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An aerial refueling cross-talk success story

by Lt. Col. Tom Swiderek
6th Air Mobility Wing deputy director of staff

In order to continually get more bang for the buck, we can get caught up in a frenzy of focusing on leading-edge technology, equipment, training and tactics to solve problems. Out of necessity, we have become proficient at adaptation to revolutionary "stuff," but we must ensure our processes, guidance and interoperability keep pace.

Too often the simple and age-old concept of effective communication seems to be the weak link in the chain of progress. Permit the same people to use the same equipment but improve the effective communication process and you have a tremendous force multiplier that can show immediate results in the field.

There's an organization that has managed to bridge communication chasms related to a specific airpower competency so effectively that others could learn from its simple yet effective charter. The Air Refueling Systems Advisory Group brings together military, industry, engineers and government representatives from around the globe to focus on a crucial competency... aerial refueling.

ARSAG was formed in 1978 by Strategic Air Command (a moment of silence please and face Offutt) as a medium for the working-exchange of technical and operational aerial refueling information between military services, industry and ministries of defense. After significant AF restructuring and the emergence of Air Mobility Command, the direct DoD funding for this organization was lost but its importance lived on. In order to survive, it became a non-profit organization with the same goals and same specialties involved.

The true genius of this type of organization rests in the idea of bringing together the engineers who design and test the airframes and equipment with the operators who fly and use them, and the maintainers who fix them, along with the manufacturers that sell them with the decision-makers who buy them. Then, mix in the specialists who study long-term development, monitor safety, provide training, develop multi-national agreements and don't forget to ensure seamless Joint and multi-national participation and you have the makings for a working conference that can focus on sharing knowledge for the purpose of problem solving.

An astute writer named Terry Goodkind has a theme running through his books that emphasizes the futility of fixating on the problem and not the solution. Large, sometimes grandiose, conferences are regularly held with the purpose of exchanging information.

Usually these become wonderful venues for receiving the latest information on new programs or equipment but can become one-way avenues of information and the masses do not benefit from the tremendous knowledge and experience sitting in the audience. ARSAG provides a forum to not only present the problems but then lets the experts in the audience help focus on solutions by maintaining ongoing working groups to tackle tough issues.

There are eleven panels that are made up of highly experienced members. The panels give presentations on AR issues. Instead of breaking up into smaller forums for specialized discussions, ARSAG intentionally keeps the entire audience present for the panel presentations in order to get full interaction and maximum cross-functional discussions.

It is amazing to see an operator explain a problem that they have been experiencing and trying to solve through normal channels (but getting no results.) Then have an engineer at a table 30 feet away get up and explain the solution since he might have designed or tested this equipment when it was built.

Often times engineers change offices or work for different companies and their in-depth knowledge would have been lost forever if they did not have an ongoing relationship with ARSAG. Other times a manufacturer might explain some new equipment they are developing just to have an operator or maintainer explain why that road leads to difficulty and most likely was caused by misinterpreting the requirements.

A recent addition to the annual ARSAG conference is the incorporation of NATO's Standardization Agency, Air to Air Refueling Panel meeting. In the past, this meeting was held annually at various locations for Alliance nations to discuss AR standardization issues. A nation's representative would come with a list of issues to discuss. The meeting would be held and the representatives would return home with action items to have their experts dissect and provide feedback for the next year's meeting. As you can see, this can be very time consuming... especially for issues that require specialized inputs.

The last two of these meetings were held in conjunction with ARSAG. The NATO meeting is still a closed meeting to invited representatives, however virtually every expert is available just a few hundred feet away in an adjacent conference room. Issues are now being solved in one meeting that had been "discussed" for years.

If you are interested in more information about ARSAG, you can visit its web site at www.arsaginc.com. If you are not interested in ARSAG, at least get something out of this article and remember anytime you hear complaining about a chronic problem... remind them to keep the focus on the solution. NKAWTG…N!

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