Exclusive Interview with Maj. Gen. Russ L. Mack

Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations, United States Air Force

May 17, 2021 by Richard Blumenstein & Captain Dylan Brown

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Thanks for having me.

Kessel Run: It's your first time being here. So if you could boil Kessel Run down into one word, what would it be and why?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Outstanding. Why? This is my first visit to Kessel Run. What I appreciate is the fact that there's a lot of innovative work going on. The fact that there's collaborative cooperation going on between the operators and the work that Kessel Run is doing as we move forward in our AOC, Air Operations Center enterprise going into the future. So it's been a fantastic opportunity for me to see the creative work that's being done by the folks in the field.


Kessel Run: And why did you want to visit Kessel Run in the first place?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: As the Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, what we do on a day to day basis is all about war fighting, right? So why visit Kessel Run? Because Kessel Run is taking care of the warfighters as you are building the Air Operation Center for the future. So where that rubber meets the road, if you will; is right here at Kessel Run. Because it's all about the software. It's about taking that software and creating an application, along with the data that's associated with it, so that we can actually make our life in the Air Operation Centers easier. So we can give the airman the tools that they need, and the applications that they need to create an Air Tasking Order and now we can do in a matter of minutes when it would typically take us days to do.


Kessel Run: So then that flows quite nicely into the next question. So there's a lot of rhetoric around competition or conflict with a near-peer adversary. What does that potential conflict look like?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Well, as far as competition is concerned, let's start with the National Defense Strategy. The National Defense Strategy was written back in 2018 it's all about competition with a near-peer adversary. What we would argue, this is now a peer adversary; being the Chinese and the Russians.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: But we have to create a scenario where we're inside the minds of our enemy, so that we can actually turn capability faster than they can. Because, at the end of the day, this is all about competition today; so we can prevent war for tomorrow, right? No one is in the business of wanting to go to war, but we, in the military, need to be prepared to go to war. So if we can compete below that level of conflict and stay inside the thought process of our enemies, so that we can deter them in advance and keep them from going to war; then we're all going to be in a better place going into the future. But should competition fail, if you will; then we need to be able to deter our enemy, and take the fight to the enemy; and the only way we can do that is through the enhanced capabilities, which the folks right here at Kessel Run are developing for us each and every day.


Kessel Run: That's great! And you got at something there with that ability to sense and respond to the enemies. Whether that's through the OODA loop, or just getting ahead of the capabilities that they're creating. Can you talk about how digital transformation has changed the picture for what that might look like?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Yeah. I mean, it's all about the Advanced Battle Management System, right? Everything that we do, centers around the software by which we develop and the applications by which we provide. It's all about the data.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: At the end of the day, we need to sense what's going on in the competitive airspace. We need to make sense of whatever that data happens to be. Then we need to act upon it, and we need to do that inside the OODA loop of our enemy. And we need to do it in a matter of minutes and seconds; as opposed to what would be days and hours in the past. If we don't get inside that capability now; we're not going to be able to provide data to our theater JFACC as the air component commander, who's going to have to make decisions. He's going to have to make the decisions in a matter of seconds as opposed to days or hours. So it's all about the software. It's all about the digital capability that provides. But if you can't connect the sensor, to the shooter, to the decision maker; we're not going to be able to close the kill chain.


Kessel Run: Absolutely. And you mentioned the ABMS, the Advanced Battle Management System. Can you speak a little bit about the ABMS program as a concept and where Kessel Run fits in that?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Oh, you bet. Well, first of all, Joint All-Domain Command and Control is across the entire enterprise of the Department of Defense. The Air Force is working on their Advanced Battle Management System. The Army is working on their Project Convergence, and the Navy is working on Project Overmatch. All of which need to be synergized efforts across the entire spectrum of what we do. We need to be able to connect; whether it be that soldier on the ground, whether it be that airman in the air, whether that be Navy personnel that are out at sea, they all need to be connected.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: And the only way you can connect that is through the digital network, by which we're creating. It has to be resilient so that we can connect all our sensors to all our shooters across all of our platforms and all of the Department of Defense. Because if we don't, then we're not going to be able to get the most effective use out of our combat air power, or sea power, or land power across whatever. So those efforts need to be worked collaboratively. We can't be doing this in stovepipes anymore. We don't have the budgets to do that anymore. So we need to make sure that we're doing things collectively and together so that we can build off of each other's efforts.


