Gaining a deeper appreciation for our Air Force

  • Published
  • By Col. Eric Nelson
  • 55th Medical Operations Squadron commander
I spent my winter holiday season in Baghdad last year. Not by choice, but as the deployed air advisor to the surgeon general of the still-young Iraqi air force.

When first advised of the tasking, I had little idea of what I was being asked to do. As I began to find out, I must admit to having had my doubts about my qualifications for the job. I needn't have worried,18 years as an Air Force officer prepared me well to mentor my Iraqi colleagues on the development of a professional military.

However, I never would have guessed at the number of lessons I would learn about such varied subjects as leadership, organizational development, healthcare systems and interpersonal relations from my experiences in Iraq.

Working with the Iraqis repeatedly provided opportunities to compare and contrast the way we do things with the way they do things, and in the process, I gained a better understanding and appreciation of the workings of our own U.S. military.

First, some background: I am a physician certified in both aerospace and family medicine. It's my experience as the former that led to my selection for a six-month stint as the senior medical advisor to the Iraqi air force. As an aerospace medicine physician, I'm supposed to be an expert in designing and running operational medicine programs that support the line of the U.S. Air Force.

I was now being asked to mentor the leaders of the Iraqi Air Force Medical Service in the development of their own military medical system. As an air advisor, I would be joining a team of approximately 50-60 other advisors assigned to the Iraq Training & Advisory Mission -- Air Force in Baghdad, a mission formerly known as the Coalition Air Force Training Team.

The U.S. has air advisors working at every level in the Iraqi air force, teaching Iraqi pilots to fly, working on curricula for basic military training and officer training academies, embedded with operational units, and mentoring senior leaders in the care and feeding of their air force organization.

The "old" Iraqi air force had been destroyed in Operation Desert Storm, and was effectively prevented from staging a comeback by coalition enforcement of no-fly zones in the 1990s. The "new" Iraqi air force was reborn in 2004, and for the past four years American air advisors have been working to help it grow and develop into an enduring, self-sustaining force for providing air power to the nation of Iraq.

Upon my arrival in Iraq, one of my first challenges was to untangle the organizational structure of the Iraqi air force in an attempt to learn who I should be working with. The Iraqi organizational wire diagrams generally mirror our own, but in Iraq one quickly learns that the command structure isn't as linear or straightforward as it would appear.

Political, ethnic, tribal and family ties contribute to a web of additional links that aren't overtly apparent on the traditional map of the chain of command. These background power relationships often mean that the individual you presume has the authority to fix something may not and might even put considerable drag on the decision-making process. I'm sure that power relationships on our own Capitol Hill are similarly complicated, but fortunately this does not extend to our military chain of command.

Witnessing the adverse effects of murky command relationships in Iraq has made clear to me the strategic and operational value inherent in a definite and unquestionable chain of command. For effective military operations, it's an absolute necessity.

Decision making in the Iraqi air force was also complicated by stovepiping and a lack of empowerment of anyone below the highest command levels. Activities as modest as ordering more printer supplies, procuring medical equipment, or even producing a daily flying schedule typically required approval at the highest levels of government. Can you imagine having to ask our Secretary of Defense for approval to fly a local flying currency mission?

I suspect that this lack of empowerment at lower organizational levels was partly cultural and partly defense mechanism. Under the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein, would you have wanted your name on record as having authorized much of anything? But when no one below the level of a base commander has any sense of empowerment, organizational stagnation and inertia occur.

I have often heard that other nations are surprised by how much responsibility our own U.S. armed forces entrust to our enlisted personnel. We invest tremendous resources in ensuring our enlisted corps is trained, educated, and challenged with leadership opportunities. Our Air Force seeks to empower individuals at every level of the organization, trusting even the lowest Airman with a tremendous amount of responsibility in comparison. As a result, our Air Force is remarkably more agile and flexible as an organization. Forget all of our high-tech stuff: this is a huge advantage our armed forces hold over those of much of the rest of the world.

The importance of communication was also driven home to me during this deployment. Without an adequate land-line phone or internet infrastructure, the Iraqi air force surgeon general had a difficult time communicating with his far-flung medics. This not only severely compromised the various units' ability to communicate their needs, projects, and issues to him, but also impaired his ability to communicate his vision and expectations to his personnel. Lack of communications contributes to a sense of isolation and is disruptive to organizational cohesion.

In the old days, no one had telephone or internet capabilities. In such circumstances units had to be more self-contained and self-reliant, which brings us back to the empowerment issue: if approval from the highest levels of command is required to do much of anything, it's impossible for much to get done when it's difficult to communicate with those leaders.

It should be no surprise to you that communication up and down the chain is vital to the health of an organization, but witnessing the adverse effects of its absence is striking and immensely frustrating. It's very difficult to be an effective leader if you cannot communicate effectively with your personnel.

Those with any knowledge of military history will be well aware of the critical importance of logistics to a military organization. I've witnessed comparatively minor issues with our own military branch's supply functions in the past, but until my tour in Baghdad, I had never seen operations be completely and utterly stymied by recurring issues with an inadequate supply and distribution process.

The issue was not one of lack of supplies, but rather a problem with distribution. It does no good to stockpile supplies in warehouses until the perishable ones expire, while operational units are forced to go without because the logistics system failed. Also, having large warehouses full of supplies and equipment is of little use when there is no reliable inventory of that materiel. My time in Iraq certainly gave me ample reason to ponder and to appreciate our own Department of Defense supply chains.

With a highly vertical, stovepiped organization, limited communications capabilities other than cell phones, and hamstrung logistics processes, one might think that strategic planning would be a challenge. And so it was for the Iraqi air force medical service last year.

There is still a critical shortage of qualified physicians, nurses and enlisted support staff in the Iraqi military. That didn't keep the senior leadership from wanting to expand their footprint by occupying former bases as U.S. forces began to draw down their presence in Iraq.

It proved futile to argue that medical assets were insufficient to provide an effective presence at all of those bases, and plans to expand to new territory generally didn't consider logistical support like supplies or transportation, or infrastructure needs like facilities or utilities, communications.

Even though this wasn't exactly an expansion of conquest, looking at history teaches us about failed military campaigns in which planners were unable to overcome the too-heady aspirations of their leaders.

I have highlighted some of the problems I encountered during the six months I spent in close association with the Iraqi air force because I think they illustrate lessons for leaders in our own Air Force to keep in mind, not to bash my Iraqi colleagues. The government and military of Iraq is rebuilding from the ground up. This is a considerable challenge when those who used to serve in leadership and managerial roles have been wiped out, and are replaced by novice leaders and managers who haven't done this before. Some might not have even received the equivalent of our professional military education to teach them the lessons of history.

There are bright spots for the Iraqi air force. Forward-thinking leaders exist, but it will take time for them to shake loose the institutional inertia and get the right people in the right positions to accelerate the advancement of their organization.

I have seen senior Iraqi military officers acknowledge the importance of empowering their junior officers and enlisted personnel, and seen others aggressively mentor their executive staffs in how to run an efficient and productive staff meeting. Efforts to improve logistics processes and to incentivize medical recruiting are progressing, albeit slowly.

I believe the efforts of our air advisors in Iraq are paying off, if not as rapidly as we once hoped. We are attempting to change attitudes and organizational culture, and that takes time. Lessons are being learned ... on both sides. The fruits of our advising and mentoring efforts may not be apparent for a decade or more, but if stability is provided to the people of Iraq, I am optimistic that positive change will come.