elements like stealth, precision, and sensors — are really permitting a shift from the old notion of combined arms warfare to combined effects power. This in no way means we are not going to use current tools or that we are not going to need ships, tanks, or airplanes; however, consider for a moment the cyber domain and the power resident in cyber capabilities. The potential is enormous, but cyber is also something that is beyond combined arms warfare in the traditional sense. The combined effects approach is about integrating multi-domain means within an agile operational framework to create an ISR-strike-maneuver-sustainment complex that is enabled by distributed operations that are all interconnected. Accomplishing that allows for the potential to link aerospace capabilities with sea and land-based means that ultimately can form an omnipresent defense complex that is self-forming and self-healing. That whole idea is focused on cross-domain synergy which gets back to your original questions on multi-domain and what it means. In concise terms what that can achieve is the complementary employment of capabilities so that each enhances the effectiveness and compensates for the vulnerabilities of the others. That is a good definition of multi-domain. However, this whole idea is going to require a C2 paradigm that enables automatic linking that is transparent to the user and characterized by seamless data transfer without the need for human interaction. That is what we need to aspire to delivering as we move into the future.

OTH: Moving on to another topic you covered in an article entitled Beyond Goldwater-Nichols:
Roles And Missions Of The Armed Services In The 21st Century
. To modernize and optimize our military organizationally, you have advocated for a review of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. In one interview with Defense & Aerospace Reporter Editor Vago Muradian, you discussed how the Air Force took steps to transition under Gen McPeak from the WWII organizational model based on airpower media to one founded on airpower functions. Given the multi-domain nature of today’s battlespace, how does the Air Force continue to evolve and modernize organizationally to meet our nation’s strategic objectives?

DD: Air, space, and cyberpower are based on the characteristics of technology, but the invention, design, development, fielding, and application of those instruments flow from human imagination and knowledge. American Airmen are unique — as far as technological capabilities and the ever-evolving requirements of national security — you and your predecessors, innovate, deter, fight, and win, whenever called upon. Airmen have achieved that level of success by capitalizing on the virtues and values of air and space in order to project power without projecting the same degree of vulnerability as surface forces. As a result, our national leadership looks to Airmen for strategic options. That is why I am so passionate about Airmen leaders being appointed to roles of regional Combatant Commanders with warfighting responsibilities. It is an imperative if our nation is to capitalize on all of its national security capabilities.

OTH: Sir, as a follow-on question to that… With respect to operations and combined force air component commander (CFACC) C2, what are the implications of modernization and significant change for AOCs?

DD: Well, once again, we need to realize and exploit the advantages of technology to develop new concepts of operation. We must realize that innovation can be organizational as well as technological. We should look to supplement these large, centralized, vulnerable AOCs with distributed means to achieve the same effects. That means moving to greater delegation of authority at the tactical level — to the folks at the leading edge of the fight — under clear guidance from commanders, such that if connectivity from the planning node or leadership is severed the operators can continue to employ optimal effects to secure mission objectives. Unfortunately, this is not how we are operating in the Middle East today. We are going to have to shake that paradigm of permissive airspace where leadership is literally looking over the shoulder of every aircrew and micromanaging their every move. We must adopt a much more informed means of understanding what is going on, as well as what the Commander’s intent is so that those at the tip of the spear can operate independently — the endgame of mission command. That is why the information piece is so important.

OTH: One quick follow-up based on your answer to the last question. A consistent theme throughout your answers is the need to adjust away from an Industrial Age organizational mindset to something new and different. This line of thinking echoes what the previous two Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said. One of the questions the previous Chairman asked was “What is beyond joint?” and “What is the next Goldwater-Nichols?” And then a month ago, the current Chairman asked if the regional combatant commands even make sense anymore considering the fact that all problems today are global in nature.

