By lex, on Wed – March 30, 2005

During the fall of last year I had the opportunity (that’s what we call going to sea: an opportunity) to plan and execute three major exercises for three different carrier strike groups. We essentially put all three groups through the same wringer, with only minor modifications from exercise to exercise.

And in retrospect, the fascinating thing was how three nearly identically configured carrier strike groups, facing three nearly identical scenarios, came up with markedly different processes which often led to completely different results.

Which is kind of funny, but not in the “ha-ha” kind of a way: the Navy had invested the same amount in materiel, manpower and training on each group. And yet the same input signal often yielded different outcomes. And while all strike groups were successful, some of them, or their component warfare commanders were much better than others: More lethal, more survivable, and more nimble.

Which begs the question: Why?

Environmental effects might have been one reason, but we controlled for that in our evaluation. Subtle differences in individual hull or air wing configurations shouldn’t have made a perceptible difference.

No – the difference was cultural, and leadership defined the culture.

In the Navy, we use the word leadership in two ways – one way essentially means “The Boss(es),” (i.e., “I’ve got to run this by leadership.”) while the other is the sometimes difficult to describe analytically but in practice easily recognizable quality of getting people to willingly, even cheerfully do that which they otherwise might try to avoid doing, either because it’s hard or painful or often, both. It’s the second definition that I’m talking about, and one that really made the difference in at sea execution. And I guess I was a little surprised to discover that what’s true for a division officer or in a fighter four-ship or even a squadron command role is equally true in an 8000 man, multiple asset carrier strike group.

Leadership does matter, just like we were taught as midshipmen.

The carrier strike group at sea is a complex, adaptive system , but at its core is the War Council, headed by the embarked flag officer, who is in turn supported by his personal staff. The War Council is made up of the principal warfare commanders (air defense, sea combat, air combat, information warfare) and resource/element coordinators. These folks generally meet at least once a day, usually in the morning, around a long table close to the tactical flag command center (TFCC). The air defense commander, most often the commanding officer of the attached Ticonderoga-class cruiser, usually participates by secure VTC.

In a well-ordered strike group, each of these warfare commanders will have the opportunity to bring the admiral up to speed with their intentions and concerns over the next 72 hours. The admiral in turn will share his intentions and desired effects with the warfare commanders and his own staff, who oversees the minute-by-minute execution of those effects in TFCC. If he has any concerns apart from those addressed by the warfare commanders, he shares those in his wrap up, including his desires to mitigate the concerns. Of first importance to the commander are risk to mission, and risk to forces.

Mission risk is our ability to execute what higher authority wants of us. If we’re over tasked or under-resourced, mission risk calculations should make that clear, allowing us to communicate up-echelon with the fleet commander and either request more resources or request “mission clarification,” – task prioritization, in other words. Force risk is how much we’re hanging it out there while executing the mission – if for example, we can successfully complete the mission, but only by losing a couple of ships or a dozen aircraft, we’ll want to either make sure that the up-echelon commander agrees that mission itself is that important, or that there’s no better way to get the job done.

Just after that meeting, strike groups convene a meeting known as the “Bubbas,” or operations coordination cell. This group is comprised of the ops officers or their representatives from all the associated elements of the strike group, plus logistics, weather and intel folks. This is where the rubber of high-flown strategy meets the road of tactical execution, right past the flashing neon lights belonging to the speed bump of resource limitations. Because while goals can be unlimited, resources are not. And, often as not, the resource in most demand is the aircraft of the embarked carrier air wing.

The air wing is both the primary striking arm of the carrier strike group and its best defense. You put carriers to sea with their escorts so that they can steam the strike fighters in reach of targets ashore, so strike warfare is what the air wing wants to train to. But while eternally keen on biffing the enemy from above, the admiral probably wouldn’t mind having his ships survive the retaliatory onslaught of that selfsame and no doubt perfidious foe, so he’s going to want to peel some jets off the strike missions to fly combat air patrols or do long-range sea search and surveillance. Because otherwise you’d never know what’s out there.

Bubbas attempts to parse out commander’s intent and desired effects and turn it into a plan that can actually be executed, again on a rolling, 72-hour basis. Importantly, if any of the planners come to loggerheads over resource constraints, their principles get to take the problem to the boss quietly, rather than brawling over it like fishwives over the conference table.

And those are the two most important meetings in the strike group every day, and mentoring their processes is a big part of what I do, in that I’ve been attending War Council and Bubba’s meetings for going on the last four years. Which, when you think about it is pretty amazing, because each meeting is only slightly less painful, taken as a whole and amortized over time, than a root canal.

Leadership is partly (but by no means mostly) an ability to motivate. But while eve-of-battle speeches are all well and good and a part of the necessary form, it seems to me that one of the real keys to effective leadership, at least in naval terms, is to ensure that all the information that was thoughtfully chin-pulled over the War Council table is translated to and communicated with the folks who actually stand watch and pull triggers. We call this mapping “strategy to task,” and it’s a huge, if necessary, pain in the ass.

And then, having clearly communicated intent, because it’s true that the chain is only as strong as the weakest link, someone has to go out and make sure those watchstanders and trigger pullers truly understand the tasking, and how their actions contribute to the commander’s desired effects, because guess what: The enemy gets a vote too.

And sometimes he votes in strange and unpredictable ways, so the folks on the pointy end have to have more than just rote knowledge; they have to really understand the plan and the desired effects, so that when the enemy deviates from our plan for him, they can respond effectively.

“Only the spirit of attack born in a brave heart will bring success to any fighter aircraft no matter how highly developed it may be.”. —Adolf Galland    

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Filed under by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Naval Aviation, Navy, Neptunus Lex

4 responses to “Leadership

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