Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, USAF Ret., the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, discusses priorities for Barbara Barrett, the Trump administration’s nominee to succeed Heather Wilson as the next US Air Force secretary, Wilson’s legacy and fighter and aircraft modernization programs with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies with its Dean, Retired United States Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula. Sir, it’s always a pleasure talking to you.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Dave Deptula: Absolutely, Vago. Looking forward to chatting.
Mr. Muradian: Let’s start first, Barbara Barrett, somebody with a lot of accomplishments, most recently at the Aerospace Corporation, but also a former FAA Administrator, has been tapped to succeed Heather Wilson as the next Secretary of the Air Force. Talk to us a little bit about Barbara Barrett’s suitability for the job, but also what her priorities have to be once she puts her hand up and is sworn into office, as everybody universally expects at this point.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: Sure, Vago.
First, she has an incredible set of credentials. As you mentioned, she was Chairwoman of the Aerospace Corporation. She’s a pilot, so she knows how to fly. That ought to be a prerequisite for anyone who’s leading the United States Air Force. She has trained to be an astronaut. She has an extraordinary set of experiences that will do her in good stead as the next Secretary of the Air Force.
Mr. Muradian: And what do you think her priorities have to be once she’s in office? You’re never shy about setting priorities that you think the Air Force leadership should be abiding by. If you were going to say what the top three things she’s got to focus on, what would they be?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: Well, obviously Ms. Barrett will set her own priorities, however, you asked my opinion. I think if I was to advise her I would recommend that she focus on the future, not the past. And she needs to continue to advocate for and articulate the growth of the Air Force, to be able to meet the needs of the nation’s security strategy.
I know you’re going to ask me next what Secretary Wilson’s legacy will be. I’ll tell you right up front because it has a bearing on this question, it is the fact that she advocated for and articulated that necessary growth in the Air Force to get to the point where the Air Force can now actually execute the demands of the National Military Strategy, and that’s getting to 386 operational squadrons.
Secretary Designate Barrett ought to continue in that vein, to move toward 386. At the same time she needs to make sure that our force gets modernized. We’re currently operating a fighter force that’s 82 percent geriatric, fourth generation aircraft and 18 percent fifth generation aircraft. She needs to rebalance that ratio so it’s more along the lines of 50/50 by the time we get to 2030, 2035, which means an acceleration in fifth generation capacity. And moving forward and accelerating, in my humble opinion, next generation air dominance and moving that program from a collection of ideas into reality.
What also goes along with that in both cases, modernizing the force as well as building to 386. She needs to relook the objective target number of B-21s that we bring on board into the Air Force.
Right now the Air Force’s position is a minimum of 100. I think we need to be a little bit more specific about that. Specifically, 120 combat coded B-21s. Then you add the 25 percent for training. An additional amount for attrition reserve and test, backup aircraft inventory. And you end up with a target objective of 180.
So those are a couple of areas where I think she needs to focus. I’d also add that the acceleration of technological exploration and development in terms of hypersonic weapons. And then the real game-changer that we’re going to see evolve over the next ten or so years, and that’s directed energy.
So when we start moving away from employing weapons at the speed of sound, or multiples at the speed of sound, at the speed of light, you’re really going to see a change in the character of warfare.
Mr. Muradian: Those are all priorities which you advocated both when you were in uniform and also here at the Mitchell Institute.
If Barbara Barrett is confirmed, as many expect as the next Secretary of the United States Air Force she would actually be the fourth female Secretary of the Air Force. First, Sheila Widnall who was the first female Service Secretary; then Deborah Lee James; then Heather Wilson obviously number three; and also the first Air Force Academy graduate who is Secretary of the Air Force.
Tell us a little bit about how you think she’ll be remembered and what her, Heather Wilson’s legacy is going to be as Secretary.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: I think Secretary Wilson will go down as one of the top Air Force Secretaries to date in history. Number one, because of her competence, her background, and her honesty in advocating for and articulating the need to grow the Air Force to a point where it can actually accomplish the demands of the National Security Strategy. Specifically her laying out the target goal of 386 operational squadrons for the United States Air Force. Along with a deep passion and belief that we need to move forward with science and technology and exploit those kinds of developments. I mean that’s the essence of how the Air Force was created and what it advocated for, to become a separate service in the first place. And I think she’s reinvigorated that approach in the fact that we can’t just go along to get along. The Air Force is the service that always pushed the leading edge of technology and science, to be able to then capitalize on those attributes, to move the entire Department of Defense to the next level of capabilities. So I think that’s why some of the things that she’ll go down and be remembered for.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you, it’s been a little bit of time since you and I talked and there’s a little bit of a development on the Light Attack Experiment or the Air Force’s desire to get that light attack capability.
