Achieving Strategic Excellence in Army University


A few months ago, I visited the Army’s Command and Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth at their invitation to offer some ideas a new effort: Army University (AU). This is an attempt by the Army leadership to build an education enterprise that brings all schools from basic training to the staff college under single management.

But the establishment of Army University opens the door to many questions. First and foremost is a simple one: what is the problem with Army professional education that AU seeks to solve? As I learned during my visit, the answers are complex.

Let’s begin with a bit of history: Great advances on the intellectual side of war occur as wars end. Elihu Root’s founding of the war college was a direct outcome of America’s failings in the Spanish American War. The Reichswehr transformation and the rewriting of German doctrine were started by von Seeckt in 1919. The Army school system was reformed during the interwar period and again in 1947. The founding of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in 1973 was a direct consequence of our perceived failings in Vietnam. But history also suggests that this is a window of opportunity rather than an open door. An institution as complex and inherently conservative as the Army has about five years after a war to make change. After that, armies tend to turn inward, become overly bureaucratic, fiscally ossified, and lose political support for intellectual change. The failures of the French Army during the inter-war years serve a good example of how this can go terribly wrong.

The Army, chief among all the services, does a superb job of matching performance to the process of selecting lieutenant colonels for battalion command and colonels for brigade command. The Army’s personnel bureaucracy, Human Resources Command (HRC), and the Army’s selection board system makes very few mistakes when it picks new tactical commanders. These boards rely on Officer Efficiency Reports to gain a clear picture of the officer’s “manner of performance.” These documents tell the senior leadership how well the officer can get things done and exercise tactical command.

The success of the command selection system has created an Army that fights at the tactical and operational levels better today than any other army on earth, but one that fails to match tactical and operational excellence with similar excellence at the strategic level. One reason the Army fails too often at the strategic level is that the institution does not have the same disciplined system for selecting strategic leaders as it does for selecting tactical and operational leaders.

Strategic leadership begins at the colonel and general officer level. These leaders command above the division and are engaged in the decision-making processes in all national level staffs both civilian and military. How can the Army educate, select, and promote officers with the ability to prosper at the strategic level of war? The creation of an Army University might just offer a template for a reformation of Army education to overcome its strategic shortcomings. But the development of strategic “genius” is so demanding that it can’t be left to the episodic dipping of officers into the Army’s school system. It must become a lifelong endeavor.

History tells us that strategic genius is solidified at the approximate age between 28 and 32. Today’s young men and women do learn very early and, unlike my generation, learn on the internet. The Army should establish an accountable, internet-based system for young officers to learn and be graded on their ability to become military strategists. The Army has tried distance and internet learning in the past with limited results. Distance learning has failed due to a lack of resources, accountability, and buy-in by junior officers. A new open, robust strategic learning program must be built to meet the Army’s strategic needs beginning at commissioning. Every officer should be introduced to a virtual seminar, in an open sourced, unclassified, web platform that is open to entry by any number of civilian, active duty, retired and academic mentors, and fellow travelers. An Army lifelong learning cognitive “loop” would offer a disciplined method for studying conflict and officership and add the essential elements of discipline, structure, and accountability.

These virtual strategic seminars should be assigned as early as West Point or ROTC with members self-selected from existing informal, social, and online communities formed while undergraduates. Accountability is important. Now that AU is real, the President of the university, separate from the human resources bureaucracy, should maintain an intellectual “performance file” consisting of the output from these seminars added to a compendium of data to include grades, entrance exams, psychological and emotional evaluations, tiered academic OERs, publications, and written interaction with peers and mentors. Over the years, such a formal compendium would shape a clearer picture of an officer’s intellectual talents, interests, and potential.

Proven achievement in these “intellectual OERs” would offer a very clear picture for selecting officers to attend the Army’s superb Advanced Placement, or honors courses such as the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at the operational level and the Advanced Strategic Arts Program at the Army War College (ASAP).

These precise and early evaluations will allow the AU leadership to find those few “Jedi’s” who have special genius for war and can be sent to advanced civilian and military schooling earlier in their careers.

