Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Auftrag-static (II): It can’t happen here in the Air Force — and I’ll tell you why

By “A. Checklist Monkey” Best Defense guest columnist When I first read the commentary by Jörg Muth comparing the different command philosophy/command cultures of the Armies of Germany and the United States. I couldn’t help but laugh. My very first thought was, “If he thinks the Army is bad, I wonder what he would think ...

Loren Javier/Flickr
Loren Javier/Flickr

By "A. Checklist Monkey"
Best Defense guest columnist

When I first read the commentary by Jörg Muth comparing the different command philosophy/command cultures of the Armies of Germany and the United States. I couldn't help but laugh. My very first thought was, "If he thinks the Army is bad, I wonder what he would think of the Air Force!" As a space and missile operations officer in the USAF, not only is the concept of Auftragstaktik foreign, any exercise thereof could possibly get you thrown in jail!

As an ICBM ops officer, I was trained from day one to not think for myself, to always follow checklists, and to never try and shotgun anything. Time and again in my training I was told to "Just follow the checklist," or "The checklist will take care of you." For the most part, they were right. Nearly 50 years of ICBM ops gives you a lot of time to work out the bugs in a system. If something went wrong out in the field with one of the missiles, and it was discovered that you made a mistake by not following your checklist, you were at risk of being relieved of duty, given extra training on top of your regular training, and having to go through the process of being re-certified to perform nuclear alerts again (a process that could take a day or several weeks depending on the severity of the error). You weren't allowed to think for yourself. You were trained NOT to.

By “A. Checklist Monkey”
Best Defense guest columnist

When I first read the commentary by Jörg Muth comparing the different command philosophy/command cultures of the Armies of Germany and the United States. I couldn’t help but laugh. My very first thought was, “If he thinks the Army is bad, I wonder what he would think of the Air Force!” As a space and missile operations officer in the USAF, not only is the concept of Auftragstaktik foreign, any exercise thereof could possibly get you thrown in jail!

As an ICBM ops officer, I was trained from day one to not think for myself, to always follow checklists, and to never try and shotgun anything. Time and again in my training I was told to “Just follow the checklist,” or “The checklist will take care of you.” For the most part, they were right. Nearly 50 years of ICBM ops gives you a lot of time to work out the bugs in a system. If something went wrong out in the field with one of the missiles, and it was discovered that you made a mistake by not following your checklist, you were at risk of being relieved of duty, given extra training on top of your regular training, and having to go through the process of being re-certified to perform nuclear alerts again (a process that could take a day or several weeks depending on the severity of the error). You weren’t allowed to think for yourself. You were trained NOT to.

There is a reason AF space operators call themselves “Checklist Monkeys.” “Read a step, do a step, eat a banana,” is a common quote thrown around in the space ops world.

Even when I was not out in the field sitting on alert, I experienced massive frustration at the micro-management and inflexibility of how life in the missile world was being run. When I was a 2Lt, I very quickly came to realize how nothing would ever change after I made a few suggestions about how the alert shift schedule could be worked better (a quality of life issue, I admit). I was told point blank: “Interesting idea, but forget about it because nothing’s gonna change.” He was right. In the nearly five years I was in my missile wing, nothing did. When it came to annual performance reports–in the AF we call them OPRs for officers, EPRs for enlisted–they had to be coordinated up to the WING COMMANDER. Not just signed off, mind you. I mean that the Flight, Squadron, Group and Wing levels all had to get their hands on that OPR/EPR, make changes, send it back down the chain so the changes can be made, and then send it up again for more review/changes before it was signed off. I had an OPR I wrote on one individual take THREE MONTHS to get approved. Auftragstaktik? What’s that?

It is hard to imagine the concept of Auftragstaktik being exercised on the satellite ops world. If an AF Lt decided to change the orbit of a satellite on their own, he or she would be keelhauled. Those decisions are made at the O-6 and above level. Not even a space squadron commander (O-5) would do that without consulting with the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC), AF Space Command, 14th AF, the contractors who built the satellite, etc. Satellites are super-expensive, and are not easily replaced if something goes wrong (if they are replaced at all), so you better believe that commands sent to them are triple checked before you hit “enter.” Anyone who would try to make a change to a space system on his or her own would not only have their sanity questioned, but perhaps thrown in jail for possibly rendering a $300 million bird useless.

Let’s talk doctrine for a minute.

The AF loves that doctrine thing. You can fill several phonebook-size volumes with the amount of doctrine that the AF has. At some point in their career, every Airman is given a copy of AF basic doctrine, which is a multi-volume set of books about as thick as Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This is the BASIC doctrine (AFDD1 is the most basic AF doctrine document). The AF has operational and tactical doctrine for EVERY MISSION TYPE the AF accomplishes (ie Air Ops, Space Ops, etc). There is NOBODY in the AF that could possibly read, retain and apply all of that knowledge in a given situation; and I don’t know anyone who has even tried. Pilots might train to react in a way that conforms to AF doctrine, but do you think that they are thinking about AF doctrine when flying? I’m not a pilot, but I doubt it. Was I thinking about it when I was sitting on nuke alert eating potato chips and watching TV in my wife-beater t-shirt and sweat pants? Nope.

Now, I admit that I might be comparing apples and oranges here. (operating in space vs on ground), but my impression is that AF command philosophy is way more restrictive. Does it have to be that way because of the types of missions we do? Maybe. How would Auftragstaktik work with ICBMs? Do I think that the LTs and Captains on alert should be able to re-target the missiles on their own, or launch whenever they feel it is necessary? Holy good god no. Should the crew sitting shift on the satellite control console be able to move the $4 billion satellite constellation around as they see fit? Probably not. I hate to be the guy who throws a turd into the punchbowl and leaves, but when it comes to performing the mission, I am not sure how AF space culture could adopt Auftragstaktik. Maybe it could, but I really don’t know how.

Maybe I have been trained too well not to think about it.

“A. Checklist Monkey” is a major in Air Force space operations.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1
Tag: Media

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