DD: I applaud General Dunford for doing that. He is now recognizing an issue many years after I first asked the same question. That being said, I do not think we are ready to throw away the current organizational construct. We still need regional expertise, organizations comprised of people with discrete knowledge on regional issues. That capability is very important. So, I do not think that our nation is ready to get rid of the regional combatant commands, but there is value in having a better degree of integration with the operations plan (OPLAN) and concept plan (CONPLAN) processes. Under General Cartwright, Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) developed and implemented the concept of joint functional component commands (JFCCs). For instance, there was one for Global Strike and one for ISR with considerable functional expertise. This is an area that deserves continued attention. However, beyond jointness… I would go back to the points I made earlier. What drove Goldwater-Nichols was we had systems that did not operate with each other. So, the early goal was achieving interoperability among the different service components. Another point of emphasis was achieving functional effects. That is how the concept of a joint force air component commander (JFACC) was developed — the point of focus was not what component airpower originated from, but rather the effects the aircraft from separate services could achieve regardless of originating service. Yet in the land domain, there has yet to be a true application of a combined force land component commander (CFLCC). In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Marines operated to the east of the Euphrates River and the Army operated to the west. That wasn’t integration of effects — it was deconfliction of service components. So, we need to get to this notion of interdependency, which is a step beyond interoperability. What that means is that one service doesn’t develop a whole set of systems that are already resident in another service just because they want to have control. A perfect example is with remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), specifically Grey Eagles, MQ-9s, and MQ-1s. The Army wanted to control these in a certain way despite the fact that they were a duplicated set of capabilities already resident in the Air Force. That is not a “joint” way to do business. Here is why. Coming back to the issue of jointness, there are no “Army” targets in an area of combat operations (AOR). All the targets belong to the joint task force (JTF) commander, not the air or land components. When the air component flows assets into theater, they are employed according to the objectives and priorities of the JTF commander, not the air component commander or land component commander. We have to move past the idea that the land component is in charge and everyone else provides support to the commander on the ground. Simply put, that is not joint. There is a big difference, even though it is subtle, but a big difference between the land component dictating tasks to the other components versus the JTF commander telling the land, air, and maritime component commanders to bring from their respective component’s knowledge base the best ways to achieve the JTF commander’s objectives. Those are two distinctly different ways of doing business. We still have not gotten there in the joint world. The next step we must take, however, is to move toward interdependency. That will be accomplished when the land component depends upon the air component to provide resources when and where needed and vice versa. Take the joint target coordination board (JTCB) as an example. If we are a joint force, where is the joint maneuver coordination board that all can use to explore to the best way to use surface maneuver forces in a way to optimize the exploitation of air and space forces to counter the enemy? If this concept was suggested, there would be immediate pushback. My question back would be, “Why not? That is how Operation Desert Storm became such a success.” In that operationland component forces were used as a blocking force to isolate the Iraqi surface forces so they could be destroyed from the air. Marine forces were used as a decoy force to contribute to the positional disposition of Iraqi ground forces such that allied airpower could decisively defeat them — recall that Iraqi ground forces were actually trying to surrender to drones.

OTH: Sir, we like to end OTH interviews with this forward-looking question. What is something just over the horizon that the international security community should be paying close attention to or trying to figure out?

DD: This answer will likely come as no surprise. Desired effects are going to become increasingly attained through the interaction of multiple systems, each one of them sharing information and empowering one another for a common purpose. The phenomenon is not restricted to an individual technology or system, nor is it isolated to a specific service, domain, or task. Therefore, “multi-domain operations” are a good way to move us beyond joint operations toward much more integrated, interdependent operations and actualizing the notion of the Combat Cloud as an operating paradigm. Information, data management, connectivity, and C2 need to be viewed as core mission priorities, and we need to achieve that as rapidly as possible. This is perhaps the only way we are going to maintain our position as the world’s sole superpower in an age of declining resources for defense while threats to our way of life and our nation are growing in number and capability. So, if we can actualize the Combat Cloud, it promises to afford a highly cost effective, expansive, and synergistic defense complex with radically enhanced capabilities that will allow each and all of our service components to be optimally applied by the combatant commanders.

OTH: Lt Gen Deptula, thank you very much for your time and candor today. We look forward to the future work produced by Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. And we are very excited that you have agreed to be the very first speaker for Air University’s new “Over the Horizon Speaker Series,” which is an MDOS-led effort that seeks to expose Air University students to our nation’s senior most national security leaders, defense strategists, geopolitical academics, and military thought leaders. We are very pleased that you will be our inaugural speaker.


Lt Gen David A. Deptula, the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, and senior scholar at the Air Force Academy’s 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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