Commentary

March 31, 2012

Dealing with the near rocks, far rocks

By Lt. Col. Pete Zuppas
U.S. Air Force Weapons Center, Chief of Warfighter Integration
rocks2

“Let’s deal with the near rocks” is something many of us frequently hear these days at planning meetings, scheduling discussions, etc.

I asked someone in my office what they thought the term near rocks referred to. They replied that it was in reference to the fact that road crews or prison chain-gangs swinging sledge hammers need to break through the closest rocks first, then to the bigger rocks underneath.

Okay, I can see how someone could come up with that interpretation and in concept, that’s right “”  you have to deal with the problem that’s closest at hand first. But, in case you were wondering, the term “near rocks” actually comes from fighter pilot lingo and refers to situations where “” flying at very low altitude ““ the majority of one’s time and energy is spent focused on the most important thing at that time which is staying low, and not smashing your jet into the ground. One reason to fly low is to avoid detection by enemy radars, and possibly using the element of surprise to execute an attack.

The reference to rocks is to emphasize the hardness or harsh ramifications of not paying enough attention to the immediate task at hand and from the fact that a lot of the most challenging low-altitude training for fighter pilots takes place in the desert, mountainous rocky areas like those in Nevada and Arizona. We’ve lost many a fighter pilot to the near rocks and only after handling that task can the fighter pilot move on to accomplish other tasks. Thus the more complete phrase, “Near Rocks, Far Rocks, Check-Six, etc.” where the next in-line priorities are accomplished, but only after the higher priority is satisfied. Fighter pilots term this “task-prioritization.”

Beyond flying low and fast, the near rocks analogy applied to other operations and practices, has some interesting implications and consequences. Consider the extreme concentration of the fighter pilot smoking along at 500 feet above the ground and 500 mph. Not much else really matters “” it’s living in the moment, and there’s no thinking about mundane, trivial matters like the car needing new brakes, or starting to save for the children’s college education. In fact, the fighter pilot racing along there on a mission can become so enamored with navigating through the near rocks that he can lose sight of what the real objective/target for that mission is, and when it comes time to climb up and execute the attack, he may be unprepared, rushed and not set up for success.

In this light, one can see how enticing it can be to live in the near rocks mentality — avoiding for the time being all those far rocks (issues) that are sometimes not at all fun to deal with. But there’s a price to pay, including the fact that the near rocks can sometimes hide larger far rocks. The fighter pilot needs to climb up and allow themselves time to analyze the bigger picture, prepare for bigger mountains or they may not have enough room to clear (handle) the bigger ridges (issues). Continually dealing with the nearest problem “”  while captivating and appearing productive “” may not allow for the greater success possible by rising up to get a better picture of where the bigger objectives lie and how to meet them.

The key to the success of the low flying fighter pilot is the balance and task prioritization when dealing with near rocks, far rocks, and the next string of priorities. Flying low and fast is a sub-objective, a means to get to that bigger objective. Outside of the jet fighter world, dealing with the near rocks can be crucial for the survival of an individual, an organization, a government, or a country … but the far rocks, bigger sight picture and correct prioritization will ultimately define any strategy or endeavor.

On an interesting note, after dedicated, low-altitude-flying training for almost nine months, the Israeli air force used F-16s to execute a surprise attack on the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq on June 7, 1981. They flew more than an hour at an altitude of 100 feet mastering the near rocks and at the last minute climbing up and precisely delivering their bombs and getting to their objective “” the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor. (Reprinted with permission from author, this article first appeared in Misawa AB, Japan, base paper, June 3, 2008.)




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