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This is a true story, from the height of the Cold War, about the failure of a system within a critical system and the very human responses to a truth-teller. Why tell the tale now? Because a friend’s work situation, in a major corporation, recalled the memory. So, take this tale as a parable for all times, and consider how the players in context, the conflict, and the conclusion relate to your work, your community, or state and national policy areas.
It was the late 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, in West Germany. This was to be ground zero for World War III, if it should come. The plains and valleys would be carpeted by armies of Soviet tanks, while the sky would be filled with aerial armadas operating under Soviet doctrine as the deep extension of artillery fires. To give our tanks, infantry, and artillery enough freedom to execute our maneuver-centered doctrine, “Air Land Battle,” air defense artillery (ADA) had to effectively deal with both planes and helicopter gunships.
At the lowest altitude, around tree-top level, Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft and Mi-24 Hind helicopters had to be kept off the newly fielded M1 Abrams and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Because of the law of gravity, a gun platform firing down from the sky has more range than the same or similar system firing up from the ground. The U.S. Army still had a Vietnam era 20mm Gatling gun system, mounted in the old M113 armored personnel carrier chassis, the Vulcan Air Defense System. The emerging threat required a bigger gun.
The old “gun ADA mafia” had fought to remain relevant in the new era of reliable, shoulder-launched, ground-to-air missiles. They refused to simply license the fully fielded and tested West German twin 35mm light armored gun system, the Gepard. Instead, they launched into an ill-conceived and disastrously executed attempt at a new American air defense gun system on the semi-cheap. The bright idea was to save money and time by using the chassis of mothballed M48 tanks, slapping a big box turret on top with twin 40mm cannons, a search radar, and a targeting radar, all linked with other systems by radio network. Slap a hero’s name on the kludge to sell it to Congress and the public: Sergeant York.
Long story short, the Sergeant York Divisional Air Defense Gun, failed spectacularly. The most notorious episode occurred when the search radar software read a latrine ventilation fan as the signature of helicopter blades spinning just around a tree line. The guns slewed around and pointed at the bathroom and a viewing stand full of spectators. So, the gun mafia was discredited.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we had allegedly massive threats from new aircraft, being combat tested in Afghanistan by Russian pilots. So, we went for a “product improvement program” (PIP), introducing an early digital aiming radar system, to extend the effectiveness and service life of the Vulcans, now the Product Improved Vulcan Air Defense System (PIVADS). This set the table for our story.
The new digital system, installed into existing Vulcans, replacing older analog controls, included a self-diagnostic system. As soon as it was fielded to our battalion, crews and maintenance teams started reporting problems. The diagnostic systems were giving bad reads, rendering the systems unreliable, and so “non mission capable.” Understand, “non mission capable” means you cannot do what the president and the Congress, on behalf of the American people, expect of you, having paid for the equipment and training. This is very bad.
Our battalion commander dug in hard, throwing every resource of expertise and manpower in the battalion at fixing the problem locally. When we could not resolve the problem, our commander dutifully reported the facts in the monthly Unit Status Report (USR). This report goes all the way to Congress, whether they care to look closely or not. Making a negative report was very bad form, prompting very hard questions.
Now, we were the ADA battalion for the 1st Armor Division, one of several divisions in West Germany, so we were one of several like battalions. Yet, as ADA commanders gathered regularly to discuss the state of their area of responsibility in NATO, 2nd Battalion, 59th Air Defense Artillery was the only one reporting a problem with the new digital system. Everyone else was putting their names on USRs that said all was well.
So, the weight of the world was coming down on that outlier battalion commander and his unit. Yet, he would not change his reports. Instead, he doubled down on intensive testing and documentation in our motor pools. Our local maintenance experts, sergeants, and maintenance warrant officers, made themselves depot level experts, mastering every detail of the system and documentation.
I think our commander was also getting some protection from the fact that his immediate report card and his job was not in the hands of senior ADA officers, embarrassed by this reported failure of the fix for the bigger failure to field the Sergeant York. Instead, Armor and Infantry generals, who were in a hard-truth telling cultural phase, controlled the immediate job security of their battalion commander. So, the Army sent the top level experts down to dig into this troublesome battalion.
When the Department of the Army level experts were done, they concluded that the problem was real. We had followed maintenance test procedures correctly and the equipment really was malfunctioning. So, they started looking at the other battalions, who suddenly ‘fessed up that they had the same problem. That is right; one battalion commander stood up and told the hard truth, while his peers had preferred to hear and report good news from their subordinates. We went from the dog house to a place of honor in our community.
Our battalion commander had already built a culture of excellence, expecting us to embrace our doctrine and master our craft. When the self-diagnostic failures appeared, he insisted every leader at every level be on the equipment, ensuring we were using the equipment correctly and interpreting the signals by the new books. So we had the facts of both observation and procedure documented conclusively.
Our company commanders and staff had worked through every permutation of unit level testing and maintenance. The battalion commander was prepared to engage with peers and senior leaders inside the air defense artillery community and inside the larger, armor and infantry dominated, U.S. Army in Europe community. Confidence in our own competence, sureness in our documented facts, sustained our position and eventually forced organizational level fact-finding. In short, our battalion commander was prepared to effectively Lead Up.
Finally, consider the place of the other units and commanders, who were found to have either falsely reported or to have failed to look closely enough to even see the terrible truth. As long as the Soviet tank armies did not roll across the border, with a deadly cloud of aircraft and helicopters overhead, saying all was well was the easiest and most advantageous position for everyone at every level. But, if our mission was real, and if we were really earning our pay, we had a duty of truth-knowing and truth-telling, together will a duty to do everything in our power to make our piece of the Army successful.
Does any of this ring a bell in your own experience?