First, explain the Air Force decision and what you think about it in terms of sort of moving the program forward. Because now the Air Force has decided it’s going to buy a few of each one of the two types of competing aircraft. The Super Tucano derivative, and then the derivative of the T-6 Texan which is sort of the standard Air Force trainer. Talk to us about the strategy, what’s next, and how the Air Force should be thinking about this space.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: Well, I’ll let the Air Force explain its rationale for the continuing the experiment. I think also there will be some other aircraft that may come into that competition.
I would tell you though, that exploration of light attack is a subject area that ought to be looked at because we’re going to continue, even though perhaps not at the priority level that it was in the past, the employment of air power in counterinsurgency operations, in counterterrorism operations, which don’t require, since it’s permissive air space that we would be operating in, it doesn’t require the high end capability that fifth generation aircraft provide, depending upon the threat. You have to take a look at the particular contingencies.
So light attack aircraft capability can provide a supplemental niche where you don’t need that high end capability but you do need persistent air.
So I think it’s wise for the Air Force to continue to pursue alternatives. And quite frankly, put me in the category, we ought to spend some money and at least start by buying a wing or two of light attack aircraft capability and put them in the Air Force Special Operations Command. Although I would also caveat that statement by saying this has to be additive money to the Air Force budget because again, we’re trying to recapitalize a geriatric fighter force, increase — not just fighter force but also bomber force — and increase the capacity that the Air Force has woefully lagged and does not have sufficient numbers to execute the National Security Strategy as it exists today.
Mr. Muradian: You’ve been a critic of buying more F-15s, having said we don’t need new old airplanes. Does the decision up on the Hill to try to plus up the F-35 ameliorate some of your concerns?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: It’s not my concerns. It’s about what is the best way to expend our resources to execute the needs of the nation’s defense strategy. So it is a prudent move to increase the rate that we buy F-35s. And that should accelerate into the future.
Both the House and the Senate committees with respect to defense have indicated that they’re going to put money into the F-15EX buy. Okay. That’s their decision. We’ll move forward.
The real question becomes what happens when defense budget top lines in the future decline to the point where a choice has to be made? We don’t have sufficient resources to buy both. In that regard I think Secretary Heather Wilson was right when she said yesterday that hey, we’d go with F-35.
So we are where we are. We need to look to the future. And the Air Force will put all the force structure that it has or in the defense bills to good use.
Mr. Muradian: And the last question on the Space Force. That idea continues to tick forward. What do you see that’s positive? What do you see that still you find maybe less than positive?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: Look, as I’ve said before, standing up a Space Force as a separate armed service is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. But it is too soon. It should be conditions based. And if all we’re going to do is highlight or pick out a group of Air Force officers who are currently in Air Force Space Command and just give them new uniforms, not consolidate any of the 60-plus other organizations that have a hand in space, and not increase the resources that need to go to increasing our capability into space, and not having a trained force to be able to do offensive and defense in space, what are we doing?
So I think until those conditions are met, we need to take a deep breath and wait until a time where the conditions that I just articulated are met before we stand up a sixth armed service.
The other one is how do you stand up an armed service that doesn’t have any arms? By definition you can’t have an armed service if it doesn’t have any arms, and right now we don’t have any arms in space.
Mr. Muradian: And it’s also too few aircraft, isn’t it? I mean if you look at the individual number of spacecraft, how many squadrons of spacecraft would that be? I mean just looking at it as a planning construct, right? In terms of the Space Force.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: Well, it is the character of assets in space. Today all the assets we have in space are focused on supporting conflict inside the atmosphere. Okay? And that’s why until we can develop the capabilities as well as the personnel who understand how to fight in space and from space, it’s kind of premature to stand up a separate service.
Mr. Muradian: Dave Deptula. Retired United States Air Force Lieutenant General and Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Sir, thanks very much. I really always appreciate the time.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Deptula: Me too. Have a great weekend.