Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Essay contest (11): The info revolution has arrived — but don’t tell our PME system

The future of armed conflict is challenging military thinking.

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By Maj. Elisabeth White, USAF
Best Defense essay contest entrant

The future of armed conflict is challenging military thinking. Sheer mass in numbers and sophisticated high-end technology may be a losing bet. While a great deal is still at stake with state-on-state warfare, important indicators suggest that the future will not resemble tradition.

 

By Maj. Elisabeth White, USAF
Best Defense essay contest entrant

The future of armed conflict is challenging military thinking. Sheer mass in numbers and sophisticated high-end technology may be a losing bet. While a great deal is still at stake with state-on-state warfare, important indicators suggest that the future will not resemble tradition.

The third revolution is underway, termed the information age, with rapid disruptions in the commercial sector, such as the rise of Amazon and addiction of Facebook, all reflecting the decline in human interaction. The commercial marketplace has found ways to harness information in efficient ways; businesses are flattening and expanding. But the military education system has not.

In looking to the future, the first step the military needs to take is reconsidering the requirements driving officer professional military education (PME). From commissioning sources, to episodic military education throughout a member’s career, the common themes focus on the past, not the future. Lessons from the Cold War era, where jointness was the cliché and the mil-to-civ relationship was unhealthy at best, abound in current curriculum. Although history is important in not repeating mistakes, the overabundance of requirements generating from legislation in the 1980s is stifling creativity in our military institutions.

Little provision exists in developing strategic thinkers in PME. For instance, the core curriculum taught at the premier Air Force institution for mid-grade officers, Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), focuses on traditional warfare studies. Specifically, half the year focuses on ensuring the student understands the history of airpower and the other half joint operations planning. The harsh reality is that only a small percentage of mid-grade officers participate in “in-residence” education, often deemed the future leaders of the military. Instead of using this opportunity to build upon years of experience and education, the military is subjecting these capable officers to the commissioning curriculum all over again. This traditional approach provides little room for how the force should fight in the future. While Blue Horizons is fostering future studies, it is unfortunately open only to select individuals.

Even with the impetus for change, such as the Air University vision, the requirements levied by the chairman of the joint chiefs on military education institutions are insurmountable. Compounding the curriculum shortfalls, the current methods of learning emphasize rote memorization and force students to apply old models of doctrine in solving wicked problems. Mid-grade officers are college educated and many already have master’s degrees. This is a highly capable demographic, and it needs to be exposed more to new and different ways of thinking about the world.

As a former student of ACSC, I think the military should remove the majority of education requirements resulting from the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Especially, drop the requirement of master’s degree accreditation. This will open up the maneuvering space but also result in a vast drawdown in the number of officers actually sent to brick and mortar institutions.

Instead of learning through traditional classroom environments, mid-career officers should move into strategic career broadening opportunities. For instance, fellowships with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency should be increased substantially. The opportunity to work with leading technology companies should be pushed at the mid-level rather the senior level, when officers are looking to retire. At the end of the “sabbatical,” officers should move on to an assignment where the experience will be put to use, perhaps in Cyber Command where recruitment and retention numbers are already too low.

This approach is not an entirely new idea; ACSC implements an embassy immersion program which I participated in last year. Just imagine if this model applied in addressing the information divide. Think how much better we’d be prepared to fight in a denied environment if officers had served apprenticeships as journeymen in artificial intelligence companies.

Stuxnet, as well as continued cyber intrusions on U.S. private and public institutions, suggest that the future of war will indeed be different. The information age is presenting a crossroads for the military. While huge transformational gains continue in the commercial sector, the military is still comfortable operating in an industrial age model where resources are vast and education is familiar. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s recent “Force of the Future” initiative to look again at the Goldwater-Nichols and Lieutenant General Steven Kwast’s leadership in transforming PME is a step in the right direction. Perhaps the new chairman will consider reexamining the current requirements for education while finding new ways to educate information-age warriors.

Major Elisabeth White is a U.S. Air Force acquisition officer, currently assigned to teach leadership and warfare at the eSchool of graduate professional military education at Maxwell AFB. She is a recent graduate of in-residence Air Command and Staff College and will be attending the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies as the only Air Force reservist. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Air Command and Staff College, Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

Image credit: YouTube

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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