Combat planning and mentoring? Really!

Maj. Gen. Michael Brewer

(U.S. Air Force photo)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Outside, the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees and the concrete scintillated under the noon sun. Inside the state-of-the-art hardened aircraft shelters, maintainers steadfastly ensured the aircraft was clear of all discrepancies from the previous day’s combat. Across the flight line, bombs were meticulously built-up in preparation for loading. These weapons would soon wreak havoc on Iraqi airfields, tanks, and artillery. However, inside one of these brand new hangars, there were no aircraft nor maintainers; instead, rows of makeshift tables were surrounded by maps and flight planning computers. 

Here, a dedicated team of planners were diligently preparing. Theirs was the job of target and weapons selection, threat analysis, route, tanker and communications planning, timing, and strike package coordination. The team’s sole focus was working out the minute details, options, and contingencies that in mere hours would determine success or failure for more than 100 Airmen flying over surface-to-air missile threats and barrages of anti-aircraft gunfire. Based on this planning, targets would be destroyed or missed, the battlefield for the impending ground invasion would be shaped – or not.

This was my experience in Desert Storm as a fledgling captain – exactly as it has been in thousands of combat sorties since Desert Storm, as well as thousands of combat sorties prior in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  I, and fellow combat crew members, relied upon the experience and expertise of others helping to map our path to the target. This surprises no one.

As we determine our career plans, is it really so much different from combat planning? Depending on personality, some of us want to “go it alone.” I understand this; I am the same way and tend to loathe requesting help and advice on career issues – even though I rely upon advice in nearly every other aspect of my life. That said, not having insight into the career targets, threats, and opportunities is a great way to get shot down.

I believe part of this “mentoring resistance” comes from a misunderstanding about what mentoring is and isn’t. Mentoring is not finding a more “seasoned” Airman to find you jobs and “sponsor” you. Mentoring is not, in most cases, someone to assist you with the on-the-job “crisis du jour.” Certainly, mentoring is not about managing personal issues and sharing your inner most thoughts – that is the domain of spouses, parents, counselors, and chaplains.

However, the value of the mentor is in helping you see options and opportunities. Just as mission planners outline targets, weapons options, and routes around threats, so can a mentor help you build long-range plans and, most importantly, a path – with branches and sequels – to achieve your goals. They can offer information on opportunities you likely don’t even know exist. I still kick myself for not knowing more about the Air Force Institute of Technology!

Mentors come in many shapes, sizes, and places you’d expect, and in some that you don’t. In my case, it was the major offering the captain the potential target of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. It was the colonel emphasizing to the major the importance of professional military education, allowing me to avoid the threat of a missed opportunity. It was the senior master sergeant and chief that helped guide my flight plan routing through the trials and tribulations of command.

In the end, it is up to you! I know it is not news, but there are three things that must align to achieve your career goals: ability, opportunity and action. In my experience, ability is not the most common shortfall. A good mentor or two can really help identify targets, build flight plans, and avoid threats, but only you can take action. Ultimately, you are piloting your aircraft to the target and home. It sure helps to have a good plan!