COMPLIED BY THE KNOWLEDGE STAFF
What is a standard operating procedure? Why do we have them? What good are they? Are we required to have one?
Standard operating procedures are developed because not every element in the military operates the same way. Units are scattered around the world and different environmental considerations apply depending on location. Many regulations, technical manuals, field manuals and other military publications cover these considerations, but standard operating procedures consolidate all of this information and add more to define how the unit will operate consistently. A standard operating procedure is a living document which may need to be refined on a regular basis to accommodate changes within a military organization.
SOPs can serve for training new personnel and documenting deviations from other publications. SOPs must be written in a manner so someone with little knowledge of an organization can understand and use it consistently. SOPs must not contradict with the next-higher organization’s SOP to prevent confusion that may lead to unintentional deviations or misinterpretation.
So what is the point to all of this? A commander must review and understand their company’s SOP. If the SOP does not meet their intentions, they must make modifications. Once signed, it must be followed unless the command approves any deviations. Experience has shown time and again that SOPs are not or may not be followed. The major violators of the SOPs are not the lower-ranking personnel, but the leadership within an organization. Lower-ranking personnel play a role but are not the key violators.
Deviations from the SOP may be required and approved in certain circumstances for mission success. In some instances, leaders and Soldiers may violate or choose to not follow them for many reasons. Some do it out of indiscipline, lack of knowledge or misunderstanding. There are many excuses, but accomplishing the mission should always be the main focus. It’s something that’s been instilled in Soldiers from the beginning of their military careers and is a form of command pressure. Since nobody wants to fail and everyone is afraid of the boss, it’s an issue that must be addressed by commanders to ensure Soldiers are following SOPs for mission accomplishment and safety.
Here’s an example: A mission has been planned involving many different branches of service, to include foreign services. There are few details because of the security of the operation, so planning is obviously minimal due to the circumstances. A last-minute brief is organized and the minimum criteria have been set to minimize risk during the operation and everyone is aware of the hazards involved. The weather abort criteria has also been set at a no less 1,200 feet ceiling and two miles visibility. It was set to the minimum as established by a brigade SOP for operating in uncontrolled airspace.
Everyone arrived for final mission preparation and the final brief. The weather was not cooperating and would not be legal until well past the duty day. Even though multiple weather updates were received, there was little change. The weather brief was 1,000 feet and two miles. The environment was mountainous with many wire obstacles on the flight route.
The pilots in this unit were aware of how rapidly the weather in this area could negatively change since they had experience operating on this route. Many of the pilots understood the risk and were not comfortable with the weather and the scale of the operation combined. A key leader meeting was established and a topic of discussion was to lower the minimum weather criteria. Red flags went up immediately.
This was an actual mission that was delayed and launched almost 30 hours late because of weather. Risks were already at the highest acceptable point and the pilots were not about to accept any more. The attempt to lower the standard set forth in the SOP was stopped in that meeting because the issue of deviating from an established SOP was brought to the leaders’ attention.
Why do we have SOPs? They establish criteria to keep a unit safe and operational. They identify the unit mission and the factors and hazards the unit must face. So, why do we always work so hard to establish SOPs but sometimes try to deviate from them? An SOP can’t cover every scenario and sometimes deviations are required. The will to accomplish the mission has been the main reason. SOPs should not be deviated from unless commanders and responsible personnel are involved and can justify the outcome exceeds the risk.