Rapid reaction leadership

first_imgRapid reaction leadershipOn 1 Mar 2002 in Military, Personnel Today Comments are closed. The hours are long, and time off is often unpredictable. In a year, as manyas 120 days could be spent on assignment away from home, and in 2002 thatfigure will probably rise. The work itself is tough, so the training is gearedto produce mentally and physically tough, disciplined and skilled air commandoswho can operate in the most chaotic and hostile conditions. DeeDee Doke reportson leadership within one of the US’s elite warfighting groupsWhen hostilities break out in an area of US interest, such as Afghanistan,among the first, if not the first, to arrive on the scene will be rapidreaction teams of Special Operations forces from the air force, army and navywith highly specialised combat skills. In the air force, such skills willinclude flying in adverse conditions, combat search and rescue, establishingand operating air assault zones, target designation, evacuation co-ordinationand more. As a result, it takes ‘a special breed’ that chooses to stay in the US AirForce Special Operations Command (AFSOC) beyond an initial three- or four-yeartour of duty, says Col James Connors, the command’s director of operations (DO)who has served nearly 19 years in the special operations arena. “I’ve stuck with it because I get up every morning to come in here, andI know that no matter how I plan my day, there’s going to be somethingdifferent that’s happened. I’m going to be challenged, and I enjoy that,”says Connors. “It’s an honour to come in every day and work with the kindof folks who also expect to come in, find a new challenge that they weren’texpecting and not only be able to handle that situation, but get ready for thenext day. There’s never a dull moment.” Compared to the board line-up of a commercial company, a military commandstaff has many of the same functions. At AFSOC, the ‘CEO’ is a three-star airforce general, whose ‘board’ includes a lawyer, flight surgeon, a financialwizard, a safety expert, chief engineer, senior enlisted force adviser andother top advisers. As the DO, which is arguably the hot seat on any command staff, Connors hasmultiple responsibilities: to organise, train and equip Afsoc’s forces,wherever they are based around the world. As such, he faces the full gamut ofHR issues daily, from ensuring the right combat forces are in the rightpositions, through training and leadership development, to overseeinginternational deployments and dealing with the families left behind. Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Force, the anti-terrorism campaignthat followed the New York and Washington bombings on 11 September, life inAfsoc has further intensified with global deployments and well-publicisedmilitary action. Its deadly AC-130 Spectre gunships vie for combat headlinesfrom Afghanistan with the more cumbersome B-52 bombers. Clearly, growing and maintaining as special a breed as Special Ops forcesrequires definitive command that leads by example. “They need to be ledbut not stifled,” says Connors. “They need to have a chance to learnby doing, as opposed to being ordered to do every single thing. We need to givethem a chance to try things, to plan, to exercise, and to see how things workout in training in peacetime so that when they have a chance to do the samething, only a little different, in combat, they understand how to do it. “I need to be able to give them an environment where they can think ontheir feet, where they’re not afraid to act. This is not a one-mistake commandwhere you’re out of here if you make a mistake. But we want people who arewilling to act on their best judgement, to act on what we’ve taught them –people who are not stopped by the fear that something will happen to them ifthey do something or make a mistake. “The ability to make mistakes is valuable. Letting people try things isvaluable. I think we do that in Afsoc more than the regular air forcedoes,” Connors says. Whereas many air force career fields involveconsiderable regulatory requirements and tried-and-tested formats forconducting business, Special Operations has a different focus. He adds:”We have regulatory guidance, but we also teach our people that there’s nosubstitute for common sense. And the guidance that we give folks never fits thenext situation they’re going to run into 100 per cent.” Connors’ original life plan did not include a military career, much lessSpecial Operations. In his youth, his only ambition was to live in New York,but the military draft system in place in the US then forced him to abandoneven that one goal. From 1969 until the end of the draft, which paralleled theend of the Vietnam War, a lottery system based on birth date determined whowould go. Connors’ number came up as 11. He completed his university studieswith a bachelor’s degree in urban studies in 1971, entered the air force and becamea billeting officer in his first assignment. He switched gears two years later by undergoing aircraft navigator training.For a few years, he served as an instructor navigator on two different aircrafttypes. In 1983, his course altered again, joining the special