Kessel Run: Awesome. And so, I'll actually connect it with another question here. So, we're talking about the AOC weapon system, what we wrote here at KR, we know that you're acutely familiar with that. And now that you've come and visited and seen Kessel Run, what do you think the future AOC needs to look like for us to be prepared for that or prevent that next near-peer conflict?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Well, as you all know right now, when we look at the Air Operations Centers of today, we've got 22 Air Operation Centers, brick and mortar types of facilities that are distributed globally. We need to be able to distribute that capability even further. Particularly, as we look at our agile combat employment for the future and the applications by which Kessel Run is developing today; taking the Air Operations Center, and distributing that out to the field in a very distributed manner, doing that through the applications, doing that through the digital network that you're creating for us, we're going to able to distribute those Air Operation Centers and the capability by which they bear, which is for providing combat air power. So that way our Air Operations Centers don't have to be brick and mortar.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: This is all about having the capability that we have in the palm of our hands today, which is our cell phones, our iPhones, right? Our young men and women today have more capability in the palm of their hand, than I certainly grew up with out there. But, why couldn't we do that from a command and control perspective? Because the idea of centralized command and centralized control won't work in tomorrow's fight, it's got to be distributed control as we execute. And the only way we can do that is through the Air Operation Centers, by which Kessel Run is helping us pioneer into the future. So we have that capability at all our distributed apps.


Kessel Run: Yeah, that's awesome, Sir. And was there anything specific that you saw today that kind of reinforced that, or something that you want to point out that made you excited about realizing that?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Well, if you just look at the map toolkit by which we were demonstrated here today; the capability to actually create an ATO in a matter of an hour, which would typically take a 72 hour cycle to do, so we've been able to take that capability and condense it down to the user in a matter of minutes. And it's just how you allocate tankers, for example: something that we no kidding did when I was in the Air Operations Center for the very first time; we actually did on a grease board, and now we're doing it through an application that we can actually marry up the right tanker with, the right user, at the right time, to give the right capability. We can do that in a matter of minutes and seconds, as opposed to doing on a grease board that I certainly grew up to. So I appreciate the change.


Kessel Run: Okay, sweet. So it's 2030, Sir. The Chief of Staff's “Accelerate, Change, or Lose” has caused a wave of momentum. How has digital transformation and artificial intelligence changed the way we present vantage or wind conflict?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Okay. So if you look at the chief's action orders, he's got four of them, right? Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta. It's all about design, right? This is the design of the future and where the chief has us moving today; we've got to accelerate change. We have to get out of the old paradigms of the way we've done business in the past; where we've created a system, we test the system, we provide that system to the user and then the user comes back with problems, and complaints. We apply change to those things. Then maybe a year, or two years, or maybe even a decade later, we have that new system based on the changes our operators have required. In today's digital age, software development and everything else; that iteration has to be done in a matter of seconds. So having the operator with the software developer and building the digital platforms for the future, we can make iterative changes in a matter of minutes, hours, and days, as opposed to the life cycle of an acquisition cycle. This is something we need to do into the future, because if we don't, we're going to lose.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: We need to accelerate our digital software. I mean, we've been doing software applications for quite some time. I think where we've lacked is our ability to connect the software developer to the user to make relevant changes today and something that they can use tomorrow. An example that I was provided during today's visit; there was a software developer who sat down with the user and said: "Here's a capability by which I've been using this little nuance right here. I needed to change this part to blue as opposed to red or green." And guess what? That change happened in a matter of a day, when in previous life, it would take months to do.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: So we're starting to see that change, but it's a cultural change. I've been in this business for 30 plus years and I've seen acquisition cycles take a long time. The only way we're going to make true believers out of ourselves is to have a cultural change in the way we think, and the way we integrate; having the user sit with the software developer, as we build those digital applications for the future, is the only way we're going to have the future Air Force we need to fight a peer adversary in the 2030, 2040, 2050 timeframe.


