Mastering the Profession of Arms, Part III: Competencies Today and into the Future


In his recent book, The Big Stick, Eliot Cohen quotes Abraham Lincoln, stating that “as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” Military organizations across the globe now find themselves with a range of new circumstances affecting how their operations are conceptualised and executed. In developing an intellectual edge with their military personnel in these new circumstances, military forces must also think anew and act anew.

In the first installment of this series, I proposed that like war, the profession of arms possesses a duality and is underpinned by enduring features. But I also proposed that the profession of arms is constantly evolving. The key drivers for this evolution were explored in the second installment. Noting these changes in the environment for the profession of arms, the aim of this article is to propose the competencies of military professionals that should drive their development and prepare them for success in joint, interagency, and multinational environments.

Based on current trends and our understanding of the nature of the profession and how it developed over history, there are seven competencies of the profession of arms required for contemporary and future military leaders. These are physical mastery, technical and tactical mastery, psychological and cognitive mastery, mastery of military history and organizational theory, mastery of leadership and ethics, mastery of operational art, and mastery of strategic thinking.

Technical and Tactical Mastery

Technical and tactical skills and knowledge are linked, and mastering these areas ensures individuals and the collective are brilliant at the basics of the profession. It demands an understanding of one’s institutional doctrine, while at the same time an appreciation that doctrine should not be used blindly. Rather, it should be adapted to suit the circumstances at hand. This technical and tactical mastery is developed through formal training as well as through self-study, workplace training, education, and experience. For contemporary and future training and professional development, this technical and tactical mastery will increasingly demand a more sophisticated understanding and integration of a range of non-kinetic and non-traditional endeavors. This might include network defense, operations in a digitally degraded environment, and interagency collaboration at the lowest levels.

Mastery of the tactical and technical elements of the profession is also nurtured by individuals teaching at military schools and academies, as well as mentoring fellow members of the military. Excellence in instructional capacity is at the heart of mastering the profession of arms. The development of instructional and mentoring capacity hones the knowledge and application of the technical and tactical aspects of the profession.

The technical and tactical skills of individuals are applied in a collective military environment. Williamson Murray and Alan Millett have argued in Military Effectiveness: Volume 1 that the level of tactical mastery one achieves can be measured. This is useful not only for judging tactical success and failure, but also for how tactical effectiveness supports the achievement of operational and strategic objectives.

Physical Mastery

The second competency — physical mastery — builds upon this base by creating mastery “of the body,” which involves both physical fitness and resilience. Long a staple of the daily battle rhythm in military organizations, building and sustaining physical fitness is a key competency of the military professional. The benefits extend beyond physical endurance. Physical fitness builds self-confidence and facilitates group activities that enhance team cohesiveness. Physical mastery is also linked in many studies to improved cognitive performance, improved capacity to cope with stress, and functional improvements in brain structures associated with cognitive control and memory. Our institutions however will need to continue to invest in best practice approaches to physical fitness to minimize injury and maximize personnel availability.

Psychological and Cognitive Mastery

Just as professionals devote time and energy to building physical strength and endurance, the mind needs similar attention to its development in order to increase capacity and improve muscle memory. Psychological and cognitive mastery therefore forms the third competency: providing an understanding of the cognitive aspect of warfare and conflict.  The military professional must prepare for the most intellectually demanding of circumstances. While conflict avoidance remains the natural preference, the cognitive preparation for war is a compelling and central competency for the military professional. It requires a focus on understanding cognitive bias, complexity theory, communications theory, and heuristics. As I noted in a recent review, cognitive preparation for war will remain a key element in the development of professional mastery well into the future.

Mastery of Military History and Organizational Theory

Military history provides the required context, width, and depth to understand past ways and means in the absence of physical combat experiences. It allows professionals to test their knowledge and ideas against a framework of historical military experience. It also provides insights into successful methods and permits learning through vicarious failure.  The study of history can also, as Richard Neustadt and Ernst May argue in Thinking in Time, stimulate imagination by seeing the past as a way to better envision the future.

Michael Howard has proposed the most compelling reason for studying military history is that unlike other enduring professions, the military profession is intermittent. In essence, military history is the case law for military professionals to prepare for future operations.  And as Howard has also noted, military professional must hone “the ability to look at the past to see what works and what does not … the last war provides the only firm data that they have.” Military history provides an intellectual foundation for dealing with the ambiguity, uncertainty, and friction inherent in war.

Military professional should also possess an understanding of organizational theory. Military history provides vicarious learning about war. Organizational theory and case studies provide military professionals with a deeper understanding about how their institutions work and how they might be adapted and improved. Understanding organizational theory and its application for the military encompasses several areas. This includes organizational culture and behavior, adaptation theory, and how to design institutions able to prepare for — and respond to — failure. In combination, a foundation based on military history and organizational theory should provide the basis for appreciating when and where to adapt, and how to do so in a way that generates an advantage over adversaries.

