"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Friday, December 5, 2014

Bob Seifert Unleashed!

Maj Bob Seifert (ret) is beating a drum he first started banging ten years ago.  The other day on Tom Ricks' blog, in an article entitled, A pilot speaks: The USAF is harder on internal ideas than it is on evil insurgents, Seifert discusses the white paper and article to Joint Force Quarterly he wrote about his view of how AC-130 aircraft should be allocated and utilized in the war effort.  Beyond that, he discusses how he believes his ideas led to him being ostracized and punished in the Air Force.

I flew with Bob during the time period he discusses in his article, and later in the training command after we had both left our combat squadron.  My wife was the intelligence officer he refers to in his article, and I know the mission commander and the squadron commander he also mentions.  I don't know if the mission commander made the statement Bob attributed to him.  I remember that I had spirited debates with that mission commander on various non-mission related topics during that deployment, and I know that he did an outstanding job going above and beyond to take care of crews.  He was an exceptional pilot and mission commander.  I also had professional differences of opinion with the squadron commander.  I will unpack this last point a bit, not only because I enjoy a trip down memory lane, but also to provide some alternative context and a differing experience of leadership from that time and circumstance.  My intent is not to cast aspersions on Bob's experiences, but simply to provide my own.

As a co-pilot still green behind the ears, with a couple years of flying slicks under my belt, I deployed in the Gunship for upcoming operations in Iraq.  When I showed up, the squadron commander Bob discusses gave me a letter of counseling because I had not completed my flight physical prior to arriving.  While I was waivered, since I had deployed two days prior to it becoming due, he thought I should have gotten it done before deploying.  I told him I would frame his reprimand and add it to my collection.  We both laughed, though for probably vastly different reasons.  Later in that deployment, that same commander called me to his office and informed me that I had been spotted spending nights in the tent of our intel officer (an all female tent, segregated by sex unlike our aircrew tents where our entire thirteen male/female crew bunked together).  He told me not to enter that tent anymore.  Later that same night, as the commander was hanging out in the "foyer" of our crew's tent, that same intel officer got off the bed I had made from scrapwood for my bunk, and walked past him while in her pajamas to use the latrine, and then walked past him again to get back into my bunk.  He didn't say she couldn't spend the night in my tent, and I never heard anything further about it.

During that deployment, the commander took over a sortie for our aircraft commander, and we flew a combat mission.  During the mission he gave me some sharp feedback about my radio utilization that I thought was a bit harsh.  In the debrief I asked if I could speak to him outside, and I gave him my feedback over his feedback, in a direct manner.  At the end of this deployment, while flying out of country back to Florida, this commander jumped on our Gunship to go back to the States.  I remember flying an approach into St Johns, Newfoundland and briefing the crew that I was going to slow to threshold speed and maintain it on approach to landing to perform a spot landing.  The commander and I had a difference of opinion over my approach plan, and the landing that he thought might result.  Without getting into the specifics, the conversation we had, on headset, went something like:

Commander: "Yes you will"
Me: "No I won't."
Commander: "Trust me, yes you will"
Me: "No I won't."
Commander: "Yes you will"
Me: "No I won't."

I was a co-pilot.  I had a reputation for being bullheaded and confrontational and outspoken and challenging leadership.  It was a deserved reputation and one that hasn't lessened through the years.  When it comes to challenging leadership and being opinionated, my bona fides are pretty much undisputed.  Despite these character traits, and despite these experiences above, this same squadron commander upgraded me to aircraft commander.  Not all thought I should upgrade, and instructors such as Seifert weighed in with their views behind closed doors.

In my nearly two decades in the service, I have never seen a community that is more tolerant of dissent and confrontation, or that has more secure and mission focused leadership than the Gunship community.  It is a community that from top to bottom is obsessed with the security of our guys on the ground and mission accomplishment and actively seeks better ways of doing business.  The leadership actively provided top cover to crews who thought outside the box and creatively made the mission happen.  The only dogma in that community was mission success.  Nothing else was sacred.  The community was extremely tough, as was the ops tempo and the mission challenges, and it was not a one size fits all outfit.  After all my experiences, my ups and downs, that community remains the unquestioned gold standard of combat operations and combat leadership.  It wasn't just this one commander, it was the culture, captured at that time in that place.  A tough culture, a thick skinned culture, and one that delivered excellence on the battlefield.

So back to Bob's article.  One point that is clear from his article, and one that Seifert perhaps fails to recognize, is that his story is one of how the service got it right.  Seifert had ideas.  He wanted those ideas to be heard and discussed by leadership.  They were then heard and considered.  Leadership then made its decision and Seifert's inputs were part of that process.

It is important to remember that a decision maker who makes a decision we disagree with, is not guilty of not listening to our inputs.  Some have a hard time understanding that point.  Listening does not equate to agreeing.  That is as true for a Gunship pilot and crew as it is for a war fighting organization.  Crew resource management teaches us that we must not allow ourselves to be timid or to silence our inputs when we believe we see something wrong that may affect crew safety or mission accomplishment.  So, good on Seifert for offering up his inputs to the organization.  That takes a measure of courage when those inputs might not be well received.  But once a decision maker, the A-code on a crew or a commander of an organization, takes those inputs and makes a decision then we should back it so long as the decision is legal.

I think Bob's ideas are worth consideration and I'm glad he offered them.  I don't personally agree with his view on resource allocation of limited assets, and I think he misses the mark on centers of gravity, and perhaps has fallen into the old trap of equating strategic success with a body count.  But he does make a good point that it would be better if we could provide more of these surgical close air support effects to conventional friendlies on the ground.  Replicating effects, increasing airpower, is something I can agree with.  More airpower is the answer, not spreading thin a platform that is already spread thin at risk to strategic priorities.  At any rate, while I don't find Bob's viewpoint particularly novel or noteworthy, I am glad he offered up his ideas all the same and I think there is some limited value to them.

And I also think leadership got it right by listening to his inputs.  The community did not need to agree with Bob in order to listen to him.  Likewise, as I am familiar with, leadership is not guilty of punishing a person simply because they do not find them fit to be groomed for command or promotion or given a certain position or responsibility.  We have to be careful not to fall into simple thinking which tempts us to think a requirement of good leadership is that they like us.  It is not true that good leaders must like us.  It is true, however, that good leaders will listen to us.  Just as they listened to Bob's views on asset allocation.

I have never served in an organization anywhere close to as professional as the combat squadron of Seifert's article.  It wasn't a perfect organization.  It certainly wasn't an easy job.  But it was a truly exceptional squadron.  Dissent, debate, storming-norming-performing, and even the occasional fist-fight were hallmarks of that culture.  And our guys on the ground benefited from it greatly.

I have not seen such excellence replicated anywhere else in our Air Force, and I have never been more proud to be part of a squadron.

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