Main Content

After-Action Reviews

An After-Action Review, or AAR, provides a methodical review and critique of activities conducted during a mission scenario. The intent of conducting an AAR following a mission is to make improvements for next time, allowing the unit to improve on its prior performance. 

A thorough, professional AAR will: 

  • Allow personnel to provide honest feedback to leadership

  • Allow leaders and peers the opportunity to make recommendations for awards for outstanding performance by specific individuals or teams

  • Recognize the unit's successes in order to continue to conduct best practices 

  • Recognize failures and shortcomings during planning, preparations, and mission execution in order to identify needs for improvement


HELPFUL HINT:  Use this trick to remember the purpose and scope of any AAR:

A - Allow (feedback)

A - Awards

R - Recognize (successes and failures)


Operation Orders are the Basis for After-Action Reviews

AARs should always be reviewed in reflection of the associated Operation Order (OPORD) for the respective mission. By reviewing the OPORD, the AAR is referencing factual planning instructions and guidance directed to the participating units. 

This coincides with the notion that a failure to produce an OPORD for an activity or mission creates a lack of clear instruction and removes the ability for personnel to have a reference point to reflect upon when conducting their subsequent review of mission performance. 


The Role of the S3

As the principal "preparer" of the OPORD, the S3 Operations office serves as the principal facilitator of the AAR. This allows for the element closest to the construction of the mission plan to ask fact-based, objective questions in order to by an adequate critique of the mission. Throughout the AAR, the S3 should be actively taking notes and directing questions based on existing information from within the OPORD. 


The Role of Command

Commanders at all echelons have the responsibility of ensuring that the AAR remains objective and in avoidance of hostile feedback or discussion. The AAR is intended to identify room for improvements, not to place blame on anyone. 

Commanders also have the responsibility of establishing action items in response to the summarized performance of the unit throughout the mission. This includes coordinating between echelons and support staffs to develop and implement training program changes and new training sessions. It also includes coordinating with appropriate parties to submit award nominations. Regardless of what the specific action item may be, commanders are ultimately responsible for ensuring that actions are implemented and followed up on to ensure their effectiveness. 


Planning and Preparing to Conduct the After-Action Review

AARs follow 8 steps to successfully plan and conduct an adequate mission review and critique: 

Step 1: Schedule the AAR.  This step requires the commander to set a START TIME and END TIME for conducting the AAR. It also requires the commander to select a LOCATION which must be communicated to all participating parties. If possible, have a dry-erase board or sketch easel to take notes and present them to everyone. 

Step 2: Review Mission & Concept of Operations.  Open the AAR by introducing the mission and its objectives. Review the Commander's Intent and Concept of Operations in detail. Be accurate and facts-oriented. 

Step 3: Review What Actually Happened.  Discuss the actual actions taken throughout the mission. List out key facts and situational changes. 

Step 4: Identify What Went Well ("Sustains").  List out things that went correctly. Make note of areas in which leadership performed soundly. These are the things you want to keep doing next time. 

Step 5: Identify What Didn't Go Well ("Improves").  List out things that need to be improved upon. Pay attention to why something did not go the way it was supposed to. Discuss how it could be handled differently in the future. 

Step 6: Create Action Items.  List out tasks that will be carried out in order to develop improvements from ideas into real corrections. Identify who should be responsible for completing action items and their suspenses (deadlines). 

Step 7: Adjourn and Publish the AAR.  Conclude the meeting. Avoid unnecessary and/or "endless" conversations. Type up notes from the AAR, and ensure that key leaders receive a copy. Be sure to file the AAR record so that it can be referenced during next time's planning cycle.   


The After-Action Review Topics

AARs can maintain maximum effectiveness by reviewing factual issues, receiving truthful feedback, and creating improvements to planning and training in the future. Consider these discussion topics to get more detailed and provide a greater level of feedback:  

  1. State the objectives.  What was the purpose of the mission or training exercise? The AAR must review the critical objectives (primary and secondary) of the operation in order to ensure the dialogue reflects the intent of the mission. 

