Monday, February 15, 2016

Clearing the Air (Part 1): How the 109 Squadron Used Rich Communication to Overcome their Initial Disadvantage

Today’s project managers have to know how to lead their teams within a dynamic environment, and there’s no more dynamic environment than war. On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria simultaneously invaded Israel in an attempt to regain territories lost in the Six-Day War of 1967. It’s not as if Israel was taken by surprise; its leaders had been considering a preemptive strike the very morning that the war began. But the decision had been made not to preemptively strike, and the whole country was taking a moment to observe Yom Kippur—the holiest day of the Jewish year—when Egyptian and Syrian military forces crossed Israel’s borders.

“When the Yom Kippur War broke out,” Uri Bar Joseph wrote in The Watchman Fell Asleep, his account of the conflict, “I was at home reading a book. About 20 hours later, I arrived, together with a few soldiers of my reserve unit, at Hatzav, the Israeli base camp of the 9th tank Regiment of the 14th Armor Brigade, some 25 kilometers east of the Suez Canal. The camp was deserted. The doors of the regimental store-keeping were wide open and a radio was still playing….A few days later, I learned that the 9th Regiment was almost totally destroyed in the fighting that took place during the first hours of the war.”

Giora Ben Dov, a reserve pilot at the time, remembers a similar scene of shock and dismay after rushing back to his air base from a vacation in London with his wife. “They sat down silently, with a zombie-like expression,” he says about his fellow pilots who’d already flown missions. “And after my first missions, I’d joined the club. I, too, sat silent, adopting a similar expression.” In a reversal of the Six-Days War, where this same squadron suffered almost no casualties, Giora and his fellow pilots encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire and significant losses.

Like so many before it, the war was not going as planned.

“We were not surprised by the siren,” says former Lieutenant Colonel Yitshak David, leader of the Israeli Air Force’s 109 Squadron, also known as The Valley Squadron. “We were waiting for it, we were prepared.” But they weren’t prepared for the orders that came down from above. “We were deployed to defend the wing….which infers air-to-air combat, not an assault mission, as we had anticipated. At that moment, we thought that something had gone wrong at the Air Force headquarters. It was like having a snowstorm in the desert.”

Other squadron aircraft were given assault missions, but in an area of Syria that was heavily defended by anti-aircraft missiles. “There was nothing I could do or say to change the fate of that mission,” David recalls. “Once an aircraft is airborne, it is controlled by headquarters only. I [did go] to the deputy wing commander right away and told him to call it off, but while we were conversing we heard over the radio that we had lost the leader of the team.”

The war was not going as planned because the plans—and there were “several mission plans that covered all the range of tactical scenarios,” David says—were not going as planned. As far as the pilots were concerned, headquarters was acting irrationally, assigning missions that seemed random and unexpected. “We were flying into zones defended by anti-aircraft missiles in order to take down a pontoon bridge, which was easy to replace,” reserve pilot Giora says, “instead of hitting quality targets behind the bridge, where the Egyptians were maneuvering.”

In war, low-uncertainty planning often gives way to high-uncertainty planning, but what about when headquarters itself is contributing to the uncertainty? You have to follow orders, obviously. But is there nevertheless a way to improve the situation? The Israeli Air Force's 109 Squadron found several ways, including some impressive work-arounds that made the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk aircraft much less vulnerable to heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles (to be discussed in the next blog post). Another way was less exciting but no less valuable: Yitshak David decided to spend some face-time with his pilots, and not just once a day but three times a day.

The squadron was a mixed bag of reserve and mandatory-service pilots, their ages ranging over two decades. But every pilot, regardless of rank, age or experience, was given the opportunity to speak his mind. And the result was a rich supply of intelligence gleaned during the missions. The pilots also found a loophole that allowed them to contact their wing during a flight mission—a way around HQ’s strict control. They were allowed to call in for navigational support before deploying their bombs, and they used this opportunity to receive the latest warnings and updates.

Early on in war, the pilots of 109 Squadron were having some grave doubts about the orders that were coming down from above. The missions themselves were not questioned, but it was up to the squadron to execute those missions in the manner to which they saw fit, and that’s where their own experience, communication skills and collaborative ethos came into play, mitigating the damage and sustaining the force.

Gil Wang conducted the study leading to the current blog post and the next one. Gil, a Naval Architect, is a former yacht designer and project manager at Dykstra Naval Architects, an Amsterdam-based superyachts design office. From 2006 to 2014, Gil led numerous cutting-edge projects from concept to completion. Today, he is pursuing his PhD, examining the feasibility of expanding costal cities to their adjacent maritime environment.