Leading Complex Organizations

LTC Scott Snook

November 8, 2000

West Point professor LTC Scott Snook treated the SSP community to an enthralling multimedia presentation on "Leading Complex Organizations." Though the title may sound dry, Snook's talk covered the thrilling subject matter of his book Friendly Fire. In his book, Snook extensively analyzed the single worst incident of friendly fire since the Second World War: the April 1994 downing of two Army Blackhawk helicopters by a pair of USAF F-15Es in Iraq's No-Fly Zone. The event left 26 people dead and the military searching for answers.

The "fog of war" was not a valid excuse for this tragic incident, argued Snook, given that all four aircraft involved were being controlled by the same AWACS aircraft. The Pentagon conducted an intensive investigation that led Defense Secretary William Perry to conclude that four failures were to blame. First, the F-15s misidentified the Blackhawks during their mandatory visual fly-by. Second, the AWACS did not intervene to stop the shootdown from taking place. Third, the helicopters were not sufficiently integrated into the theater task force. Finally, the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems aboard both sets of aircraft failed. Though each of these failures did indeed occur, and each directly contributed to the tragedy that transpired, Snook argued that the Defense Department's investigation failed to answer two much more interesting and important questions. First, how did this happen? How did each individual failure occur and why? Second, who should be held accountable for these events? One of the two sets of pilots? The AWACS operators? The theater commanders?

Snook began his analysis of these vital questions by reviewing the mission and organization of the forces involved. The Air Force was there to protect the Kurdish minority in Northern Iraq and to enforce UN sanctions on the Hussein regime. The F-15s ran patrols of the No-Fly Zone from 10am-3pm daily to assure that these goals were met. The helicopters were performing a quite different mission, shuttling diplomats and visitors to meetings and observation trips within the zone. On the organizational side, Snook examined the rotation of the crews of each aircraft involved. New AWACS crews came into the theater every 30 days, new helicopter crews every 4 to 6 weeks, and F-15 pilots were rotated through every 6 to 8 weeks.

Were military leaders responsible for this incident or is this just an example of terrible luck, an awful but nevertheless routine part of military missions? Snook began to formulate an answer by looking at the AWACS side of the puzzle. On that fateful day in April, one of the tracking screens aboard the AWACS was not functioning and thus its operator was moved to a backup station on the other side of the control center. While this was not in and of itself a problem, it created difficulties because of the standard and informal procedures aboard the AWACS. In theory at least, AWACS operators "pass" aircraft from their screen onto a colleague's by oral and electronic communication. However, in Iraq, the standard operating method had been for the operator covering Southern Turkey to simply nudge the operator covering Northern Iraq when he wanted to pass a plane or helicopter along. This system worked because these two operators were always seated next to one another. However, on the day in question, due to the failed screen, these operators were on opposite sides of the control center. They were still linked by headset and computer, and were even within shouting distance, but their normal routine was not possible.

Even more important than the informal norm (as opposed to written regulation) of "nudging" rather than talking was the norm of not passing helicopters off at all. Given that most helicopters in the No-Fly Zone were only jumping about 100 yards over the border, most AWACS operators just preferred to keep them on the Southern Turkey screen and avoid the hassle of changing operators. On this day, however, the Blackhawks were going unusually far into the zone, and this generally passable informal norm may have proven deadly. A final AWACS factor Snook identified was that this particular AWACS crew had never flown together before, and had disturbingly low morale and low opinions of their superiors. Generally, American AWACS crews in this theater were constantly deployed, and given the fact that this particular crew was not a real team and had a poor command climate, it is understandable why they posed a risk to the pilots they monitored.

Snook then looked at the functioning of the command structure, arguing that the Army's helicopters were poorly integrated into the USAF-dominated system. The helicopter flights were not given to Air Force aviators on their daily flow sheets. Therefore, given that Blackhawks look something like Iraq's Russian-made helicopters, it is not surprising that these particular F-15 pilots were suspicious. More importantly, the interservice rivalry between the Army and USAF was such that no army aviator was given specific instructions concerning IFF codes. When an Air Force aircraft moves from Turkey into the no-fly zone, it switches to a specific IFF frequency that all other planes in the theater recognize. Because the two services did not coordinate much, if at all, the Blackhawk pilots were unaware of this operating routine, and failed to "squawk" the appropriate code once they crossed the Iraqi border.

After a spirited discussion with the Security Studies Program's military fellows, Snook concluded by arguing that the results of the F-15 fly-by identification were almost predetermined. Given that the Army aircraft looked somewhat like enemy choppers, were not on the flight plans they had been given, and were not squawking the correct IFF, the expectations of the USAF pilots totally conditioned what they saw. The shooting down of the two helicopters was therefore the result of a number of interacting factors; factors which resulted from the development of informal routines in the context of interservice rivalry, poor command structures, and a lack of communication.

LTC Scott Snook is Academy Professor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

Rapporteur: Todd Stiefler

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2000