Mastering the Profession of Arms, Part II: Keeping Pace with Changes


In December 2016, the southern hemisphere’s first Defence Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF Aus) was held in Canberra, Australia. A manifestation of the first DEF in Chicago in 2013, it assembled a variety of army members to pitch ideas about the future of the profession. Over two days, new ideas about education, training, professional development, and other aspects of warfighting were discussed. I have written previously about the outcomes of DEF Aus. But it was also clear from the activity that there is an ongoing shift in the type of people we are seeing join our Army, and importantly, a change in how they think about improving the organization. This evolution reflects the larger changes that are impacting military organizations, and the profession of arms.

In the first installment of this series, I proposed that like war, the profession of arms reflects Clausewitz’s dual approach to war. It is a profession underpinned by enduring features while also constantly evolving as society and technology changes. What are the drivers of these changes? That is the question I turn to in this installment.

Understanding the enduring features of the profession of arms provides insights into the culture of military organizations. More importantly, understanding the drivers of change in the profession can help ensure the relevance of military education and training continuums. In reviewing the competencies required of a contemporary (and likely future) military professional, there are multiple influences that demand consideration. While the nature of the profession will remain stable, the skills and attributes it requires will evolve.

Technology is, of course, a key driver for evolution in the profession of arms. As recent documents, such as the National Intelligence Council Global Trends Report and the Global Strategic Trends report from the U.K. Ministry of Defence note, the onward march of technological development is changing military organizations and the societies from which they emerge. And as the conduct of war evolves, so must training and education.

The second driver of this evolution is the simple fact that professional mastery can no longer be confined to a single military service. The 2014 Future Land Warfare Report notes the increasingly “collective environment” that military forces must work within on future operations. The trend over the past two decades, where land forces have become more reliant on the effects generated by other Services and agencies, reinforces the importance of jointness, the salience of the “interagency,” and multilateral approaches. This has expanded military capabilities and possibilities while broadening the skills and perspectives necessary for mastering the military profession, especially for officers. Military officers must embrace these trends and develop, over the course of their careers, a better understanding of the political context of their actions while avoiding, as both Cohen and Rapp have noted, becoming “political officers.”

Next, the knowledge of what may have previously been specialist skills is now a core part of being a military professional. For example, the rise of technical regulation and the growing importance of cyber and communications technologies have put these competencies at the heart of military professionalism. They are no longer peripheral concerns or the preserve of a small band of experts. Morris Janowitz noted in his 1957 article, “Military Elites and the Study of War,” long-term technological development in war was one of the drivers in military professionalization. More recently, Chris Elliot observed in his book High Command that a “dramatic step-change is taking place in the way wars are fought by the richer nations. The ‘horse or tank moment’ has been replaced by a ‘tank or sensor moment.’”

Fourth, the profession in places such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia is more diverse than it was a generation ago. Western military organizations now possess a more inclusive workforce with a wider variety of views, experiences, and capabilities to offer the profession. This has resulted in a broader body of officers and soldiers with a wider variety of views, experiences and capabilities to offer the profession.  But this evolution also demands military professionals who can work in an organization that has ethnic, gender, religious, and intellectual diversity and exploit its benefits.

Fifth, the distinction in professionalism between officer and enlisted has become blurred. Samuel Huntington was explicit in separating the professional officer and tradesman-like enlisted personnel. However, over the past two decades, technical demands have led to a professionalization of the enlisted personnel of most military organizations far beyond what previously occurred. This has made segments of enlisted personnel more similar to what Huntington envisioned when thinking about the professional officer.  But while both enlisted and officers must be highly professional in their duties, there remains a difference in their competencies. Officership remains about leadership, change, and big picture issues. Warrant officers and Non-commissioned officers still retain the functions of management, stability, and stewardship.

The sixth trend is the application of increasingly absolutist international standards for the use of force. The codification of jus in bello and jus ad bellum traditions in law since 1945 is a new thing. Armies now seek to apply force in an environment where the bar for discrimination and proportionality is higher than it has ever been in human history. As Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in Just War Reconsidered, we must “understand and confront our responsibility to not only to fight wars ethically but to wage wars ethically.” This is right and proper, but it is a fundamental constraint on how we wage war. Trying to mitigate the violence of a war, including in ways that could harm the objectives of a conflict, presents a potential contradiction to the inherently destructive and violent nature of war. And it will drive evolution in professional development. Tom McDermott recently proposed that military institutions must ensure their people “understand the corrupting power of war-fighting and that they are forewarned and forearmed to negotiate the ethical dilemmas they might face.” This applies at all levels of command, and will be an important driver in the evolution of the profession of arms.

Finally, the military profession is now subject to greater levels of transparency than ever before. As Hew Strachan has noted in The Changing Direction of War, “control of information has become as contested as control of the battlefield…[and] democratic states seem to be frightened or confused by the democratization of war reporting.” But this should have a positive impact on a profession that protects a democratic nation. It has led to wider scrutiny of military values and professional ethic. And, as Strachan continues, “if democratic states believe that their armed forces are fighting for democratic objectives, then the democratization of the popular battle space should in the long run produce better coordinated strategy.” But it does mean that contemporary and future military professionals must understand this environment of transparency and thrive within it.


A professional military seeks to stay at the leading edge of its profession. It must constantly hone its readiness, deployability, and capability to undertake contemporary operations. A professional military organization cannot “mark time” concerning itself solely with excellence in current operations. It must seek out potential future threats and activities, and then iteratively design and build the military organization to meet those challenges. This article has proposed key contemporary drivers in the evolution of the profession of arms. I hope this analysis assists military institutions in their evolution of education, doctrine, and training and provides a level of “future proofing” for military forces.


Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Marine Corps Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod