Shadow of a Doubt
In 2017, I had the unique opportunity to deploy with my state’s Army National Guard combat aviation brigade in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. They required a tactical unmanned aircraft systems warrant officer to serve as an adviser to the brigade commander, as well as to be a liaison to the units that would become subordinate to the brigade once it arrived in the operational area. Although I did not have a defined scope of responsibilities — and was a bit daunted by what I thought may be expected of me because I had always worked at the detachment level as a Shadow TUAS platoon leader — I jumped at the chance to deploy with the brigade. I had worked indirectly with most of the leadership for years and felt comfortable with our rapport.
My first several months were spent in Baghdad doing nothing UAS related. I was beginning to question why I was asked to join the deployment. Then, about June 2017, I left Iraq and fell back to Kuwait, where I thought I would be able to better assist the four UAS units that were subordinate to the CAB. I was surprised by the eventual direction my assistance would take. Retrospectively, I am glad I was able to participate the way I did. I gained invaluable lessons and experiences.
Summer months for UAS units (especially in the desert) are when equipment issues typically occur. The system does not like heat and will let the operator know when it is being pushed too far. Those months during my deployment were no different, which resulted in several mishaps. Besides me, the only other subject matter expert for UAS in the CAB was another senior Shadow operator I recommended accompany the brigade on the deployment. We were immediately chosen to augment the brigade safety officer on four UAS mishap investigations, and I became a voting member of that team. One investigation we participated in stood out in my mind, which compelled me to write this article.
We were summoned to Iraq to perform a mishap investigation for a Shadow that crashed shortly after launch. Upon arrival, the unit, a stand-alone Shadow platoon (their troop was at a different location) that was attached to a Marine task force was immediately cooperative and helpful. They had quarantined equipment and records, taken copious photographs and even prepared a work area for us. Over the next several days, we conducted interviews, reviewed both flight and maintenance records and scrutinized photos.
At the end of each day, we collaborated on our individual findings, which allowed us to see some concerning issues emerging. First, and in my mind most important, we found there was virtually no unit safety program in place. The officer in charge was a school-trained aviation safety officer and former UAS operator, but he did not consider the safety program a priority.
Second, the UAS operations technician, who was subordinate to the OIC, was not knowledgeable enough on the system to make informed decisions about it. For example, we found that one cause of the mishap was a low battery, which caused the aerial vehicle to malfunction at launch. The operator could see a warning before launch, and the AV checklist specifically prohibits launching with the battery level that was displayed. However, the operator (who was also the aircraft commander) asked the UAS operations technician whether it was all right to launch. The technician said it was all right — although he admitted to me that he did not know why he said that — which inevitably led to the AV crashing as soon as it left the launcher.
This had us asking ourselves some questions: Why did the aircraft commander not have the confidence to make that call? Why did the operations technician authorize the launch? What was the command climate with regard to safety since there was no program to speak of?
Numerous failures resulted in the AV mishap. This particular investigation stuck out in my mind because, through interview and informal conversations with unit members, I could actually point my finger to the problem — or my perception of the problem. The OIC/ASO was blinded by the mission, and that became the climate in the platoon. Safety seemed to be barely an afterthought.
The ASO admitted there was no formal aircraft commander training program, which explained the operator’s lack of confidence in decision-making. Unfortunately, when the unconfident operator had to look to an inexperienced leader for guidance (or maybe validation), a catastrophe occurred. This could have been avoided if a comprehensive safety program had been in place and stressed with mission equally.
It is incumbent on leaders to provide subordinates with the tools they need to accomplish the mission safely. In turn, it will give them the confidence they need to make sound decisions and exercise good judgment.