The Army cannot do any of this without personal and continuous engagement and buy-in by the senior Army leadership. The Chief of Staff of the Army must become the Chief Strategist for his service. He will, as a first order of business, demand a “parallel” intellectual selection system as precise for gifted thinkers as HRC’s system is for command selection.

Herding the cats

To build a base for strategic excellence the Army University must mirror the bones of a great research university if it is live up to its name. Just adding “University” to the logo will not work. Remember “Trump University”? Or “Hamburger U?” A great university consists of three components: selectively chosen students, “named” or accomplished faculty, and a world-class research enterprise. Ironically, the Army already has all three. They are just scattered across the Army. Take research for example. It’s huge: the Center for Army Lessons learned and the Combined Arms Research Library at Ft. Leavenworth; the Center for Military History in Washington; the many research and contact teams the Army hosts in combat theaters; the Army Historical and Educational Center and Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College as well as the Chief of Staff’s own think tank, the Strategic Studies Group. These disparate institutions could best be exploited by bringing them all under the umbrella of the Army University.


This is a hard one. Great universities produce superb graduated students and faculties. There are two ways to build a robust faculty system that benefits the long-term intellectual goals of the Army. One is to develop a Learning Branch with its own hierarchy and reward system. The British Army tried this before and it didn’t work too well. The alternative is to carve out a learning cadre from the active component officer corps. This is, I believe, the best choice. But to do this right you must change the HR approach to rewarding and promoting officers serving in the institutional Army. This means selecting the best and brightest to teach and then rewarding them with promotions and command.

To be true to the AU model, the Army must change its approach to faculty development. With few exceptions, today’s senior university leaders are not teachers. Therefore they tend to adhere to a faculty model in which a clear divide exists between all primary school functions: administration, research, academic oversight, and, sadly last, teaching. Most great research universities embrace a model wherein all of these functions are embedded within the faculty. An instructor must also publish, research, design courses and curricula, develop instructional aids, and develop and supervise simulations and gaming exercises. Such a contemporary approach will develop well-rounded, more respected professors, and save an enormous amount in overhead as well.

Civilian fully funded graduate school

The seed corn for AU will come from two years spent in a named civilian graduate school followed by a two year teaching assignment in the AU system. Every Captain selected for early promotion to major should be sent to fully-funded graduate school in a field related to the study of war. Room must be made for captains who attend graduate school on their own, but not for those who earn degrees unrelated to the art and science of war. A panel of senior AU academics at the command and director level must “grade” an officer’s online or night school degree just as HR grades the difficulty of an officer’s assignments.

There are great universities with which to partner. But the Army must find a few willing to participate using the unique AU strictures and curricula. There are only a few truly good ones that understand Army culture, its needs, and are equipped to “blend” distance and in-residence learning, a key prerequisite for the military learner. Some of the usual suspects include Princeton, Yale, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Florida State, North Texas, Texas at Austin, Duke, MIT, and Georgetown. AU should look to partner with a school that has solid credentials as a ROTC producer as well as a record for excellence in producing first rate military graduate students. They must be willing to forgo traditional time requirements.

Intellectual Discipline and Selection

After ten years of failure, the Army has at last accepted that attendance at senior schools should be competitive. Beginning this year, the Command and General Staff College will accept about 56% of each eligible year group. This is a good start. But if the Army is to build a competitive and accomplished body of strategic leaders, it must go father. Today, attendance at Army colleges is determined by the same HRC board process now used to select tactical and operational commanders. To find the best and brightest, the Army must engage its intellectual leadership in the final selection of those to attend senior schooling. Consider a new system that might expand HRC board selection to CGSC from 56% to about 75% of those eligible. An AU intellectual competence board would then leverage an officer’s academic record to make the final cut to 56%. By an officer’s eleventh year of service, his or her “intellectual achievement file” should be robust enough to give an AU academic board a very good, objective ranking of an officer’s potential for grand operational and strategic positions. Getting from 75% to 56% would take place through several written and oral evaluations overseen by an AU “Board”. These would include examinations on knowledge of military theory as well as basic tactical and staff processes. A key assessment would be a “GRE”- like test of verbal and writing skills provided perhaps by a civilian testing service like ETS in Princeton. This test would be tailored for the military learner. AU would also add a 360 evaluation based just on “perceived intellectual merit” at the end of all senior courses.