operations fieldfirst as a United Nations military observer for the UN Truce SupervisionOrganization in the Middle East. Business then heated up in the specialoperations world. The US has increasingly relied on its forces, somewhat toConnors’ chagrin, to take on more and more diverse missions from Grenada andPanama to Bosnia and various points in Africa. “Since the early 1990s,” Connors says, “there have never beenenough Special Operations forces to do what everybody wants us to do.” Asa result, his toughest challenge is prioritising resource requests from Afsoc’sfield operations, from aircraft and bullets to people and money “becauseyou never have enough”. Today, Afsoc forces tend to be “a little older, a little moreexperienced” than many airmen in the regular air force, Connors says,although “they really don’t know what they volunteered for until they getinto it. But the ones who are willing to accept the challenge, who are willingto learn new things and who are willing to continue to learn are the volunteersthat stay. They become a special breed. It amazes me every day the calibre ofpeople we get to do this job”. Motivating his forces on the front line is not difficult, Connors says, asthe objective and the means of executing it are clear. It’s tougher to keep thefocus on the mission outside the combat environment because of dailydistractions and competing priorities. “But everything we do needs to bedirected toward supporting those folks on the front line, and everybody herehas an important job doing that,” he says. “If there’s somethinggoing on in your job that you can’t control and it’s stopping you fromsupporting those guys out on the front line, you need to come see me, and we’llfix that.” Not only do his airmen and civilian employees need special leadership,however. Their spouses and children also form part of the “Afsocfamily” and require attention, especially when a mystery deployment isunder way. Often, families cannot know where their special operators have goneor when they’ll return. “It’s interesting. We recruit people to come here,but we keep families. We have more people leave Special Operations becausetheir family does not like the lifestyle rather than the individual member notliking the lifestyle,” Connors says. “It’s very hard on them. We aska lot of the people in the service, and we ask a lot of the families.” But his leadership philosophy for dealing with both is the same: “Tellthe truth. It’s easier. You have less to remember.” In Special Operations,truth is particularly crucial. The truth can alert forces to a potentialproblem – how to avoid it, or perhaps, how it cannot be avoided. For families,telling them you can’t tell them where their units have gone or when they’ll beback is better than passing on a lie. “When I deal with people, that’s my leadership philosophy. As DO,”Connors continues, “my philosophy is to fly, fly, fly. The only way I geta pilot with 3,000 hours flying experience is to have him fly 3,000 hours. Ican’t go out into the street and hire a guy that’s flown 3,000 hours incivilian life and bring him into the military and say, ‘OK, that’s going totransfer exactly over to what we do here’ because it doesn’t. The job of thiscommand is to produce combat-ready aircrews. That’s it. That’s what wedo.” But keeping that focus is difficult. When VIPs visit, there are staticdisplays to develop; aircraft need maintenance or modifications that keep themout of the available fleet; perhaps an aircraft must be on standby. Then there’sthe question of money. “Resources to fly aeroplanes are very expensive.There’s never enough money. Everyone understands that producing combat-readyaircrews is the goal, but there are a lot of impediments to doing that,”he says. At 52, Connors will soon retire from the military, believing that it is agame for younger folks who can better handle sleeping in tents out in thefield. But he easily and fondly remembers his own proudest moment as a SpecialOperations leader. In June 1993, he deployed to the African country of Djibouti for 30 dayswith four aircraft under his command, dispatched by the UN and then-PresidentBill Clinton following the killing of 24 Pakistani UN troops by Somalianwarlord Mohammed Aidid’s forces. He was the senior US military man in Djibouti,and oversaw the establishment of a full-up military encampment to support hisand other forces that were in pursuit of Aidid. When his group returned to homebase, all went home alive. Says Connors: “I sat back and said, ‘Well, it all worked, if I’d had toretire right after that, I would have felt complete’.” US air force special operations command12,000 people include:  9,000 active-dutyairmen  1,200 reservists  1,000 Air NationalGuard     500 civiliansPermanent bases:Hurlburt Field, Florida, USKadena Air Base, Okinawa, JapanRAF Mildenhall, UK130 aircraft:AC-130H/U gunshipsMH-53M Pave Low helicoptersMC-130E/H Combat Talon transport  MC-130P Combat Shadow aerial tankers Related posts:center_img Previous Article Next Article Features list 2021 – submitting content to Personnel TodayOn this page you will find details of how to submit content to Personnel Today. We do not publish a…last_img read more