Your IP access to will expire on June 15

To ensure uninterrupted reading, please contact Rachel Mines, sales director, at

Best Defense

West Point: How about less engineering and more emphasis on negotiating skills and strategic and cultural studies?

By Luke Hutchison Best Defense department of military education reformation When West Point was founded over 200 years ago, it was created to fix a key problem in the Army, the lack of officers with engineering skills. Without officers who knew how to build roads, construct forts and fire artillery accurately — the Army would ...


By Luke Hutchison

Best Defense department of military education reformation

When West Point was founded over 200 years ago, it was created to fix a key problem in the Army, the lack of officers with engineering skills. Without officers who knew how to build roads, construct forts and fire artillery accurately — the Army would be completely ineffective. With no engineering programs at other American universities and a problem that required more than basic training, Colonel Thayer set out to make a rigorous academic program based on an engineering curriculum. Today, West Point needs to assess just like Colonel Thayer did over 200 years ago, what is required of its graduates so that they will best contribute to the common defense.

Today education in Strategic Studies — understanding how to develop and execute strategy in complex and protracted conflicts that go far beyond just tactical symbols — is seriously lacking. The U.S. Army in Iraq had to pull a complete 180 degree turn in strategy, scrapping up a "victory" by the skin of its teeth — losing many more lives in the process and fixing American combat power in Iraq while the insurgency in Afghanistan regrouped. Today in Afghanistan, as over one hundred thousand ISAF soldiers fight on in their 11th year in that country, they find themselves in a much harder and far longer fight than anyone anticipated. How was a better trained, better equipped, and more numerous army ensnared twice in a decade and nearly defeated by poorly trained and equipped insurgents? A lack of Strategic Studies education at West Point certainly may be a place to start. Just as Colonel Thayer identified engineering as the key area of study graduates needed 200 years ago to provide for the common defense, today it is Strategic Studies that needs to be focused on.

West Point’s faculty have done a tremendous job adding relevant Strategic Studies related courses such as: Advanced International Relations, Counterinsurgency Operations, Terrorism and Counter Terrorism, Information Warfare, Winning the Peace, and Negotiation for Leaders. Yet outdated policies bar the vast majority of cadets from taking courses such as Counterinsurgency Operations, which has space for less than 10 percent of cadets. In particular, West Point still requires all cadets who are not engineering majors to take an additional three course Engineering Sequence, adding an additional 120 class hours. Cadets complete this watered-down engineering minor with no additional credentials, except being more "aware" of engineering. I am hardly the first to question this Engineering Sequence. West Point’s dean from 2000-2005 attempted to remove the Engineering Sequence, but was only successful in trimming it from five courses to the three it is today. 

Replacing the Engineering Sequence with three required courses in Strategic Studies could have real tangible benefits to mission success. Had more cadets taken Counterinsurgency Operations, perhaps the chaos in Iraq could have been avoided. Instead of requiring an insurgency of officers within the Army to make an about-face in strategy, the counterinsurgency concepts would have already been broadly understood. Advanced International Relations would allow graduates to better explain to our allies why the United States is "tilting" to one region of the world instead of another and critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of such a shift. The Conflict Resolution, Analysis, and Negotiation course would help officers understand that the conflict in Afghanistan is probably driven much more by regional forces than by internal ones. Negotiation for Leaders would have made an effective Key Leader Engagement second nature, instead of being awkward and counterproductive. Or a platoon leaders’ first time visiting a mosque wouldn’t have been in Iraq, but in Winning the Peace, where they would have already visited a mosque and learned about the intricacies of other world religions.

Organizations outside of West Point have already embraced West Point’s robust Strategic Studies courses. The FBI, NYPD, and members of Congress rely on the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point for some of their education on terrorism. Navy SEAL teams and Special Forces groups fly teams from the West Point Negotiation Project across the country to teach them how to improve their negotiation ability. How is West Point missing this great opportunity right under its nose?

The world has changed a lot in 200 years, and so has what is required of Army officers — it is time that West Point catches up. Removing the Engineering Sequence requirement, and replacing it with courses on Strategic Studies, seems like a good place to start.

Luke Hutchison is a cadet in the class of 2013 at West Point. The opinions expressed herein are his alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense, United States Army, or the United States Military Academy.


ISAF Troop Numbers

Engineering Sequence requirement

  • Latest USMA policy found in the USMA academic guide the "Red Book"

Counterinsurgency Operations course #s

  • This academic year there are 74 openings (Red Book). Spread over four years this would be a total of 296 openings for the 4,624 cadets enrolled at West Point, or 0.064 percent. There are many ways to calculate it but I think that is about as hi-balled as a number as you could make, giving West Point the benefit of the doubt.

Dean from 2000-2005 attempting to remove requirement.

  • Email from a USMA professor

No other engineering programs at West Point founding.

Existing Courses at West Point.

  • USMA academic guide the "Red Book."

Winning the Peace course visiting a mosque.

FBI and intelligence community using Combating Terrorism Center.

Navy Seals and Special Forces using West Point Negotiation Project.

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

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola