An Army program that helps officers become critical strategic thinkers

An Army program that helps officers become critical strategic thinkers


By Col. Jeff Kubiak, U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

During his multiple command tours in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno developed the sense that there was a shortage of military officers who could think strategically, and who could put together plans appropriate for the challenging environment the Army faced there.

In 2012, as chief of staff of the Army, Odierno directed the establishment of the Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program (ASP3). The vision of the program is to develop “field-grade officers as strategic thinkers through a combination of practical experience, senior-level professional military education, and a doctoral degree from a university in a field of study related to strategy in order to produce broadly networked future senior officers with strategic acumen, credentials, and skills.” Institutional instinct might have led Army leadership to create a new military professional education program at the War College. Instead, Odierno chose to look outside the system of the Army for ideas and energy.

ASP3 is evidence that the Army is seriously working to improve the strategic thinking capacity of the organization. From start to finish, the highly competitive officers selected to participate in ASP3 can expect to spend as many as six years earning their degree and working in strategy-related developmental jobs; following graduation, they are then expected to provide a return on the Army’s investment with a minimum of three years served in an additional utilization tour anywhere the Army has the need for their capabilities. Many of these officers will then continue to serve long after their utilization tours, as general officers or well-placed thinkers within the national security policymaking community.

Civilian universities play a critical role in this program. All the military services send officers off to civilian schools to earn terminal degrees, usually to prepare professors for military academies and professional military education schools. These officers attain traditional degrees within the confines of traditional academic disciplines, and are generally well-equipped to participate in the academic profession and work in the college classroom. Traditional Ph.D. programs, however, are not always the best fit for Army officers seeking an education to improve their strategic reasoning. The demands of the career path for a competitive Army officer and the normal timelines of traditional Ph.D. programs just don’t match up very well. Nonetheless, many of the world’s finest universities have embraced the challenge of providing the flexibility required to keep ASP3 officers on path. The sixty officers currently in the program attend more than thirty different schools.

Arizona State University will be one of those schools starting in the fall of 2017. An ASP3 officer has accepted an offer to pursue a Ph.D. in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology (HSD) offered by ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS). If ever  space to maneuver was opened up for creative interdisciplinary work on critical and timely topics, this program has done it. ASU, a productive, large research university with a well-supported reputation for innovation, adds a tie to the Washington policy world through its Center on the Future of War, a joint project between ASU and the DC-based think tank, New America (of which, Tom, my host on this blog, is also a part). The Center on the Future of War serves as a two-way network connection that helps combines the dynamism of ASU’s culture — which encourages freedom to explore society’s most complex problems with solution-oriented output — and the extensive policy-related expertise and research of New America.

I’ve often told my military students that the most dangerous assumptions they’ll make are the ones that they don’t know they are making. This aphorism is true at both the individual and organizational levels. Studying at a civilian school provides an important layer of protection against this danger. Individuals can reduce the danger of their own hidden assumptions through frequent honest self-reflection, an activity for which day-to-day military life affords few opportunities and too frequent affirmation of what individuals think they already know. Advanced civil school education provides an exceptional opportunity for much needed reflection in an environment that will often put an officer’s beliefs and world views in sharp relief. Organizations hedge against the danger of hidden assumptions by encouraging diversity of thought, especially in their senior leaders. Having a wide range of ideas bouncing around planning cells helps prevent organizational blind spots from hampering an operation while also providing a well-spring of new ideas. Civilian university settings, especially universities as diverse and dynamic as ASU, are fantastic sources for a host of new ideas that can benefit military thinking, doctrine, and planning at all levels.

A thoughtful young Army officer writing in Small Wars Journal noted an additional benefit of ASP3. It’s true, as 1LT Robert Callahan notes, that ASP3 “offers one of the few bridges between the Army’s best and brightest. The Army’s decision to allow select field grade officers the opportunity to both command and pursue a PhD highlights an important fact about the relationship between the Army’s best and brightest. Those few officers, like Lt. Gen. McMaster, whose careers place them at the intersection of the Army’s best and brightest provide something that its best and its brightest cannot provide alone.”

The complexity and dynamism of today’s security environment puts a premium on thoughtful innovation. For a system as complex as the U.S. Army, ASP3 does not represent the sole solution. However, the ideas and energy that enter the Army through ASP3 represent an important investment for an army intent on being interesting.

Dr. Jeff Kubiak, Colonel (Retired), USAF, is the Senior Fellow at ASU’s Center on the Future of War. He has taught politics and strategy at the Naval War College, School of Advanced Air and  Space Studies, and the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. His book War Narratives and the American National Will in War was published by Palgrave in 2014.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense