Saavik: I don’t believe this was a fair test of my command abilities.
Kirk: And why not?
Saavik: Because…there is no way to win.
Kirk: A no-win situation is a possibility every commander must face. […] How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?
Informal debriefing from the exam, “Kobayashi Maru,’ in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan1
I would never call myself a “Trekkie,” but during my research for this piece, I searched “unwinnable situation” and the internet hit on the Star Trek II training scenario “Kobayashi Maru.”
As airmen, you may find yourself facing a new reality — one where you feel there is no way to win. If you are like me, you absolutely love to serve, but the COVID-19 world is making service ever more complicated. Do you feel like you are in an “unwinnable situation?”
Do you feel like Saavik?
Our new COVID-19 reality includes travel restrictions, self-isolation rules and even stay-at-home orders. In some cases, guidance contradicts our daily responsibilities; you may be struggling to find balance. You also may feel like your family or friends don’t want you around because you are “a risk.”
These are all completely normal reactions. Physical distancing is essential behavior from a health perspective; however, looking through the social lens of the member, you may feel alone in this fight.
Circle back to the test of the “Kobayashi Maru”— “the game is rigged on two levels.
If you have watched Star Trek II, you may recall Captain Kirk’s solution to the paradoxical scenario; he was the only cadet to beat the no-win simulation of the “Kobayashi Maru.” In fact, Kirk was accused of cheating, but Kirk countered the accusation by saying he did not cheat, he simply “changed the conditions of the test.”
As airmen, we need to change the conditions of the test. Are you a first responder, a medical provider, a driver or delivery personnel? What conditions of your current job can you change? The performance of your mission involves risk, but we continue to fight together while remaining 6-feet apart to reach a winnable scenario. Innovation and adaptive techniques will need to be developed to forge a new workplace environment. Telework is a new reality, but we must seek even more ways to change conditions.
As an example, the department is looking to incorporate devices like tabletONE and phoneONE, both of which were part of the Advanced Battle Management Systems experiment, according to Air Force Magazine. If successfully deployed, they will showcase an adaptive solution for our Airmen who potentially “change the conditions of the test.”
The mission must go on. We remain committed to protecting the well-being of our airmen and their families. Unequivocally, during this coronavirus challenge your health is imperative. However, as we care for our people, the mission must continue. This nation will flatten the COVID-19 curve, after which, our work centers will form a new productivity standard. There is risk in almost everything we do as a military service; we will need to minimize risk and perform the mission under the terms of this new test. We will prevail as a stronger force, having experienced this test, and be ready for the next “unwinnable scenario.”
The J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot of Star Trek is more direct about the lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario: “The purpose is to experience fear,” Spock explains. “Fear in the face of certain death. To accept that fear and maintain control of oneself and one’s crew.” In other words, the test is this: can you gaze into the abyss and not let it gaze into you?
This author would contend that both Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock’s wisdom is exactly what the Department of the Air Force will need to face during this real world COVID-19 reality. Our airmen need to change the conditions of the test, and I have full confidence they will. We all have to face our fear and gaze into the abyss, working together to maintain control of oneself and our crew as we continue to Fly, Fight and Win!
Brig. Gen. David W. Smith is the Mobilization Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Southwest Asia. Prior to his current assignment, Brig Gen Smith was the Mobilization Assistant to the Director Operational Capability Requirements, Department of the Air Force Staff. He is a 1992 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, he holds an MS degree in Strategic Studies from the Air University and is an MIT Fellow from the Seminar XXI program. He has been previously published in the Air Force Times.
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