Feb 20 2009

I can’t save the airmen, so I’ll save the sailors

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To the Honorable Mr. Carey:

Bob! (May I call you Bob?) Bob, the many sailors who read my columns will attest to the fact I love you guys. When it comes to military network operations, I always bet on the squids — and that’s saying a lot when you realize I was one of the first four certified USAF information warfare crew chiefs.

You & I both know lives will someday hang in the balance for military network operations. I don’t think I can save my future airmen, but I do think I can save your future sailors. I’ll save your guys by telling you why my guys will perish.

An open letter to U.S. Navy CIO Robert J. Carey

I’ll use an “Airsop’s Fable” to help put you in the right context.

…Let’s say a pilot squadron invites the wing safety officer to a “beer call.” He flies a desk these days yet he remains a popular figure. The crowd shouts “Roast Beef!” as he walks into the officers’ club.

The squadron commander pipes up. “Hey, I don’t think you’ve met our new hot stick. Nosedive, meet Roast Beef.” The two shake hands. “The commander was just telling us about your Desert Storm days, sir,” the young pilot says with a smirk. “Ugh!” says Roast Beef. “I was your age back then, kid. And everyone who watched the cockpit video swore that herd looked like a convoy.”

Nosedive gets a weird look on his face. “Well, sir, I gotta head home. Great to meet you.” They shake hands … and Roast Beef finds himself holding a small slip of paper with “CZAR 52” written on it. He casually slips it into his pocket.

The wing safety officer soon heads for the bathroom. Standing in a stall, he pulls out the slip. On the back it reads “FALCON 44, Tues Noon.” He pockets it and returns to his colleagues as if nothing happened. Eventually he buys the last round and heads out the door.

On his way home, Roast Beef sidetracks to the flight operations center. The schedule includes a four-ship training mission on Tuesday with Nosedive flying as “FALCON 44.” As you might guess, the wing safety officer drops by for an unannounced visit on the day of the flight.

Standing on the tarmac, he asks Nosedive a straightforward question. “You think there’s an insti­tu­tional CRM failure going on, kid?” The pilot nods. “It’s Mad Dog. We’re all protecting him so he can keep flying.”

The wing safety officer remembers “Mad Dog” got his call sign at a previous base when he mistook a NATO pilot for an aggressor during a Red Flag exercise. “Mad Dog isn’t hotdogging or anything like that,” Nosedive assured him. “It’s just that … for maybe like five seconds after a break hard left, he just doesn’t act normal. He’s fine in any other direction, sir. But it’s white knuckles for the rest of us when he banks left.”

The wing safety officer ponders it. “And the Doc?” Nosedive shakes his head. “Mad Dog’s green on medical. Nobody wants to tell the Doc because he’ll just dee-niff Mad Dog.” Translation: fellow pilots know the flight surgeon will remove a pilot from flying status if he suspects anything.

Roast Beef knows he must ask the next question. “Do you know your commander trained under Mad Dog’s father?” Nosedive nods. “Do you think you’ll get punished for telling me this?” The young pilot looks him right in the eye. “He wrote that slip of paper. He can’t bear to hurt Mad Dog, but he can’t afford to go to his funeral…”

The crash ofCZAR 52” in 1994 cost four men their lives due to an insti­tu­tionalized failure of CRM, or crew resource management.

I insist USAF suffers from the same problem right now in its cybernetwork realm. Their middle managers cut their teeth in a server room, not in a cockpit or an operating room. They do not understand the life-or-death importance of CRM — and their lack of understanding only contributes to their muddled groupthink consensus. To paraphrase Defense Secretary Robert Gates:

"The Air Force does not have a clear, dedi­cated autho­rity respon­sible for the nuclearcyber enter­prise who sets and main­tains rigorous stan­dards of operations."

Sadly, I believe USAF’s muddled groupthink consensus will cost some airmen their lives. They’ll need to learn the hard way from a “CZYBER 52″ event before they truly realize the need for CRM in cyberspace.

You can save the lives of future sailors by helping today’s sailors understand the need for CRM in cyberspace. I’ll bet on you to succeed.

Most Sincerely,

Rob Rosenberger

PS: I wanted to write this open letter to USAF’s CIO … except he hasn’t updated the content of his website since he took office in December. Go figure.