Rapid reaction leadership

The hours are long, and time off is often unpredictable. In a year, as many
as 120 days could be spent on assignment away from home, and in 2002 that
figure will probably rise. The work itself is tough, so the training is geared
to produce mentally and physically tough, disciplined and skilled air commandos
who can operate in the most chaotic and hostile conditions. DeeDee Doke reports
on leadership within one of the US’s elite warfighting groups

When 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 rapid
reaction teams of Special Operations forces from the air force, army and navy
with highly specialised combat skills. In the air force, such skills will
include flying in adverse conditions, combat search and rescue, establishing
and operating air assault zones, target designation, evacuation co-ordination
and more.

As a result, it takes ‘a special breed’ that chooses to stay in the US Air
Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) beyond an initial three- or four-year
tour 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, and
I know that no matter how I plan my day, there’s going to be something
different 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 kind
of folks who also expect to come in, find a new challenge that they weren’t
expecting and not only be able to handle that situation, but get ready for the
next day. There’s never a dull moment."

Compared to the board line-up of a commercial company, a military command
staff has many of the same functions. At AFSOC, the ‘CEO’ is a three-star air
force general, whose ‘board’ includes a lawyer, flight surgeon, a financial
wizard, a safety expert, chief engineer, senior enlisted force adviser and
other top advisers.

As the DO, which is arguably the hot seat on any command staff, Connors has
multiple responsibilities: to organise, train and equip Afsoc’s forces,
wherever they are based around the world. As such, he faces the full gamut of
HR issues daily, from ensuring the right combat forces are in the right
positions, through training and leadership development, to overseeing
international deployments and dealing with the families left behind.

Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Force, the anti-terrorism campaign
that followed the New York and Washington bombings on 11 September, life in
Afsoc has further intensified with global deployments and well-publicised
military action. Its deadly AC-130 Spectre gunships vie for combat headlines
from Afghanistan with the more cumbersome B-52 bombers.

Clearly, growing and maintaining as special a breed as Special Ops forces
requires definitive command that leads by example. "They need to be led
but not stifled," says Connors. "They need to have a chance to learn
by doing, as opposed to being ordered to do every single thing. We need to give
them a chance to try things, to plan, to exercise, and to see how things work
out in training in peacetime so that when they have a chance to do the same
thing, 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 on
their feet, where they’re not afraid to act. This is not a one-mistake command
where you’re out of here if you make a mistake. But we want people who are
willing 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 if
they do something or make a mistake.

"The ability to make mistakes is valuable. Letting people try things is
valuable. I think we do that in Afsoc more than the regular air force
does," Connors says. Whereas many air force career fields involve
considerable regulatory requirements and tried-and-tested formats for
conducting business, Special Operations has a different focus. He adds:
"We have regulatory guidance, but we also teach our people that there’s no
substitute for common sense. And the guidance that we give folks never fits the
next situation they’re going to run into 100 per cent."

Connors’ original life plan did not include a military career, much less
Special 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 abandon
even that one goal. From 1969 until the end of the draft, which paralleled the
end of the Vietnam War, a lottery system based on birth date determined who
would go. Connors’ number came up as 11. He completed his university studies
with a bachelor’s degree in urban studies in 1971, entered the air force and became
a 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 aircraft
types. In 1983, his course altered again, joining the special operations field
first as a United Nations military observer for the UN Truce Supervision
Organization in the Middle East. Business then heated up in the special
operations world. The US has increasingly relied on its forces, somewhat to
Connors’ chagrin, to take on more and more diverse missions from Grenada and
Panama to Bosnia and various points in Africa.

"Since the early 1990s," Connors says, "there have never been
enough Special Operations forces to do what everybody wants us to do." As
a result, his toughest challenge is prioritising resource requests from Afsoc’s
field operations, from aircraft and bullets to people and money "because
you never have enough".

Today, Afsoc forces tend to be "a little older, a little more
experienced" than many airmen in the regular air force, Connors says,
although "they really don’t know what they volunteered for until they get
into it. But the ones who are willing to accept the challenge, who are willing
to learn new things and who are willing to continue to learn are the volunteers
that stay. They become a special breed. It amazes me every day the calibre of
people we get to do this job".

Motivating his forces on the front line is not difficult, Connors says, as
the objective and the means of executing it are clear. It’s tougher to keep the
focus on the mission outside the combat environment because of daily
distractions and competing priorities. "But everything we do needs to be
directed toward supporting those folks on the front line, and everybody here
has an important job doing that," he says. "If there’s something
going on in your job that you can’t control and it’s stopping you from
supporting those guys out on the front line, you need to come see me, and we’ll
fix that."

Not only do his airmen and civilian employees need special leadership,
however. Their spouses and children also form part of the "Afsoc
family" and require attention, especially when a mystery deployment is
under way. Often, families cannot know where their special operators have gone
or when they’ll return. "It’s interesting. We recruit people to come here,
but we keep families. We have more people leave Special Operations because
their family does not like the lifestyle rather than the individual member not
liking the lifestyle," Connors says. "It’s very hard on them. We ask
a 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: "Tell
the truth. It’s easier. You have less to remember." In Special Operations,
truth is particularly crucial. The truth can alert forces to a potential
problem – 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 be
back 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 get
a pilot with 3,000 hours flying experience is to have him fly 3,000 hours. I
can’t go out into the street and hire a guy that’s flown 3,000 hours in
civilian life and bring him into the military and say, ‘OK, that’s going to
transfer exactly over to what we do here’ because it doesn’t. The job of this
command is to produce combat-ready aircrews. That’s it. That’s what we
do."

But keeping that focus is difficult. When VIPs visit, there are static
displays to develop; aircraft need maintenance or modifications that keep them
out of the available fleet; perhaps an aircraft must be on standby. Then there’s
the question of money. "Resources to fly aeroplanes are very expensive.
There’s never enough money. Everyone understands that producing combat-ready
aircrews 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 a
game for younger folks who can better handle sleeping in tents out in the
field. But he easily and fondly remembers his own proudest moment as a Special
Operations leader.

In June 1993, he deployed to the African country of Djibouti for 30 days
with four aircraft under his command, dispatched by the UN and then-President
Bill Clinton following the killing of 24 Pakistani UN troops by Somalian
warlord 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 his
and other forces that were in pursuit of Aidid. When his group returned to home
base, all went home alive.

Says Connors: "I sat back and said, ‘Well, it all worked, if I’d had to
retire right after that, I would have felt complete’."

US air force special operations command

12,000 people include:

  9,000 active-duty
airmen

  1,200 reservists

  1,000 Air National
Guard

     500 civilians

Permanent bases:

Hurlburt Field, Florida, US

Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

RAF Mildenhall, UK

130 aircraft:

AC-130H/U gunships

MH-53M Pave Low helicopters

MC-130E/H Combat Talon transport  

MC-130P Combat Shadow aerial tankers

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