The Siren’s Call: Flaws of Efficiency

February 28, 2020
Efficiency

In Greek mythology, the sirens were creatures with an enchanting voice whose song would trap the minds of sailors who heard it, leading them to their doom on the rocky coast of the sirens’ islands. Only two heroes passed the sirens without incident — Odysseus by having his crew physically restrain him while blocking their own ears and Orpheus by drowning out their song with one of greater power.

The lure of mission support efficiency — cutting resource usage by combining multiple support missions into single units — to address increased operational requirements is the Air Force’s siren song. Following it without addressing underlying issues, like under-resourced resiliency efforts and a force stretched to the breaking point, is a short-term solution likely to end in a disaster. It’s dangerous to assume that necessary resources and manning will appear before the problems become critical. Instead the Air Force should treat current budget levels as the best-case scenario.

 

 

Air Force leadership should introduce measures to ensure surge operations do not become the new normal, and listen to ideas from the airmen on the front line. Budgetary-driven efficiencies hurt resiliency, and consolidating support functions (like information network maintenance) does not always lead to better outcomes. Further consolidation of support roles into limited squadrons, and sweeping changes of entire career fields to play shell games with manning numbers, is not the answer.

Efficiency Versus Resiliency

When I came onboard as the operations flight commander for my new squadron, two facts struck me — the sheer number of mission systems the squadron maintained for the theater, and the precarious nature of having so many disparate capabilities in the hands of so few. Over years of consolidation and mission growth, the unit had become a dumping ground for new tasks and projects from two different directorates. This culminated with me flicking wide-eyed through a presentation covering the fourteen unique systems I was now responsible to maintain across three combatant commands.

While my squadron may be an extreme example, it represents a worrisome trend within the Air Force of embracing efficiency without allocating thought or resources to sustaining wartime resiliency — or worse, trying to pass off budgetary-driven consolidations as “efficiencies” in their own right. Failing to acknowledge those realities may cripple the Air Force’s ability to fight a war.

Greater efficiency has become the Air Force’s solution to achieve more with less. Leaving aside the improbability of that concept in general, it is easy to see how “efficiency” serves as the natural solution to meet it. After all, using fewer resources to accomplish the same task should be a net positive. Unfortunately, any growth in efficiency brings with it the potential to impose a greater burden on the Air Force. This paradox — known in economics as the Jevons Paradox — highlights how doing more with less in the end leads to using more, whether it’s dollars, manpower, or time.

For the Air Force, those resources come down to what is allocated to squadrons and the airmen that man them. For example, my squadron is responsible for a unique deployable communications capability. The kit allows for twenty-four-hour operations with the necessary expertise and equipment on hand to remedy any situation short of a catastrophic failure. Recently, leadership directed us to see if we could make the capability function with half the prescribed equipment and personnel. Once we theoretically proved that it could, we received the next request — can it fit in a backpack, and can one person operate it? This, in turn, floated to theater leadership as a solution for an increased exercise pace over the next year. That could result in my squadron supporting up to ten times as many events as it had the previous year, a far greater demand on the squadron overall. Greater efficiency leads to greater usage, which eventually hits the hard limit of the number of airmen available to support not just that capability, but the other thirteen mission sets within my squadron.

Efficiency is not by itself a negative, of course, and many processes do need to improve to account for modern technology and challenges. That said, the Air Force too often prioritizes efficiencies based on budgetary cost-cutting measures instead of those designed to improve operational readiness. By doing so, efficiency almost always comes at the cost of resilience. Increasing efficiency implies using the least amount of resources required to accomplish a task, while resiliency — particularly in the sense of military forces — implies survivability in conflict and system longevity. You cannot have high survivability if you have one piece of equipment responsible for everything, or one airman ensuring the entire system functions. With some of my fourteen mission systems, the vast majority of expertise available to manage them on the entire continent resides in the heads of one or two subject-matter experts. Given that manning levels are not projected to increase, the only way to increase that number would be to add more duties onto other already overburdened airmen.

Potential conflict with regional peer adversaries should also make us rethink shifts toward efficiency. The past nineteen years of conflict have resulted in resource allocation that assumes the enemy cannot strike U.S. air bases with any significant force. Should an adversary have precision-guided munitions capable of hitting a fixed target from a standoff distance, it could wipe out decades of consolidations posing as efficiencies in a single attack. Air Force leadership must decide which of two variables it wants to maximize, and allocate resources and expectations appropriately.

