Innovation and Adaptation
Reflections on CommandBy Kim Gilfillan August 5, 2020
When I took command of 5th Aviation Regiment at the end of 2016, the Regiment was heavily focused on the introduction into service of both MRH 90 Taipan and CH-47F Chinook, but challenged by a level of tasking above capacity. This was not conducive for adapting to get the most from the new capabilities. Change, both internal and external to the Regiment, was necessary.
Over the last two years, 5th Aviation Regiment MRH 90 Taipan rate of effort and availability have doubled, while maintenance workload has been reduced by over 30%, and CH-47F Chinook rate of effort is up by 60%. Our contribution across a wide range of activities, exercises and operations has been positive, safe and effective. Challenges remain, but things are moving in the right direction and there is a positive vibe in the air.
Having not served in the Regiment previously provided scope for new perspective, but I knew that, for the same reason, I would have to work hard to build trust, unity of purpose and commitment to a vision for change. Through the lens of Army values, some key Principles of War, and mission command, this short piece forms my reflections of what I think worked effectively to set the conditions for success. My hope is that it proves of interest to those about to head off on the Pre-Command Course.
Selection and Maintenance of the Aim
Unity of purpose can only be established through aligned commitment to both aim and the method required to achieve it. The aim to dramatically improve output with a focus on preparing for combat, while decreasing tempo and workload, was aligned to Commander 16th Aviation Brigade, Commander Forces Command, and Chief of Army intents. Their support was particularly evident through the incorporation of discipline around tasking and deployment planning, and the allocation of much needed additional resources for both MRH 90 Taipan and CH-47F Chinook. Success would not have been possible without unified purpose across the chain of command and the additional support provided.
Common understanding and commitment to the aim is key. I took the time to explain why and to convince my team of what needed to be done. I had to take into account the different priorities and interests represented across the Regiment: over 500 soldiers, 100 contractors, two different aircraft types, and two core mission sets across both land and amphibious domains. Nuance was required, and continual reinforcement was needed to establish commitment. As my Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) said to me, Sir, the message won’t have sunk in until you are sick of hearing yourself say it [and explain it].
I kept my formal guidance simple, clear, concise and aligned to higher guidance – more is not better – and saved more detailed explanation and nuance for verbal engagement. This helped keep us focussed on the big rocks as we worked through multiple iterations of detailed planning and execution. Maintaining the aim is more important than maintaining the plan.
The Army values underpin all our actions in the ethical execution of warfare and service to our nation. Upholding them is central to trust, discipline and maintenance of morale. My expression of upholding the Army values has been simple: do the right thing, help your mates do the right thing, and, as a leader, ensure your team is doing the right thing. I also explained that my responsibility was to do the right thing by each of my soldiers as individuals, and to do the right thing by the team, but that where there was conflict, the team was more important.
Values are also more important than process. Aviation is a particularly complex endeavour with a plethora of rules and process than can be difficult to navigate. Doing the right thing focused on the right outcome helps to ensure compliance where necessary while also supporting flexible application of policy where appropriate. However, sometimes the process simply does not deliver the right outcome. Seeking change can be hard work, but must be achieved if we are to deliver the kind of agility necessary to support accelerated warfare. Focus on values and achieving the right outcome is core to both effective capability and management of soldier welfare and discipline.
I have employed the term team of teams widely as it very aptly describes how the 5th Aviation Regiment needs to function internally, how we generate combined arms effects, and how we need to work with broader enabling agencies to deliver capability. This message has been central to every successful endeavour undertaken by the Regiment during my tenure. If Selection and Maintenance of the Aim is the Mission and Intent, Cooperation is the grease that enables effective execution.
Teamwork is a core Army value. Every person is part of a team and every team is part of a bigger team, so at every step cooperation is absolutely central to success. It is only by respecting each other and working together that we can achieve great outcomes. This implies a capacity for compromise, the need to take into account different perspectives, and recognition that successful relationships are built on respect, communication and trust. If other people or teams have different views about what is important or what needs to be done, this is not their error. It can be hard work to listen, understand, empathise, and compromise, but it is the most effective way to bring diverse teams together effectively. I think this nuance is important to recognise; while my broad aim and key messages remained the same, I tailored what I actually spoke about to the individual and team context and role in the mission. Providing a focus on cooperation has been very effective inside the Regiment as well as whenever we needed to engage more broadly across the Australian Defence Force, with other Government agencies, and with foreign partners.