Kessel Run: Yeah. And I think that plays back to one of your earlier points as well, right? So it seems like over time, the acquisitions' community has kind of been in its silo, and the operations' community, and the bridge is kind of like; you're the joint staff. Do you think that digital transformation going forward is going to eliminate that silo? And you're going to see maybe acquisitions and operations start to kind of get closer and closer.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: They have to. Because if they don't, we will continue to develop in stovepipes. Let's be honest, our acquisition career field is fantastic at what they do, in the sense that they take a requirement, build to that requirement, then provide a product to the user. Then that whole iterative process has to start over again. If the outcome doesn't necessarily meet the user's intent, the only way you can innovate change and turn at the speed of relevance is you've got to have them side by side. We can't be doing things in the stovepipes anymore. We, as operators, and I am an operator myself, need to put on an acquisition hat on at the same time, because then we can communicate, what looks better to you, what works better for you? We've got to be able to communicate that back to the acquisition community so they can develop change, and take that digital transformation and make it happen today versus down the road.


Kessel Run: Let’s see, I have a different question, sir. This is kind of more on a personal note. But, with everything that the Chief of Staff wants to do and everything the Air Force wants to do, it's a lot of change, right? And it's doing things that we haven't done before. It's getting out of our comfort zone. It's being able to accept risk, but we're in a culture that's unfortunately, risk averse. So my question to you is, do you have any point in time in your career where, I think getting to my ultimate point that we can't be afraid of failures or anything in your career that might've been at the time looked at as a failure, but then ended up turning into some sort of a positive or some sort of success?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Where do you want me to start? To be honest with you, I've had a lot of failures in my life, but I'm a firm believer that character is not necessarily built by how you got into a situation, it's the character you have on the other side, when you've been challenged and you have failed; whether it be outward failure, whether it be internal failure, or whether it be you didn't meet your own expectations. I'll track myself all the way back to the day I came into the United States Air Force. I left industry. I worked in industry for three years before I came into this great Air Force. I wanted to fly airplanes, but I was making more money as a 22-year-old out in industry, than I probably should have been making. But at the same time, it took me several years to catch up on a military pay scale.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: But I came into the Air Force because I knew that I wanted to fly airplanes. And more importantly, I wanted to fly, fight and win for our great nation. But I can remember, day one; I actually came in as a navigator, a backseater. This is what I was before I became a pilot. But on day one, entering the United States Air Force, I sat in a room with 300 people and we had to take a proficiency test, to see how we would do in this program, which was undergraduate navigator training. I took that test. I handed that test in, they said, "If you want to know the results, come back in a week…we’ll tell you how you did.”

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Well, I went home and I told my wife, I said, "Guess what? Don't unpack your bags. Because if that test is any indication of how I'm going to do in this program; I've got a challenge in front of me." But you know what, I never went and looked at that test, but I knew one thing; I had a lot of work to do. I dug deep, and lo and behold, I did incredibly well. I actually graduated number one in my class. After I graduated, I actually went back and looked at that test. And there were 300 folks that took that test that day. And let me tell you, I was in the bottom 10% that took that test that day. But if nothing else, it told me that failure is one thing, but persistence and deep devotion to what you want to do can get through any hurdle.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: I have a number of those stories, as I've gone through my military career, but it's all about how you carry yourself. How are you going to take that character, which you built going into the situation and how are you going to hold your head up high and basically rally around a team…which is what we do as United States Air Force, as the United States military. You come together collectively to get after the task at hand. And so you can't look at failure as a misstep per se. It may be a step back, but guess what, if you put your mind to it, there's nothing in this great country and/or you can't do.


Kessel Run: One of the major priorities is developing leaders and how can you develop effective leaders without failure?

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: Oh, you have to fail along the way. But here's what we have to do; particularly as a senior leader; we have some of the most talented airmen that our great nation has to offer that we get to work with each and every day. They're highly motivated “Type A” personalities that want to do the job they've been hired to do. And we, as senior leaders, give them the tools of their trade to do just that, but we need to allow them to innovate. We need to allow them to take risks. We need to allow them to fail. I don't really need to give them guidance, I just need the intent. Tell them what the left and right boundaries are, and let them go.

Maj. Gen. R. L. Mack: I'm a firm believer that, if you want to come into my office and stand at my desk and tell me the sky is orange and you're committed to it, and you're convinced it is, I'm going to listen smartly. I'm going to let you go on your merry way, because at the end of the day, you're making a difference. So we as leaders, in a lot of ways, just have to give them their left or right limits and then get out of their way. We just have to give them the tools that they need to succeed.