  2. Restate the mission of opposing forces.  Did the objectives of the mission make sense based on the role and plan of the opposing side? Did friendly personnel understand why they were conducting their mission? 

  3. Restate the prescribed plan.  Did the execution of the plan match how the plan was designed? This element of the AAR is especially important at identifying (a) if everyone understood the plan, and (b) if the plan was designed appropriately for this particular mission. 

  4. Review initial actions taken.  What did the unit do in order to prepare for the mission? Were the initial phases of the concept of execution (i.e., pre-deployment, deployment) successful and without adverse issues? 

  5. Review actions on the objective.  This part of the AAR is looking at the "heart of the operation" by critiquing the main portion of the execution of the mission. It is key to compare the designed concept of execution to the actual activities carried out. 

  6. Review changes in plans.  How was the plan changed or revised prior to execution? Were changes made last-minute or was there time to re-brief and rehearse in advance of the mission? Were changes adequately communicated throughout the chain? It is not uncommon for situational or environmental changes to drive changes to the initial plan; but is it also not uncommon for changes to be communicated in a timely manner, if considered at all. Oftentimes, leaders will be so focused on updating operation orders (via fragmentary order) that they fail to ensure that those changes are briefed to everyone involved and not just the planning party. 

  7. Review the events following the mission.  Were there any casualties, injuries, or safety issues? Did the unit recover from unanticipated challenges? In many cases, this is where it is discovered that, while there was a plan leading up to accomplishing mission objectives, the plan was incomplete and did not provide for a return-to-base, demobilization, or recovery. 

  8. Label the performance.  Look at how the unit accomplished each objective and provide a grade to define the level of proficiency observed in accomplishing those objectives:  proficient (satisfactorily trained), non-proficient (training needs improved), untrained (training did not occur).

  9. Summarize the lessons learned.  What went well, overall? This is an opportunity to showcase the success of the unit as well as an ample time to recognize outstanding performance (possibly even award-worthy actions). What needs to be improved upon, overall? These items must be honest and clearly identified in order to produce actual opportunities to adjust and improve planning and training. 

  10. Develop action items.  What are we going to do next? Action items must directly reflect the summary performance. These are physical tasks that must be performed (e.g., the unit will be scheduled to conduct additional training in reconnaissance maneuvers; the unit will conduct an additional fitness assessment to measure physical readiness and establish personal goals for each member). Action items must have a reasonable and appropriate deadline to be accomplished. 


Best Practices for Conducting After-Action Reviews

  • Schedule the AAR as a formal time block reserved specifically for conducting a post-mission debrief and critique. Announce to subordinate leaders in advance that an AAR will be conducted, allowing them time to conduct any appropriate debriefs within their respective teams (feedback from which can be brought into the AAR). 

  • Use leading questions to guide participants to provide their personal feedback. "Yes/No" questions will provide the most direct response. Follow up to "Yes/No" questions with "Why/Why Not?"

    For example:  "Do you feel that this was a proper way to conduct security of the perimeter?"

  • Cut off inappropriate discussions, particularly those which are pointing fingers or turning into a debate. Likewise, do not allow unnecessary excuses or long-winded responses to take over the AAR, which is intended to be brief and to the point. 

  • Keep the AAR simple and short. Do not get into overly complex factors. Time and details are both critical. 

  • Allow all participants the chance to speak, not just unit leaders.

  • Control the number of people trying to speak on a single topic. Keep the conversation moving. Do not stall on one agenda item. 

  • Do not allow subordinates to blame poor leadership. Feedback about inadequate planning or direction is healthy, but avoid the conversation turning into a "bash session." 

    For example:  "The Captain did a poor job at keeping us informed" versus "I do not feel like I clearly understood the situation." 

  • Let leaders identify their own mistakes. The facilitator does not provide any critique; they are an objective, unbiased party in the review process. 

  • Ensure that action items reflect factual debrief points and are intended to make adjustments to provide for future success. Do not let anyone leave uncertain about "what comes next." 


© 2024 Civil Air Patrol. All rights reserved.