From A High-Enough Vantage Point, You Lose Track of the Individual

Efficiency gains created at the tactical level are superior to those developed on high, because of the perspective through which those gains are driven. When a technician develops a new process to get a job done, it is done with the goal of managing his or her given workload more easily, leaving time for the myriad other concerns on that airman’s mind like physical fitness, personal improvement, or family. My airmen come up with such innovations constantly, from creating an ad hoc network status map with automated data pings, to rebuilding our work-tracking queue from scratch to better account for customer input errors. When higher authorities create efficiencies on a large scale, however, the primary consideration is not what benefits the individual airman but what will enable new operational tasks to be undertaken. I do not begrudge them this — it is their responsibility as senior leaders to direct Air Force efforts toward what is required. But when what is required — whether in the National Defense Strategy or elsewhere — appears to be everything, airmen suffer. Operationally, the Air Force is capable of meeting every requirement put on it, up until the day it is not. Leadership will continue to ask more of the Air Force until the day something catastrophic happens, and it is unable to meet a legitimate national security requirement because it was stretched past its breaking point.

Consider the projected shift in how the Air Force plans to manage computer and network technicians. Today, eleven unique Air Force Specialty Codes — jobs, for the layman — perform all communications-related tasks. The plan going forward is to combine those eleven specialized jobs into one catchall role, which continues the previous consolidation of sixteen career fields to eleven. On the one hand, this seems like a good idea — it provides flexibility for manning considerations that commanders lacked and ideally provides technicians capable of more thorough, end-to-end troubleshooting. On the other, it demands staggering technical competency of airmen, beyond what even the most cutting-edge Silicon Valley companies require. Furthermore, it helps justify transitioning the majority of the communications career fields to cyber operations with no equivalent drawdown in required support at the base level. While the Air Force is coordinating a contract to outsource communication support, the level of support will vary significantly by base, and military communications-support personnel will still be required at each location. Efficiency will be forced to increase if for no other reason than that fewer people will be expected to manage the same level of communication support — and that level of support will grow as new units like the oncoming cyber forces need their own equipment to operate. If we want to ensure our technical experts continue fleeing the Air Force for higher-paying jobs while working far fewer hours, this is an excellent method to do so.

When dictated from on high, efficiency chips away at the resilience of mission systems and airmen. Looking at my own squadron and the consolidation of systems under its purview, it is easy to see how efficient it looks in an organizational chart to have one team responsible for these fourteen areas. Doing so, however, creates obvious centers of gravity that make tempting targets. My squadron is not alone in being a network consolidation point — the Air Force took higher-level network administration rights away from base communication squadrons to improve efficiency. There are now only four units responsible for the service’s two primary networks across the globe, for upwards of 500,000 personnel. Even amongst those four squadrons, no one squadron has the authority to do everything it needs to within its area of responsibility without permission from its leadership due to — again — “efficiencies.” So long as mission sets continue to grow while manning and resourcing levels stay the same, consolidation-based efficiencies will continue at the expense of mission resiliency.

What the Air Force Should Do Instead

Where does the Air Force go from here? Looking to the mythology surrounding the sirens, two potential options already exist — play a better tune—that is, create efficiencies in a better way—or else protect yourself from the siren song—that is, put redundancies in place to keep the systems resilient. If efficiency is the variable to maximize over resiliency, then where that efficiency develops should be of paramount concern. Instead of relying on sweeping changes across the Air Force, leaders should prioritize efforts made by squadron commanders and the airmen under them doing the day-to-day work. No one knows better than the maintainer working on an F-16, or a Security Forces guardian manning a gate, how his or her situation can improve. Let the airmen be that force for change and take the best ideas as recommendations for implementation at other similar bases.

Commanders should realistically define the workload their squadron is capable of maintaining rather than what surge operations look like via metrics like man-hours spent toward operational requirements. They should also identify any self-inflicted single points of failure brought about by drives toward efficiency — at least at the major command level, so senior leadership does not make decisions solely focused on budgetary concerns, a process that appears to have a critical break somewhere between the line units and leadership beyond action-officer level on the staff. Any time new requirements take metrics like manpower beyond the established norm, it should either be limited to a prescribed — and short — period for surge operations, or senior leadership should have the ability to push back without Pentagon committees overruling them by default. This forces a prioritization of effort that enables the Air Force to see how close it aligns to guidance like the National Defense Strategy and starts a conversation that goes beyond platitudes like, “find a way to ‘yes’.

Don’t Chase the Siren

It’s not wrong to pursue efficiency, but doing so has downsides. As Odysseus tied himself to the mast and Orpheus played a more powerful song, Air Force leadership can take prudent steps to prevent efficiency’s problems from affecting squadrons and wings. Adopting solutions developed by frontline airmen, and giving leaders the tools and leeway truly allowing them to say “no” to mission creep, are simple suggestions to offer but difficult to execute. Bureaucratic inertia makes change difficult, and better ideas likely exist in the minds of airmen working a twelve-hour shift as you read this. If the Air Force does not take steps to alter its course, it will continue to batter itself against the rocks until the day comes that it is called upon to act, and the only answer is silence.

 

 

Capt. Jake Alleman is a flight commander in the Air Force. He is currently assigned to United States Air Forces Europe-Air Force Africa. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government. The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of the Air Force of the linked websites, or the information, products, or services contained therein. The Department of the Air Force does not exercise any editorial, security, or other control over the information you may access at these locations.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua R. M. Dewberry)