As we have discussed over the past year, the fourth quarters of fiscal years 2015-19 contained 40% of the Army’s Class A aviation mishaps. During the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center’s 4th-Quarter Aviation Spike campaign, we noticed a drastic reduction in the number of Class A mishaps, down to only one, in the last seven months of fiscal 2020. While often attributed to the COVID environment, Army Aviation still flew in excess of 90% of the flying hour program average of fiscal 2015-19, indicating we didn’t fly less, we flew safer. Anecdotally, we can attribute this success to managing transitions at all levels and in response to all types of transitions, including personnel, environmental and training among others. Managing transitions requires not only planning for known transitions, but for unanticipated transitions that arise out of necessity.
Some transitions are known, understood and even expected as part of normal operations, but they should not be confused with being routine. These transitions include personnel turnover, change of seasons and even modernization efforts. Transitions of this nature often come with enough lead time to conduct deliberate planning at the staff and command level in order to anticipate challenges arising during these transitions. How units approach these transitions should be proactive in nature to minimize the chances of surprises and further develop branches and sequels to the transition.
Probably the most visible transition units manage is the transition of personnel. In general, units can expect approximately one-third of their population to change each year, with the preponderance of these moves during the summer movement cycle. During this time, approximately 9,000 to 10,000 Soldiers PCS monthly to new duty stations, taking their knowledge of the local area with them. They then need to learn a new duty station. The aviation community is not immune to this turnover, which results in the changeover of numerous rated and non-rated crewmembers in aviation units across the Army. Overall, personnel transition is probably the hardest of the known transitions to manage because of its subjective nature.
Leaders must plan how to manage personnel transitions with a deliberate plan of attack that includes: where to assign and how to evaluate new Soldiers, experience across the unit, and how to realign Soldiers already in the unit. As new Soldiers arrive to the unit, the leaders in the organization must have a criteria by which to assess incoming Soldiers and determine where to assign them. Often, this “intel” is gathered through reviewing Soldier and officer record briefs, which gives an indication of the training, skill and previous positions of new members of the team. Based off of the personnel slate of those PCS-ing into the unit, leaders can determine the best way to align the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. When shortfalls are noted, leaders sometimes must “grow from within” their formations to fill necessary positions. Without properly analyzing current and incoming personnel strengths and weaknesses, the leaders cannot fully manage personnel transition.
Unfortunately, the largest portion of personnel transition occurs during the time of year when the weather starts becoming the most unforgiving when it comes to aircraft and personnel performance. The warmest weather of the year occurs during the fourth quarter of each fiscal year, with August being the hottest month in the northern hemisphere. With the soaring temperatures, aircraft become power restricted and less responsive, resulting in the reduced ability to aggressively react to any situation, self-induced or otherwise. Even more so, this increased heat puts additional stress on the crewmembers, as they must cope with the heat’s effect on the human body.
Furthermore, this time of the year has some of the shortest hours of darkness for nighttime flying (the shortest night of the year is around the third week of June). To cope with these shortened hours of darkness, leaders often shift flight schedules into deep nights or early mornings, which impacts Soldiers’ circadian rhythms. Some of the possible effects of shifting circadian rhythms include excessive fatigue, decreased cognitive abilities, poor reflexes and poor decision-making. It can even weaken the immune system. Combining the effects on the aircraft with the effects on the crewmembers creates an environment that is more prone for mishaps. The best way to manage this time of year is for leaders to constantly assess the state of aircrews and ensure there are plans in place to adjust the mission if necessary.
Perhaps the most objective transition to manage includes the transitions in training development. Training includes all of the events necessary to maintain readiness such as small-arms ranges, physical fitness and military occupational skill training at the individual level all the way up to the Combined Army Live Fire at the collective level. The Army Training Network (ATN) and associated doctrine provide an overall training plan for major training events as well as the task conditions and standards for tasks from the individual to the collective level. The ATN provides evaluation criteria for each iterative phase and helps in the execution of the 8-Step Training Model. So, in general, training remains a relatively objective problem. However, the challenge of managing the transition of training begins with determining how best to phase training while personnel are consistently moving.
While training is progressive, it must continue to regenerate, train and retrain new members of the team. With personnel turnover, training plans require multiple iterations of continuation training. This continuation training is necessary to integrate new members of the team as well as continue to hone the skills of those already in the unit. Managing the transition of personnel as well as the overall timing of training events enables leaders to take advantage of changes to unit dynamics in a way to improve the overall training. Due to the combination of fourth-quarter factors, leaders should attempt to align training to ensure new personnel are familiar with it and existing Soldiers are reminded of unit standard operating procedures (SOP), the geographical environment and the challenges of fourth-quarter weather, and trained progressively to meet the unit’s mission.
Unanticipated transitions are those events that occur without forewarning. However, that does not mean leaders cannot plan for these transitions. For example, a no-notice deployment is not an unplanned event even though sometimes it’s unanticipated. As leaders, our entire training plan is focused on preparing to do our wartime mission. According to ADP 1, “Our Army exists to defend the Nation and protect our Nation’s interests. We answer the Nation’s call to serve whenever and wherever required.” This is why units train to specific mission-essential tasks. Every day the Army executes tasks and training that are part of the wartime mission. So, while the deployment was unanticipated, how to execute that deployment and mission is continually trained and supported by SOPs and doctrine.
On the other hand, the impacts of COVID were not only unanticipated, but also didn’t have a published plan to execute. However, executing the transition into the COVID environment was simply the application of the risk management (RM) process, which can be applied to all unanticipated transitions in the future. Not to insult anyone’s intelligence, but the RM process is not just a safety approach; it’s an operational approach to risks. The RM process is not just about “the safety stuff;” it’s a way to identity a threat — tactical, admin, no matter.
If one looks at the actual RM process, it would be simple to replace a couple of words to see the use as true tactical planning. Think about this as the RM process:
- Identify the threat
- Assess the threat
- Develop courses of action to eliminate, suppress or bypass the threat
- Execute the mission
- Supervise and evaluate mission execution (after-action review).
However, the mission doesn’t end there. It continues as new threats are identified, which restarts the cycle. This is how the Army reacted to the COVID environment. This is how leaders should “plan” for the unanticipated transitions. Leaders must ensure they help teach their Soldiers how to think and react in a complex environment. As the unit transitions during an operation, training, COVID, it all simply reduces down to knowing how to execute the RM process.
The U.S. Army prides itself on being able to operate in complex, ambiguous situations. How does the Army do this? The Army does it through training Soldiers how to manage transitions. Some of those transitions are known and planned for such as personnel turnover, changes in the environment and phases of training. In this instance, these three known transitions culminate in a particularly additive way during the fourth quarter of the fiscal year. On the other hand, unanticipated transitions can come at any time. Leaders can remain prepared for these unanticipated transitions by teaching Soldiers how to think through the RM process and apply it methodically to any problem set. Managing transitions is part of the Army way of doing business and requires a deliberate approach to both anticipated and unanticipated transitions.