Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A close look at the meaning of that Air War College video: We’re all more comfortable with training than education

The Air War College comes in for a lot of grief on The Best Defense, but the truth is all the war colleges face similar challenges and they do so for similar reasons.




By Dr. T. Negeen Pegahi
Best Defense guest columnist

The Air War College comes in for a lot of grief on The Best Defense, but the truth is all the war colleges face similar challenges and they do so for similar reasons. Given their position at the top of the professional military education (PME) edifice, not to mention their claim on taxpayer dollars, national security types should better understand what’s going on at these schools and why.

At the Naval War College, we try to emphasize strategic thinking and we do so via an ends-ways-means approach. Specifically, for any given situation, we ask our students to identify the goal or objective (the “end”), how that end might best be achieved (the “ways”), and what resources would be required for the effort (the “means”). For any strategy to actually support national efforts, we need to identify the correct end and then derive the correct ways and means. Mistakes or mismatches at any point in the process likely means a failed strategy and a shortchanged nation.

This same ends-ways-means approach can be used to understand and evaluate the war colleges themselves. The video recently released by the Air War College and posted here on The Best Defense provides a useful case study in miniature for anyone interested in how these senior service schools see themselves, their mission, and how to best accomplish that mission.

The video is quite clear on what the war colleges do, how they do it, and with what resources. (We’ll take up the question of whether those choices are the right ones next.) According to the video, the war colleges build joint warfighters. These are men — just men — from various services who understand one another’s warfighting capabilities and are therefore better able to fight together. The war colleges seek to accomplish this task by providing students fora in which they can share their experiences, hear those of the faculty, and build relationships with one another. All the war colleges need then are students, and faculty, from a variety of military services, communities, and specialties with a willingness to talk about their roles in the joint fight.

That is certainly one approach and it can work fine with one small segment of the war college curriculum — namely the kinetic part of the training portion. This part requires students to assimilate concrete pieces of information (i.e., doctrine) about how to fight in cooperation with other American servicemembers. Trading war stories can liven up the potentially dry material, though there’s always the danger of the former crowding out the latter.

The all-US-military, all-kinetic, all-the-time approach is less successful, however, when it comes to preparing our future military leaders for all the non-kinetic campaigns, multinational coalitions, and/or interagency environments in which we call on our military to operate. One speaker’s mention of the “multinational, interagency” aspect to all his deployments followed by an eight-second clip of Australian soldiers, in the midst of a tactical engagement no less, were the six-minute video’s only nods to any of that.

This approach is even less successful when it comes to the education portion of the war college curriculum. The military already has a 10-week program in Norfolk that largely duplicates the training portion of the war college curriculum. The year-long senior service schools are intended to go well beyond that, developing students’ understanding of the uses and limits of the military instrument; of how that instrument fits in with other tools of national power; of the debates over how the world works and their implications for U.S. strategy and policy; of how to make arguments and to spot the flaws in those of others; of how to communicate one’s ideas — yes, even in writing — and so on. None of this makes it into the video at all.

Ironically, war college students are often ahead of the schools themselves when it comes to grasping these issues. I asked a representative sample of former students to watch the video and share their observations. Some were funny, like the Army lieutenant colonel who noted that he “kept waiting for the AC/DC to kick in” and that the video was “all men; no civilians. Don’t tell me about your civilian expertise [but then] care so little that none of those experts appear in the video.” “By the way,” he asked, “were the senior service reps the only faculty in the office that day?”

Others were astute, such as the Marine lieutenant colonel who pointed out that, “Education, critical thinking [weren’t] really mentioned. [There was] no mention of research, academic study.” Likewise, a captain from an allied navy argued that the war colleges should focus on their role in “producing strategic leaders,” not just joint warfighters. An Air Force major criticized the narrow range of images shown in the video – “all kinetic fires, power projection stuff, the sexy side of the military. Why not show planning stuff? Multinational exercises? Big coordination cells with people doing thinking stuff?”

Still others were both funny and astute, such as the Navy lieutenant commander who was struck that, “Even though one of the speakers specifically states that the school looked to have students ‘think beyond their weapons systems,’ the only images (outside of a couple of token classroom shots) were of service members using their weapons systems in support of combat actions.” A senior foreign service officer argued that the video “should look like it’s for serious professionals interested in a higher level of thinking,” not like a recruiting vehicle aimed at 18-year-olds.

The students also picked out two things — one positive, one negative — that I had missed. On the positive, an Army major made the case that the video at least did “joint” right, “by using combat video of all the services, not just the Air Force, and [by giving] equal time to each of the services’ senior advisors.” While this might seem a low-set bar to clear almost 30 years after the passage of Goldwater-Nichols, it’s nonetheless wise not to take jointness for granted.

We can and should, however, get serious about next steps. The same soldier noted that he found it “discouraging” that the interagency wasn’t mentioned at all, with the Marine arguing that “a war college that isn’t thinking about the interagency isn’t thinking.” The airman found the exclusive focus on jointness somewhat “scary,” noting that he didn’t care “who does the mission — all, one, or none of the military services (i.e., the State Department) — as long as we get to our strategic end state or closer to it.” The Marine added, “I don’t think the video ever showed interaction between U.S. mil and foreigners except killing them.”

As for the negative, a couple of students noticed that the video ignored the “why” of what the war colleges are supposed to do. A foreign service specialist noted that he “didn’t hear why this education is desirable other than that the [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] said so.” Similarly, the Army lieutenant colonel pointed out that the video offered “no mandate to prepare for the good of the service, the profession, [or] the nation.”

Lastly, I checked in with a colleague at the Air War College, who appreciated the notion of broadening the focus to include all the war colleges and also agreed that the video is problematic. He argued that it “provides a radically incomplete view of what we do… We do have courses on warfighting and leadership here, taught by active duty officers like the ones featured in the video. But, when the students are asked, they express the most appreciation for the education they get from the [professional academics], in areas like strategy, U.S. foreign policy, and international relations. None of that comes through in the video. In short, there is a disconnect between what the video says we do and what we actually do.”

Again, there is nothing unique about the Air War College in this regard. All the war colleges have to negotiate a very awkward two-part mission encompassing both training and education. These require sharply differing types of faculties, curricula, structures, and cultures. Training is the more straightforward portion of the mission, and much more in the military’s traditional comfort zone than education. Within the training piece, the U.S. military operating kinetically is the most comfortable spot of all. We shouldn’t be surprised when other aspects of training get shortchanged, and we really shouldn’t be surprised when education does. We also, however, shouldn’t settle for any of that.

Dr. Pegahi is an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. She served as a strategic advisor and analyst to Special Operations Joint Task Force — Afghanistan/NATO Special Operations Component Command — Afghanistan (SOJTF-A/NSOCC-A) in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

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

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