Aviation operations are heavily reliant on effective sustainment planning, especially maintenance and supply. Analysis of other NH-90 users, particularly 3 Squadron Royal New Zealand Air Force, as well as advice from Lieutenant Colonel Hayden Archibald (who had made significant advances in ARH Tiger output at the 1st Aviation Regiment), indicated potential for the Regiment to operate more efficiently. I assessed that incorporating a centralised Regiment battle-rhythm was necessary to effectively link operational and maintenance planning. This would be a challenge for an organisation that had historically facilitated relatively independent flying squadron operations, even in barracks. However, it was this independence that was the main obstacle to effective maintenance planning and a key contributor to high tempo, friction and fatigue for maintenance and other key enablers.
The battle-rhythm set conditions for stability and tempo management, and facilitated advanced operations planning informed by maintenance capacity. In turn it enabled far greater fidelity in maintenance planning, and delivered significant improvements in productivity and output. It gave us significantly more aviation effect to support Australian soldiers, and more time to reinvest in our own soldiers, their professional development, and their families. The battle-rhythm is simply robust planning and disciplined execution, focused on the clear link between operational effect and sustainment of personnel and equipment.
Mission command and leadership philosophy
My view on (mission) command is simple: give clear guidance, explain what is important, ensure your intent is understood, supervise appropriate to your level of trust and the risk involved, and act quickly but appropriately where you detect divergence. Setting the conditions for trust is both a combat multiplier and extremely rewarding.
As a newcomer to a large and busy Regiment with a very proud history, I knew I would need buy-in and support for change from the Regiment’s key leadership group. To convince them, I wrote a letter outlining my thoughts on leadership and the challenges we needed to face and engaged them individually to explain my thoughts in more detail. Then I gave them the task to design the Regiment battle-rhythm. This was pivotal and, I think, key to how I secured their ongoing cooperation and unity of purpose. The rapid and successful uptake of change is strong evidence that engagement brings commitment; if you involve and engage people in planning they are far more likely to be committed to success than if merely implementing someone else’s concept.
Gaining and retaining the initiative has been a key focus for me: to keep looking forward, engaging early to define what success looks like and setting the conditions to achieve it. This has supported the situational awareness necessary to take advantage of opportunities and manage risks appropriately. Retaining the initiative has been central to the implementation of change and the continual refinement necessary to deliver success.
Positive morale is manifest in teams with strong determination, self belief, self discipline and unity of purpose. It requires optimism, commitment to the mission and the team, and the strength to hold yourself and the team to account in both achieving the objective and doing it in a manner consistent with the Army values. The belief that you can be successful and that you can overcome obstacles in your path is core to positive morale.
I sought to generate pride across the whole Regiment in delivering the right effect at the right place and time. This was supported by focus on values based behaviour, a team of teams approach, and a clearly articulated plan to improve working conditions in the Regiment through the battle-rhythm. In my initial guidance I asked the team to focus their leadership on character: the thing that enables us to hold true to our values, to know right from wrong, to keep going when things are grim, and to build relationships of trust… it is developed and demonstrated by behaviours that reflect our values, and personal responsibility for actions and outcomes.
Generating a positive narrative was key, particularly about MRH 90 Taipan as the challenges with introduction into service had developed a largely negative aura. This was doing the capability no favours. From very early on in my tenure I stated publicly that the MRH was the most capable aircraft that I have flown. This was not rhetoric, but it needed to be demonstrated.
We sought to deliver a positive message to our team through a Regiment Facebook page aimed squarely at our own soldiers and their families, and through engaging numerous media outlets to get the message into the public space. Those things were useful to convey information, but the important thing was proving that we could be successful, getting runs on the board, and then being able to reflect those achievements back to the team.
We would not have been able to deliver the success we did without the strong vertical alignment to the aim and allocation of additional resources. Internally, the battle-rhythm was key to improving efficiency, output and tempo management. But we are soldiers first, so the real value was in the extra time it gave us to reinvest in our own people, to focus on values based behaviour and preparation for combat, and in the additional effect we could provide to Army.
The 5th Aviation Regiment has a proud history of excellent service to the nation, and in turn I am proud to have made my contribution to that legacy. But I didn’t actually do the work that led to success, I just helped set the conditions for it. I was extremely well supported from above, and blessed with an awesome team, so mostly I am proud of the incredible people who worked with me and the amazing things that they achieved.
My RSM was right, I’ve repeated my key messages until I’ve become sick of hearing them, but they worked: Be proud of your part, be a team of teams, ensure all your actions reflect the Army values and enhance our reputation as a trusted member of the combined arms team, deliver the right effect at the right time and place, and do it safely.
It certainly hasn’t been easy. So, in closing, I recommend Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem If. Although the context and language of the Victorian era needs to be taken into account, the core values and behaviours it espouses, and the stoic approach it represents, can provide inspiration for the challenges inherent in leadership.