Acceptable Merge Ratio

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Dwight Eisenhower once said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

The problem is too often, we focus on things that are or seem urgent, but are not important. As a result, we waste our time and effort dealing with tasks that don’t contribute to long-term mission success because they are urgent. As a result, we do not address things that are important and contribute to our long term-mission success, because they are not as urgent. This focus on urgent but not important tasks over important but not urgent tasks skews our view of mission success. This skewed mission success view then changes what we perceive as acceptable risks.

In the Combat Air Forces, the term Acceptable Merge Ratio is used to describe how many adversary aircraft a friendly formation is willing to meet in a visual engagement. The number changes based on the mission objectives, phase of the mission and capabilities of the forces involved.
In short, when defending or attacking a high value target, a flight lead may be more willing to “buy a merge” with more adversaries in order to achieve mission success. The problem of sorting out which adversaries to engage when, where and how is a complex matrix of decisions that could result in mission failure when done poorly.

As a result, flight leads determine the Acceptable Merge Ratio during planning. This one G and zero knots pre-decision helps make risk acceptance decisions during a complex aerial engagement more automatic. Because the complex scenarios have already been mentally rehearsed, the flight lead can prioritize the urgent and important risks over all others.

If we meld these two concepts together and frame our outcomes based on our organizations or even personal mission or goals, we can more readily determine what problems to tackle when and what risks are acceptable to take. If we can do this in a pre-decisional or “mission planning” mode the likely hood of correctly prioritizing tasks and risks in the heat of the moment becomes easier.

So whether you are thinking about hitting the lake on a Saturday or you just took over as the wing commander, divide tasks into these four areas:

1. Important and Urgent: These things are critical to mission success and must be addressed now.

2. Important but not Urgent: Critical to success. Long term strategy is critical here.

3. Not Important but Urgent: This is the trap! You will waste critical time and resources here. Move these off your agenda as quickly as possible.

4. Not Important and Not Urgent: Save it for a rainy day…or maybe never.

With risks, you can divide those into four categories too:

1. Likely and Catastrophic: The Worst Case Scenario! Risks that will cause harm and failure and are very likely to befall you. These must be mitigated aggressively.

2. Likely but Harmless: Everyday nuisances that cause no lasting damage but still may need to be addressed.

3. Unlikely but Catastrophic: Don’t spend a lot of time preparing for this scenario, but do keep it in the back of your mind. These are scenarios that cause a great deal of fear but are so unlikely that it is unrealistic to address them completely. Preparing for Likely and Catastrophic will generally cover these scenarios too.

4. Unlikely and Harmless: Don’t even waste your time here.

The 16 different combinations serve as a guide of where to spend resources. On one end of the spectrum are Important and Urgent tasks with Likely and Catastrophic risks.

Spend time and resources here as quickly and aggressively as possible. These are immediate threats to your mission’s success. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Not Important, Not Urgent, Unlikely and Harmless things. These are areas you can take risks in. Programs or activities that fall into this area can be delayed or even discarded all together.

As Air Force organizations and individuals we are limited in our resources; time, money, people and things. By doing making some pre-decisions about what risks are worth mission success and which tasks need to be addressed urgently. We are able choose wisely where “buy a merge” with those resources.