RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA. – When Col. John DiGiambattista became the 23rd program manager of the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program in June 2019, he knew that being open to change and maintaining a focus on communication would be vital to the mission.
DiGiambattista handed over leadership of OPM-SANG to Col. John White on July 1 during a dual virtual ceremony at the Security Assistance Command headquarters at Redstone Arsenal and at the OPM-SANG Command Group headquarters. He will be assigned to the headquarters Army G3/5/7 (Operations, Plans, and Training) at the Pentagon.
“I knew that we would be working day to day with our Saudi partners on the delivery of foreign military sales, and training and enabling them to accomplish their missions,” DiGiambattista said. “This is a changing environment, so you have to be open to change, open to learning. You have to learn the specifics about the Saudi National Guard and how they do their job. You also have to learn about FMS (foreign military sales). The more you learn, the more you understand the art of what is possible.”
DiGiambattista looked at this assignment as another mission entrusted to him by his Army superiors. He said that the yearlong challenge of leading OPM-SANG is another aspect of his career, some of which was spent leading Soldiers in battle as a brigade commander. He said that the relatively short tour-of-duty simply meant that he had to hit the ground running.
“The Army puts Soldiers in unfamiliar situations and issues complex tasks all the time. This (OPM-SANG) is just another one those complex tasks,” DiGiambattista said. “If you are given the job for one year, it’s a mission that you accomplish. Like everything else in the Army, the task for a leader is to quickly build understanding, generate and translate that understanding into a vision, and move the team forward. It’s about building continuity. If the Army sends us here for one year, then we’ve got to make the most of that one year.”
DiGiambattista said that some of his challenges were understanding the environment for OPM-SANG on multiple levels, correctly executing FMS sales cases, and ensuring that OPM-SANG was positioned to leverage the organization’s capabilities to provide the Ministry of the National Guard with the best capability, training and equipment available. He believes that the only way for OPM-SANG’s continued success is to anticipate and meet the needs of the MNG.
“Our Saudi partners are dealing with situations that are revolutionary, such as the conflict in Yemen and the (ongoing) rising tension with Iran. As the Saudis adapt to the changing conditions in the region, OPM-SANG has to adapt to the changing needs and conditions of the National Guard,” DiGiambattista said. “Ensuring that we understand what we change (to meet those needs) and how we change is a challenge.”
DiGiambattista, who spent a few years on foreign battlefields, said there are very few places where we put Americans on the road that are as dangerous as driving around Riyadh, Jedda or Hofuf. He admitted that thinking about the safety of OPM-SANG Soldiers and civilians doing the simple act of driving on the Saudi roadways was enough to keep him awake at night.
“How do we implement protections? How do we ensure safety? These were some of things that kept me awake at night,” he said.
DiGiambattista said that maintaining the OPM-SANG mission in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge that required creative leadership in order to minimize risks to personnel, while maintaining that relationship with our Saudi partners.
“One of my concerns was how do we minimize risks to our personnel – those folks who meet with the Saudis and those who don’t – and how do we simultaneously contain the health risks while we maintain the partnership,” he said. “All the complexities of COVID-19 and the complexities of our partnership were difficult to manage, but the OPM-SANG team did a tremendous job overall in managing this. OPM-SANG’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was phenomenal.”
DiGiambattista praised the manner in which team members reached out and connected with one another in spite of the required social-distancing and mask-wearing that became the new normal around Eskan Village.
“We had team members who pitched in and volunteered to assist in relocating personnel to villas, who supported the (outdoor) fitness center, who supported the golf driving range. Our team continued to reach out to their Saudi partners (through telephone calls) to maintain that connection,” he said.
DiGiambattista looked back with pride at a number of accomplishments during his service as program manager. Some of those accomplishments will likely have long-term positive effects throughout Saudi Arabia and the region.
“A number of things came together between 2019 and 2020 that reflected the phenomenal efforts of our OPM-SANG team in every place where they work. The opening of the National Guard Command and General Staff College, modeled on the CGSC at Fort Leavenworth, and the excellent level of instructors in place there reflects the excellence work of the Maneuver (Division) team. It was a decade worth of work that came together in the fall of 2019, “DiGiambattista noted.
He pointed to the completion of the $250 million Dirab Airbase last fall, including the state-of-the-art Aviation Institute that is slated to project the airbase as the Aviation Center of Excellence for the Middle East. The sprawling facility was modeled after the Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, the Army Aviation Branch’s training and development center that educates military, civilian, and international students in aviation warfare doctrine and helps those students develop leadership skills that will serve them in the aviation community.
DiGiambattista praised the OPM-SANG Technical Affairs team of engineers who oversaw the contract and management of construction of Dirab airbase. As OPM-SANG was opening the CGSC for the SANG, Dirab was being delivered to the Saudis. He praised the Technical Affairs and Aviation divisions for their efforts in completing this five-year job.
“It’s one thing to say we’re going to give you foreign military sales – whether it’s an airplane, a LAV (light armored vehicle), or a weapon. But it’s a whole different thing to say we’re going to give you an aviation program, we’re going to teach you how to fly the aircraft, and we’re going to build you the airfield to fly it on,” he said. “The facility at Dirab is an amazing feat of construction.”
DiGiambattista praised the Maneuver Division, whose Soldiers evaluated and rewrote the LAV-AG gunnery procedures. He also thanked the G4 Division for successfully executing the operations and maintenance contract, and he praised the G3 team for expediting the in-processing of more than 200 contractors and coordinating their entry to Eskan Village.
DiGiambattista said the Soldiers and civilians are committed to what they do at OPM-SANG. “We have a great team. The professionals at OPM-SANG at every level are fully committed to the Army values and to their National Guard counterparts. Given the right focus, they’re going get the job done every time.”
While he does not know the future of OPM-SANG, he knows that remaining open to change is one way to deal with what comes next.
“I’m not sure what the future looks like, but I am sure that OPM-SANG is prepared to deal with what comes next. We have a G5 team that is prepared to look ahead and set the conditions for change,” DiGiambattista said. “We’ve also had the conversation at multiple levels in our organization regarding change – asking the question: ‘how do we do that?’
“Whereas we don’t have a crystal ball, the dialogue is what is most important. OPM-SANG leadership is committed to transparent communications so we can be prepared for the future.”