Plans are important. They say no plan survives first contact with the enemy (‘contact’ in military parlance normally refers to when the bullets are flying!) In my experience this is quite true – read my ‘compass’ entry from last month. However, this doesn’t negate the need to at least start with a plan. I spent 7 years on operational front line squadrons being deployed to operations and exercises on four continents.
Whilst not on operations a lot of time is spent training and therefore quite a lot of that time is spent planning. As a Qualified Helicopter Tactics Instructor (QHTI) I spent a lot of time on exercises where there was a planning cycle that had strict parameters around how much time was available for planning before the mission needed to get airborne. In all my time serving I cannot recall a time when I had enough time to complete 100% of the planning before we had to walk and get airborne…there was always something else I had wanted to do. Equally, every time I felt that I had done all I could prior to walking, the mission was always cancelled. All that compressed effort under intense time pressure for no return. Plans are important but they’re not the mission.
A fundamental element of the planning cycle was the timeline. In a Composite Air Operation (COMAO) i.e. a mission with lots of different aircraft participating; the timeline was king. The timeline would be constructed with the end in mind – what was the mission objective e.g. time on target to deliver troops/ordnance. The timeline would then be worked backwards and populated with a take-off time, start time, walk time, crew briefings, formations briefings, mission briefings, ‘howgozits’, initial briefings and so on. The good leaders would also ensure there was time to eat! As the navigator there was always a huge amount of time pressure to assimilate all this data, interpret the requirement (sense-making) and complete a coherent, detailed plan. All of this would be structured around the objective…the commander’s intent (see Mission Command blog).
What is it?
Well, planning and timelines are only part of the job. The timeline gives a great framework to work to and the numerous check lists and briefing cycles ensure – as far as possible – that all considerations are taken in account and covered. However, once you get airborne things change. The weather isn’t quite as forecast, the enemy aren’t where ‘they’re supposed to be’, sometimes the aircraft breaks and so on. So just as important as a solid plan is a flexible and adaptable attitude. No plan survives first contact with the enemy and some don’t even survive take-off! However, highly skilled and trained people know how to deal with a lot of things. When I led the first operational Chinooks into Afghanistan after 9/11 it didn’t all go to plan. In a highly charged political atmosphere in a part of the world that was extremely hostile to what we were doing and in an airspace full of airborne ordnance ready to target any ‘intruder’…one of our procedures didn’t work. There was a plan, it had been briefed, we all understood it. But it didn’t work. Relying on my training, my ability, my understanding of the situation and a little bit of courage I adapted and flexed the approach. And it worked out ok.
Planning can be stressful but it is also quite straightforward. It’s when the ‘rubber hits the road’ and there is first contact with the enemy that things can change. Are you pre-occupied with planning but not getting anything done? Do you know who your ‘enemy’ is? How confident are you in yours and your people’s ability, skill and talent to navigate the situation and push through to your mission objective? What do you do when the procedures don’t work? Sometimes having a navigator on board can help get clarity about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Give me a call.