Interview article

Lt-Gen Deptula, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff: ISR

The Robotic Evolution
ROBBIN LAIRD  |  Nov 15, 2013

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), caught the attention of the world in the late 20th ­century with their use by the Israelis in the Bekaa Valley operation in the 1982 Lebanese War. Here, the Israelis used RPAs as dynamic targeting ­systems to work with their air and ground forces to destroy PLO and Syrian forces.

As a result of these operations, the American agency, DARPA, began to study the potential impact of RPAs for American forces. Their work would eventually lead to the creation of the Predator.

Many are coming to the conclusion that, because “unmanned” vehicles are actually controlled by many people, UAVs are better referred to as “remotely piloted aircraft” and are best understood as part of the ongoing robotic revolution affecting air, ground, and sea-based systems. Remotely operated systems provide a significant advantage in terms of reducing the direct risk to operators and, with continued evolution of these systems, will offer greater autonomous capabilities.

Retired Lieutenant General Deptula has been a pioneer in the evolution of RPAs but has always considered them in the context of the overall force structure. Indeed, a key aspect often forgotten about Afghanistan is that RPAs have operated in the ground and air grid over Afghanistan, and have provided information to operators in the air and on the ground for years.

In July 2006, Deptula was appointed as the U.S. Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). He was responsible for policy formulation, planning, evaluation, oversight, and leadership of ISR capabilities. He also served as the Air Force’s senior intelligence officer. He is now the head of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies.

In a 2010 interview, while still in the USAF, Deptula underscored the role of RPAs as seen in the Afghan operation: “Currently, we are using or applying remotely piloted aircraft today in a fashion that resemble the use of segregated ISR platforms in the past. The RPAs have an advantage of providing persistence in this role, even if segregated in con-ops. 97% of the remotely piloted aircraft today are used to acquire intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The MQ-1 and the MQ-9 do have force application capability and when their capability is used it dramatically shrinks the ISR strike equation to a matter of single-digit minutes,” he said.

“Their predominate use today is to acquire information. So while that information is used in conjunction with other force operations, whether they be surface-based or air-based, we still have a long way to go to really achieve seamless integration between remotely piloted and manned vehicles.”

This obviously raises the question about the post-Afghan environment, and how RPAs might be used and evolved. This involves questions of the threats against which they might be used, the context in which they might operate and how they would work most effectively within an integrated or coalition force.

One strategic direction is sorting out how manned and unmanned vehicles can work effectively together. This is a key area in which Deptula has worked for many years in thinking through the role of 5th generation aircraft. He has focused on how RPAs might be used in conjunction with manned systems, either as ISR extensions or as weaponized elements. From his point of view, the evolution of next generation RPAs are part of the emergence of a distributed operations approach to warfare.

A year later, he acknowledged that a culture change was necessary. “The challenge is getting a very conservative institution like the Department of Defense to understand and embrace the transformational nature of these systems. They provide the capability to put together a concept of operations where you distribute these systems and the information that they provide in a honeycomb-like architecture to achieve effects well beyond what is possible with legacy aerospace systems. Today our forces’ packages rely on critical nodes, any one of which, if acted upon by an adversary, could collapse the effectiveness of the entire structure.”

Noting that “distributed aerospace architecture enables execution of an operational plan in a way that it can’t be impeded by any few nodes being acted upon,” he went on to explain “It’s a different way of thinking about how to conduct warfare and may enable us to achieve advantages so significant that they provide a conventional deterrent stronger than anything we have possessed in the past.”

Deptula took another tack in the interview conducted for this article and considered how the Afghan transition might be part of answering the question of how RPAs might be used post-Afghanistan.

He believes that airpower can play a unique role in the Afghan transition and that RPAs could be used “to amplify the effectiveness of Afghan forces in the wake of the withdrawal of the bulk of Western forces.” He says that RPAs provide “a degree of overwatch, insight and specificity with regard to adversary actions that you can get no other way. And they can do so without being intrusive, but you clearly need to have effective linkages and an effective situation within which to operate. To do so is less a technical issue than it is a political issue, that is, of putting agreements in place which would allow the U.S. and the Afghans to work effectively together to leverage what RPAs could ­contribute to the Afghan forces.”

According to Deptula, “we missed a significant chance to work with the Iraqis on using RPAs to support their security and to enhance or understanding of regional threats. We did not sign agreements with them, and without that, RPAs can not be an integral part of the Iraqi and US force cooperation process.”

Deptula argues that with the USAF already working with the Afghan forces on airpower transition, including helos and Super Tucanos, RPA cooperation would be a natural. In some ways this is a “Back to the future” kind of scenario. “Earlier in Operation Enduring Freedom we lashed up the Northern Alliance with allied precision airpower. Now we have more effective tools and techniques with the decade under our belt of the growth of capabilities in the RPA fleet and would be now lashing the Afghan national forces up with the RPA fleet,” he says.

A new working relationship with Afghanistan on RPAs as part of the transition and beyond, with the Afghan national forces, could also shape a new approach relevant to other global situations. Deptula agrees. “It could form a basis for a new paradigm of a light footprint of Western forces working with regional allies to support their counter-insurgency needs. In other words, the most significant post-Afghan development of RPAs might well be to shape a new model of working with indigenous forces in pursuit of shared counter-insurgency objectives.”

Deptula also mentions the recent experience of the U.S. supporting France in Mali via RPAs, as an example of how the U.S. can work to support allied efforts without having to base significant forces or have a large logistical footprint.

In other words, the Afghan experience is a building block toward the future. On the one hand, a new generation of RPAs will emerge shaped by their ability to work with manned systems. On the other hand, RPAs will continue to evolve as key elements of an approach towards the insertion of force in support of global allies without having to deploy large forces in support of those allies.

Robbin Laird is a defense analyst and journalist based in Virginia.
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