Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A PME survivor on how to fix the war college system: Take it back to the future

By Gary Schaub Jr. Best Defense department of VME (veterans of military education) What sort of senior military officers are the U.S. military creating with its system of professional military education (PME)? If one were to examine the curricula of the war colleges, one would likely discover three types of military professionals that they are ...

By Gary Schaub Jr.

Best Defense department of VME (veterans of military education)

What sort of senior military officers are the U.S. military creating with its system of professional military education (PME)?

If one were to examine the curricula of the war colleges, one would likely discover three types of military professionals that they are attempting to develop: service professionals, joint professionals, and national security professionals. Unfortunately, the difference between these three types of professionals is vast and expecting an officer to master all three in 10 months is a tall order. The faculties and services ought to recognize this and use it as an opportunity to revamp the war college system, re-instituting the differentiated missions that Admirals Leahy and King and Generals Marshall and Arnold envisioned in the aftermath of the Second World War.

A military professional is an officer who is an expert in the management of violence. This is not the same as being an expert in the application of violence. Although many war college students have been “operators” and “trigger-pullers” for substantial portions of their careers, and have achieved their current rank by demonstrating their mastery of tactical engagement and command of those immediately engaged in tactical applications of force, this is not what their service expects of them once they reach the rank of lieutenant colonel or colonel. 

What is expected is that these officers will become service professionals: that they will possess a broad understanding of their service’s enduring mission and be able to utilize their leadership skills to forcefully advocate their service’s positions in the joint, interagency, and public arena. These expectations are the legacy of the services’ historical missions and level of ambition. They can be seen in the emphasis that each service’s war college is expected to bring to its service’s mission and capabilities within its curriculum and other activities, such as producing opinion pieces to be circulated by the command’s public affairs bureaus.

It is also expected that these officers will become joint professionals. Such officers are familiar with the missions of the other services, their unique capabilities and ability to contribute to the fight, and the processes by which these are de-conflicted and integrated to increase military efficiency and battlefield effectiveness. This type of professionalism has become increasingly important in the post-Goldwater-Nichols era, as senior civilian and military leaders have struggled to overcome service parochialism, and the services have made substantial changes to ensure that their officers “grow up joint.” Each war college is certified by the Joint Staff to award JPME (Joint PME) Phase II credit to its officers upon completion of the course and many are on the way to phasing out JPME Phase I topics as these are integrated into their respective command and staff courses. This evolution has not been natural and the faculties of the war colleges are to be commended for their degree of devotion to enhancing this aspect of the SDE experience.

Finally, the war colleges expect to acquaint their officers with the broader aspects of strategy at the national level of decision making. Such national security professionalism entails knowledge of each of the “instruments of power” (diplomatic, information, military, and economic — “the DIME”), what these bring to the fight, the agencies that wield these other means, and the processes by which they are integrated to achieve national objectives. These colonels are expected to be knowledgeable about the national security strategy of the United States, its global and regional interests, the other actors whose behavior will affect the exercise of American power, and the larger global context within which all of this activity occurs. They are now expected to also acquire a more than superficial acquaintance with the culture of a particular region as well as language skills.

The attempt to cover all three aspects of military professionalism produces a curriculum and an experience that is, at times, a mile wide and an inch deep. Most core courses are designed as surveys, highlighting a topic of the day with little attempt to integrate these into an overarching framework that would show how the various pieces fit together. Such integration is left to the individual student. The inability of the hard working faculties of these institutions to reconcile these levels of military professionalism in the curriculum — and amongst themselves — often makes the whole of the PME experience less than the sum of its parts.

Even more important than these needlessly discrete buckets of knowledge, war colleges expect to inculcate the ability to recognize and frame problems within a complex and ambiguous environment, to think creatively about solutions to these problems, and to critically evaluate the solutions proffered — as well as arguments put forth on other topics.

In short, war colleges are charged to make their students into nimble-minded, creative, and knowledgeable experts in service, joint, and national security affairs. Within 10 months. A long-time veteran of the PME world has called this a game of inches and asking these officers — fine, intelligent, hard working, dedicated patriots all — to master 3 levels of perspective during their year out of the fight is often a bridge too far. 

The result is that the vast majority of officers come to the war college as proto-service professionals and graduate as joint professionals. As they complete their careers in uniform, it is likely that this is sufficient. Only a minority can be truly said to have mastered national security professionalism and it is here that the American profession of arms misses an opportunity to produce a deep bench of general officers that can effectively bridge the gap between virtuosity in operations and the achievement of policy objectives. The dialogue over American strategic thought of the past decade suggests that this is the area where our general officer corps has often fallen short.

A war college education cannot be all things to all students. Choices must be made. Yet virtue could be made of this necessity if the services returned to the idea of functional differentiation that had characterized the war colleges in past eras, where national colleges focused on joint and national security professionalism, and the service war colleges emphasized service and joint professionalism. This could enhance the war college experience for all concerned and produce better colonels (and generals) than at present.

Although vociferously denied, it is well-known that there is a pecking order amongst the war colleges that often has more to do with perception and interservice rivalries rather than rigor or quality of education. Yet perception affects reality in the promotion system and under such a scheme, the services’ leadership could acknowledge, indeed encourage and utilize, the informal sorting of careers that occurs in war college selection today. 

It is not rocket science to determine which O-5s and O-6s are of the type likely to be promoted to be general officers by the time they reach this stage of their career. Indeed, most officers are well-aware of their potential for future promotions after they graduate from the war college. The services could more explicitly use this knowledge to better populate billets in the senior levels of the officer corps with officers who are expected to be service, joint, or national security professionals. Officers expected to remain in senior service billets or service billets in a joint setting, such as a combatant command, could be directed to their service’s war college. Officers expected to take joint jobs could be assigned to a sister service’s war college. Finally, officers whose service records indicate a better-than-the-average chance of being promoted into the general officer corps could be assigned to National War College. This would return National to its position as the capstone of the PME system and encourage the JCS leadership to ensure that it is appropriately manned and resourced. (It would also require additional safeguards for the civilian faculty to ensure that they could enforce rigor without fear of offending future general officers, as Howard Wiarda suggests in his book, Military Brass vs. Civilian Academics at the National War College: A Clash of Cultures.)

Such a system might have many salutary effects. It could make selection to war college more competitive, thereby opening the way for more discriminating entrance criteria. It could facilitate greater focus within the seminar environment as well as within the curriculum.

Finally, it could result in a cohort of colonels and general officer corps that possess deeper expertise in the areas that they will address in the remainder of their careers, thereby enhancing the effectiveness and proficiency of our military leadership. It could also assist the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the J-7 of the Joint Staff, and the service’s education (and training) commands in their efforts to tailor curriculum requirements and direct resources most effectively. All of this would enhance the profession of arms in the United States and perhaps serve as an example to our allies as they reflect upon their PME systems. 

In an environment where the services will have to do more with less, tailoring war college education and officer career paths to the prerequisites for senior leadership at the service, joint, and national security levels has much to commend it.

Dr. Gary Schaub, Jr. is a tenured senior researcher at the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Copenhagen. From December 2003 until November 2011, he was an assistant professor of strategy at the Air War College and a visiting assistant professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies located at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of his current or former employers. As another academic year comes to an end, he wishes his former students and colleagues well.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1