Featured Researcher

John G. Drew

Senior Project Associate

Photo of John A. Drew

By the time John Drew was officially employed by RAND in 2003, he had already been working with researchers from PAF’s Resource Management program for six years. That connection was first made in 1997, when John was superintendent of the Aircraft Maintenance and Munitions Division at the Air Force Logistics Management Agency (AFLMA) in Alabama. The U.S. Air Force was just beginning to develop the Expeditionary Air Force concept (now called the Air and Space Expeditionary Force), which centered on the ability to quickly project and employ combat forces worldwide and to sustain operations indefinitely. The success of this enterprise required an equally visionary approach to logistical support. AFLMA and PAF formed a strategic partnership to address the emerging challenges and, over several years, designed a global system now known as Agile Combat Support. John was AFLMA’s point person for this task, and he worked with a PAF research team led by Bob Tripp, who had also had an Air Force career.

John brought along a wealth of logistics experience when he came to RAND. Among his earlier assignments, he had been a flight-maintenance chief and a sortie-generation flight superintendent at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. In late September 2001, he had been called to the Pentagon to help set up and manage the Air Force’s global combat support functions for Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. “I was fortunate that, during my time in the Air Force, I was given an opportunity to start new organizations,” he says. “You learn a lot more when you get to build something new. It prepared me to think beyond what is and focus on what could be.”

John has been able to teach the PAF team a lot about the nuts and bolts of logistics. But he has learned a lot from them, too. “The hardest part of doing research at RAND is structuring the problem. Sometimes we find we’re looking at symptoms and not the real issues. So, first, we have to identify the real issues, and then we have to make sure that they can be illuminated by analysis. We know that our Air Force sponsors aren’t interested in academic exercises. They also aren’t interested in having us tell them ‘the right answer.’ What they need to know are the pros and cons of a range of options, and they’ll make the decisions.”

John considers the team approach essential in bringing a research project to a successful conclusion. “We brainstorm, we storyboard, and we collaborate on briefings and reports.” The complementary skill sets of the team members are crucial. “For example, Bob has a long experience with the Air Force, with logistics and system design. He brings a system perspective. Our colleague Kristin Lynch can turn long, complicated discussions into a series of concise statements that exactly capture the key points, and she has a keen eye for detail. I’m the operational guy. I figure out what the tasks are, what data we can use, and where we can get it.”

Time spent in the field is another important dimension in this type of research. “Some of our best insights come from walking around air bases, talking to people at all levels, and watching them do their work. Bob and I spent decades in the Air Force. We speak the language, and we’ve walked in their shoes. We interact continuously with our research sponsors. Sharing our ideas before the analysis is entirely completed can be scary sometimes. But Bob has taught me that you have to be willing to have the conversation, open yourself up and talk about the direction you’re headed, and give the sponsor a chance to comment. Otherwise, you run the risk of marching down the road to do something that’s completely wrong, or do something that’s analytically correct but unhelpful. That’s not to say that the Air Force shapes or drives the analysis. That’s an objective process. We’re always trying to come up with new and innovative ideas, but we need to know where the edges are. As Bob says, we should be out there pushing on the balloon all the time. The Air Force is strong. If we go too far, they’ll push back.”