Pilot strives to ensure mission success

  • Published
  • By Capt. Scott Sieting
  • 21st Fighter Squadron
Editor's note: Capt. Scott Sieting is a pilot in the 21st Fighter Squadron and is the chief of standardization and evaluation.  He leaves Luke in June to become the 604th Air to Surface Operations Squadron commander in Korea. 

The prospect of leading a detachment of 18 Airmen located 11 miles from the Korean Demilitarized Zone seemed daunting at first and continues to seem so two months after receiving word of my new position.  The warriors of the 604th ASOS operating location Alpha will be on the leading edge of any ground combat in the Pacific theater, and will direct firepower from aircraft thousands of feet overhead against enemy targets of all kinds. 

As my report-no-later-than-date approaches, I think often about  what type of leader I will be for enlisted Airmen in a place far from home. I will only have one year to create a lasting impression on the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers who will be stationed at Camp Casey, and I am coming from a different specialty with limited experience in their career field.  Two particular incidents in my own life provide me with a desire to ensure that the Airmen I lead will be the most prepared lethal and survivable people in the Air Force. These two experiences, one from combat, one from training, have shaped my own notions of what readiness means. 

On the evening of March 19, 2003, I sat alongside 30 other F-16 fighter pilots deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., to Southwest Asia. As darkness fell on our desert base, we met in the squadron common area and discussed the inevitable:  Operation Iraqi Freedom would begin in 24 hours, and the 77th Fighter Squadron Gamblers would wage war against the Iraqi air defenses to protect coalition aircraft from surface-to-air threats. The commander spoke first. He outlined our duties in the protection of other aircraft, told  us to think like the enemy, and spoke of the aggressive spirit of attack which would be crucial to survival. After the commander, the operations officer spoke. He discussed how operations would function, such as the 7, 8, 9 or even 10 hour missions we would fly. He told us how we could expect to receive tasking from the Combined Air Operation Center, and what life would be like during the ensuing conflict.  Finally, the weapons officer spoke.  He said the only thing that I can still remember verbatim today.  Speaking with experience from past conflicts, he said he had "observed otherwise proficient fighter pilots not perform up to their ability in combat due to confusion about the mission, hesitation or courage issues." His choice of words was tactful, to say the least. 

My own role in OIF was unremarkable, but the words our weapons officer spoke that night have stayed with me. I do not think the weapons officer meant to call anyone a coward. Instead, he wanted to warn us that we would be shot at, the missiles and bullets would be real, and we needed to prepare ourselves mentally for this inevitability. Conversely, some Airmen still do not comprehend  the fact that they may find themselves in harm's way, regardless of AFSC. While this naiveté may be a personal issue, it is perpetuated by leadership which does not instill a sense of urgency in their Airmen regarding realistic training. The advantage of working with joint terminal air controllers is that they deploy to combat areas of responsibility on a regular basis, and know that technical competence and situational awareness is paramount to survivability and lethality. In a broader sense, all Airmen must realize that preparation for deployment is not an operator issue or a pilot issue.  It is an Air Force issue which we are still far from solving as part of our culture.
The second experience occurred at Maxwell AFB, Ala. While at Squadron Officer School, my flight of 16 U.S. Air Force captains sat down with two senior officers to gain their perspectives on leadership. As the discussion wound to a close, one of the senior officers asked us for help. He had interacted with several young officers who expressed anxiety at the thought of AEF deployments to potentially risky areas. The colonel asked if we would speak with the lieutenants and tell them, "it will be fine, you'll be alright, and everything will be OK." He wanted us to reassure them of their safety and assuage the trepidation they felt about the dangers of deployment. 

I wish I could claim that the response from the class belonged to me, but it did not. An Office of Special Investigation special agent who had returned from Baghdad the preceding month spoke up. In no uncertain terms, she laid out the reality of today's long war and the AEF. The truth, she said, is that many Airmen will be in harm's way.  they will face risks that their parents and uncles who had served in the Air Force never had, and not just fighter pilots, but Airmen in transportation, communications and services. She went on to say that unless Airmen understood the reality of the potentially hostile environment they will be in, they wouldn't have the situational awareness or presence of mind to remain survivable. Her point was that as leaders, we have a responsibility to our Airmen who deserve an honest view of risks they will face, and moreover, they deserve our best efforts to prepare them to face those risks and perform their duties in an honorable fashion. 

U.S. Air Force paradigms concerning combat operations are rapidly changing. Gone is the notion that deployed operations do not apply to Air Education and Training Command. We cannot predict when Airmen will leave Iraq or Afghanistan, nor can we predict where the next major contingency operation will occur. However, as leaders we can prepare ourselves and our Airmen to operate in the full spectrum of combat operations as part of the AEF. We must realize that whatever our duty, whether communications, security, services or forward air controller, we all have one mission:  the application of Airpower. This means the application of Airpower via direct action such as flying, indirect action such as loading weapons or maintenance, or proudly supporting critical Airpower tasks such as public affairs and finance. My own role at OL-A may be small. Enlisted performance reviews, awards and decorations will certainly dominate a large portion of my time. But at the core, my mission as an Airman (and yours) is to ensure that those we lead are ready for contingency operations. Take care of your people. After that, EPRs and awards are easy.