Question: What national surprises have occurred since the last Asymmetric Threat symposium in May 2012?

Lt Gen Deptula: The fact of the matter is, we're always going to be surprised. As long as there are human beings involved in the process, there are going to be unanticipated events that occur. We have been horrible prognosticators in terms of national security challenges, so I think we have to put more credence in efforts to anticipate events.

We can capitalize on the increase in computational power and our ability to recognize that collecting data ultimately leads to information. Modern computational power should allow us some degree of advancement in terms of getting better indications and warning.

An example is Amazon.com. When you purchase something, what immediately comes up is a set of items that "you may also be interested in." This is the power of "big data" analytics. The search engine is looking at what you've viewed in the past and assimilating those interests into a presentation. The presentation may not be absolutely right, but it does provide an additional capability that didn't exist in the past. We can apply those kinds of techniques in the realm of security plans to better conduct indications and warning.

Question: Do you see national security surprises as a failure of intelligence or a failure of warning, or do you think this distinction is not useful?

Lt Gen Deptula: I don't think that distinction is useful. You can blame any unforeseen event on "failure of intelligence," but that's sort of a convenient excuse. One could also blame it on absence of preparation.

We're not going to get to a point of perfect knowledge. There are too many uncertainties involved with human actions. But we have to be prepared for those instances when we don't get indications and warnings right, and don't anticipate correctly. In order to do that, it takes investment. It takes resources. What it comes down to is we're going to have to spend less on providing for the common welfare and more on defense.

Question: What piece of advice would you give the President of the United States on how to best uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic?

Lt Gen Deptula: I would say you need to focus on the strategic priorities of the nation. You need to prioritize investment relative to why we have a government in the first place. I suggest that there is no better starting point for those priorities than our Constitution, the Preamble of which stipulates that it was established to "provide for the common defense, [and then to] promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Note that it does not say "provide for the general welfare" and it does explicitly say "provide for the common defense." It's time to get our priorities straight. Providing for the common defense is the U.S. government's job one.

I think over the years, the defense part of that equation has tended to atrophy, and we need to put into perspective what it is only national governments can do. These are some hard issues, but you have to prioritize what the states can do vice what only the federal government can do.

The President of the United States needs to set the agenda, provide the guidance, and put the people in place that can execute his guidance and comply with his strategic direction." It really comes down to strategic priorities and making sure everybody understands what those priorities are.

Question: Where do asymmetric threats fall on the list of priorities in the defense world?

Lt Gen Deptula: We have to walk away from the notion that asymmetry is only associated with terrorism. If we want to maintain our position as the world's sole superpower, we need to be able to engage and succeed across the spectrum of operations. That goes from being able to succeed in providing viable assistance to humanitarian and disaster relief situations all the way up to global thermonuclear war. If we want to be able to do that, then we have to invest across that spectrum.

There are asymmetric threats that occur at a tactical level, as in the case of IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], all the way up to a strategic level, which we're dealing with in terms of the economic advantages that China has over us. That's an asymmetric threat. We can't keep on saying, "Oh, we'll never fight China," because they are the ones who are clearly ascending in terms of information, economic, diplomatic, and military power.

And by the way, China is already at war with us. They are robbing our networks of information on a daily basis through cyber operations, and we are just not doing anything about it. We're standing by and watching them do it without any counter, which then encourages them to do it more, and we dither over policy. So there is an asymmetric threat – one that will really make a difference in the grand strategic balance of nation states.

Question: Are there asymmetric advantages that the United States has either knowingly or unintentionally forfeited to our adversaries?

Lt Gen Deptula: Let's look at operations on the west side of the AFPAK [Afghanistan and Pakistan] border and on the east side of the AFPAK border. We're doing very, very well in suppressing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, without lots of boots on the ground, through the use of remotely piloted aircraft and precision engagement with those selective targets.

That's why you hear this cry by our adversaries against the use of remotely piloted aircraft – the disinformation about how inaccurate they are and about the number of civilian casualties they supposedly cause. That's because they cannot affect or stop those operations. So that is the asymmetric advantage that we have, and it's only highlighted even more by these outcries to stop it. Whereas if you look at the west side of the AFPAK border, we're not doing that well with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground over more than a decade of operations, because we're actually playing into the action space of our adversaries.

In Afghanistan, where we have tens of thousands of boots on the ground, we're giving up an asymmetric advantage by having so many people on the ground that allow a very unsophisticated adversary to complicate our actions, as opposed to making it very, very difficult for them by taking away that face-to-face presence that they can act upon.

The capability that we use is going to be directly dependent upon what our desired effect or outcome is. I'm making an argument that we need to use the capabilities that optimize our strategic advantage to meet our critical national security objectives.

Question: What is the one asymmetric threat that keeps you up at night?

Lt Gen Deptula: That's an interesting question. On a strategic scale, it's China. If you look at what they currently have in the context of nuclear weapons and growing aspirations of becoming a peer competitor, it indicates a degree of aggressive behavior that won't just be stopped at the first island chain.

I want to see us reach a partnership with China to operate as economic competitors, but on a fair playing field. They have a persistent form of government that allows them to operate on a much longer strategic planning horizon than the United States. They have a degree of patience that we don't. Can we somehow compensate for that lack of patience – as well as changing strategic perspectives every four years? Perhaps we can by achieving a degree of capability in preparedness like that we've enjoyed over the last 50 years.

The question is: Do we recognize that, and are we willing to invest in that same degree of preparedness for the future? We must recognize China as an emerging asymmetric threat and become ready to invest in being prepared for any challenge it might present.

An interview with

Lt Gen David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret)

Former Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance,
Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C.

Conducted by

Dr. Lani Kass

Strategic Corporate Advisor, Senior Vice President
CACI International Inc

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