Honors Programs

Just like any great university, the Army needs to have a named honors program and reward those who complete it. SAMS as a second year won’t work. Instead, the Army should make SAMS a two-year program and make selection to SAMS part of the CGSC general “admissions” process (in other words, slice off the top 10% of the 56%). AU would select the number of SAMS students based on a calculation of all key Army operational and strategic level requirements for gifted officers. The Staff College faculty at SAMS has done a good job of offering a list of strategic planner positions. Perhaps more could be added to embrace strategic command and Professional Military Education slots for Colonel through senior general. A loose assessment suggests that the number for the Army is about 120 total. So if the Army needs 120 gifted strategists in three-year assignments, then that would mean an initial SAMS cut of about 60-70. Such a number would allow for the usual attrition. A rigorous two-year program would produce a level of operational genius unprecedented in our history. It certainly worked for Eisenhower’s generation. Officers who fail to make the grade of course would be returned to the regular CGSC course without professional harm.

The Army should repeat this process at the strategic level with a “Strategic SAMS” for all Army War College selectees. Again, allow HRC to select about 20% more than required and allow AU to do the intellectual winnowing for the basic war college course as well as strategic honors course like SAMS. The basic war college curriculum, again, would be unchanged from today. It’s sufficient for a general strategic education for operationally focused Army officers, foreigner students, civilians, and officers from other services.

But selection for a war college honors program would be much more rigorous. The total number of students would be based on the Army’s requirements for all key strategic billets colonel through general. Presuming an eventual number of 120 billets then the senior SAMS program would need about 30 to 40 per class. The one-year program would throw out all of the human-interest courses to concentrate on a history-based program, tutored rather than “taught.” Acceptance would be driven by an officer’s proven and tested intellectual merit. It must not be voluntary. The CSA should be the final authority on the mix of strategic honors students based on his need for high performers in key future strategic billets. He would have final say based on input from AU as to those officers who make the cut and where they go. Strategic billets reserved for these graduates would include the National Security Council, Congressional Liaison, Public Affairs, the Joint Staff J3, J5, J8, overseas command “think tanks, ” Chief of Staff special assistants, directors at all colleges. Billets at the general officer level would include all college leadership, and certain critical strategic general officer billets in the Army and Joint Staffs as well as overseas commands. A back of the envelope estimate: about one fourth of all brigadier general selectees would probably fill the need for general officer strategic positions.

The eight hundred pound gorilla in all this, of course, is the existing strategic level of learning at the Army War College. By placing the AU leadership and command at the operational level of war (Leavenworth) the AU concept runs the risk of excluding the very portion of our learning enterprise that is most wanting. And the optics are not good from outside the Army. Critics will allege that the AU approach reinforces success and ignores failure. As mentioned above, no one disputes that the Army does operational art well, but virtually all allege that the Army does strategy poorly.

Can we leave the War College outside AU? I don’t think so. That would be like leaving all PhD programs outside a state university system. If you are going to build a robust AU system with a “body of elders” capable of selecting officers for strategic leadership, then the War College commandant and his directors must be involved. The Army might consider moving AU and a three-star billet to War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Of course, the Army would have to deal with a huge transfer of overhead halfway across the country. But having the strategic “best and brightest” located just a short hop from the Pentagon and Congress might not be a bad idea. A three-star chief strategist heading the AU enterprise and directly answerable to the Chief would send a signal to the rest of the Army and the defense intellectual community that the Army leadership is dedicated to reform at the strategic level of war. The Navy did this in 2003 and it worked.

A well-crafted AU enterprise might well be the centerpiece of Army intellectual reform. Yet, what I suggest above obviously can’t all be done on a single watch. But the Army leadership can get the ball rolling. Such and effort would also send the signal to our officers that the institution now values intellectual merit and will reward those who pursue it.


Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff