Courage and the ORM process

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark D. Newell
  • 8th Special Operations Squadron Commander
As Air Commandos, we have a proud heritage of courage. The buildings and streets of our bases are named in honor of courageous men and women. Our hallways are lined with the pictures and memorabilia of heroic deeds in our units’ history. The very concept of courage is woven into the fabric of Air Force Special Operations Command and we begin hearing stories about our courageous predecessors the first day in the command. The acts of courage that make good stories however, aren't the ones that keep the command moving day-in and day-out. The minor acts of courage the men and women working in the Operational Risk Management (ORM) process happen daily and are critical to our continued success.

ORM is a process we live and breathe. It's how we evaluate every potential mission. We try our best to identify all of a mission's associated risks or costs and look for ways to mitigate and eliminate them. Once we determine the lowest risk/cost while still accomplishing the mission, we compare it to the reward or benefit. Simply put, every mission must pass the common sense test. Are we doing it the easiest and safest way possible given what we know, and is it even worth doing?

The first step in this ORM process is that someone, somewhere in the chain of command, comes up with a mission they would like us to perform. This mission could be to wash an aircraft or it could be to fly into a combat zone. Either way, that ORM specialist went through a planning process to establish the requirements. During that planning process, a cost-benefit analysis of the mission is made. The planning process may not have been on paper, it may not have even been verbal, but it happened. At some point, they considered what they were assigning us to do and given what they knew, made the most logical decision.

Whatever the mission, one thing is always certain – no one will know, or care, more about what's required and the risks involved in missions than the Airmen assigned to accomplish it. Having been assigned a mission, our next step is obvious – we must evaluate the risks and costs for ourselves and apply the appropriate level of detail. In order to evaluate what that level is, there are several key factors to consider. How tired are the Airmen assigned? Is there some equipment we need but don't have causing us to use a work-around technique? What is the weather forecast and how will it impact our mission? These are all examples of variables ORM specialists consider to successfully complete the mission.

We have all heard of, and a few of us have even met, a "yes man." People don't get that nickname for trying to achieve their boss' goals, they get it for being afraid to tell their boss the cost of meeting his goals. All of us who wear this uniform have an obligation to try our very best to accomplish the missions our leaders assign us. We also bear the moral obligation to ensure our leaders understand exactly what it is they have assigned us to do. This is the next and most critical portion of the ORM process – the back-brief.

One of the things I enjoy about AFSOC is the tendency of our Airmen to speak openly and directly to one another. It seems to come naturally to those who work in an environment of mutual respect and trust. Having fully evaluated the risks associated with our assigned mission, giving that information in a direct and honest back-brief to our leadership will, at times, require a minor act of courage. This isn't the physical courage that makes for good stories at the bar, this is the moral courage required to give what may be bad news to a leader who has no time for bad news. This is the courage to sometimes tell the boss he won't be able to keep a promise he made to his boss. This is the courage to explain why a leader's initial cost-benefit analysis may have been drastically off. These are the minor acts of courage that keep the command on track. This courageous, direct back-brief to leadership is the linchpin in the ORM process. Without it, we couldn't begin to operate across the myriad of environments we find ourselves in today.

Once the true risks and costs of an assigned mission are identified, our leaders can either choose to undertake that risk because the benefit outweighs it or pursue another course. In either case, they have made the decision with a full understanding of the situation thanks to our honesty. Whatever changes the future has in store for AFSOC, I'm certain courage, and its part in the ORM process, will remain as a shining fiber tightly woven into the fabric of everything we do.