Mastery of Leadership and Ethics

Leadership is the art of influencing and directing people to achieve the team or organizational goal. Nearly all professional military organizations emphasize this competency as a central aspect of the profession of arms. As a recent British Army publication noted, “leadership is the life blood of an army.”

Mastery of leadership and ethics is comprised of building an understanding of leadership through theory and practice. This includes examining historical examples of good and bad leadership, studying adaptation and change management, nurturing innovation, and strengthening ethics around decision-making.

Understanding the theory and practice of adaptation is a key element of leadership and ethics mastery. The importance of adaptive capacity is highlighted in the leadership doctrine of multiple armies, including in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Successful innovation depends on leaders advocating for the intellectual preparation of military personnel and for innovative ideas. This begins by setting an appropriate culture for innovation to flourish. Williamson Murray has written in Military Adaptation in War that these factors underpin successful military adaptation.

Finally, achieving mastery in leadership must include cultural studies both to generate wider viewpoints for command as well as strengthen understandings of diversity and ethical considerations. This is imperative as our military workforces become more diverse and our operations continue to see us working with a broader range of different nationalities and ethnic groups.

Mastery of Operational Art

As Scott noted in his 2008 monograph The Lost Operational Art, the doctrine of operational art started appearing in the doctrine of other western military organizations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has become a cornerstone of higher level professional military education over the last three decades.

Mastery of operational art is founded on operational theory — ensuring tactical actions meet strategic ends through operational design — but also draws on the capacity to work within and exploit the connected and collective environment described in the 2014 Future Land Warfare Report. It notes that the trend towards interagency and joint operations will make the land force more integrated at lower levels. Further, it describes mastery of the operational art demanding military organizations to focus on developing commanders capable of intuitively understanding, utilizing, and exploiting these joint and interagency capabilities. With its themes of operational theory, campaign planning, and air, land, and sea power, mastery of operational art in the future must focus increasingly on the cyber, space, informational, and interagency aspects of war.

Mastery of Strategic Thinking

Lawrence Freedman wrote in Strategy: A History thatstrategy comes into play where there is actual or potential conflict, when interests collide and forms of resolution are required. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests.” By considering factors like one’s defense organization, the strategic context and environment, and strategic thinking — including theories of victory — military organizations grow the strategic nous of their people. Mastery of strategic thinking at its core should develop professionals with a deep understanding of war. It requires a commitment by individuals to understanding the nature of war and the range of implications for a nation engaged in war. And while competency takes many years — or even decades — to develop, the foundations of this must begin early in the career of a military professional.

The development of this competency also demands an individual have the capacity to work within a wider strategic and political environment. Military strategy is crafted within the policy framework of civilian governments. Eliot Cohen has described in Supreme Command how senior officers engaging in development of strategy must appreciate the civil-military dynamic of this milieu. Their ultimate responsibility is, as Maj. Gen. William Rapp recently described, to provide multiple genuine options expressed in a strategic context that explain how and why resources requested will solve or mitigate problems and assist to achieve policy objectives at acceptable levels of risk. Despite its interaction with other elements of government action, as Hew Strachan noted in The Changing Direction of War, developing mastery of strategic art is also built on a professional appreciation that “strategy is designed to make war useable by the state, so that it can, if need be, use force to fulfil its political objectives. It is not policy; it is not politics; it is not diplomacy. It exists in relation to all three, but it does not replace them.”

This capacity for strategic thinking and its ongoing development is especially compelling given that, as Howard writes in The Use and Abuse of Military History, the complex problem of running military operations is “liable to occupy the skills and minds of senior commanders so completely that it is easy to forget what it is being running for.” As Murray and Millet have written in their introduction to Military Effectiveness: Volume 3, the capacity for effective strategic thought is even more important than tactical or operational competence. They stress the importance of getting strategy right when they state that “it is more important to make correct decisions at the political and strategic level than it is at the operational or tactical level. Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.” While military institutions don’t seek to make every junior officer a strategist, even the most junior leaders in the future will increasingly rely on better strategic awareness and understanding to guide their tactical activities.

Next Steps

The seven competencies of professional mastery proposed here, and in my recent review, are mutually supporting. They comprise an interwoven set of traits that allow military leaders to achieve overall mastery in the profession of arms.  However, the construction of a successful system that develops this professional mastery depends on policies, education, training, and having structures in place to enable its execution. This requires two important bodies of subsequent work.

First, a military organization should define how it measures professional mastery in these seven key areas of the profession. Fortunately, there is already a range of measures for training and education outcomes in most military organizations — service specific and in the joint arena. However, some level of gap analysis may be needed to ensure that the service and joint education and training systems are collectively developing the full range of competencies described in this paper and that standards are in place for each.

The second body of subsequent work is to evolve and enhance professional development in military organizations. There is a need to ensure that there are relevant, evidence-based, and easily accessible professional development programs. These should include both formal and informal learning opportunities blended with military experience so that military leaders can develop and hone the seven professional mastery competencies.  Where these competencies are not developed exclusively within a specific service, it is imperative that joint education outcomes at staff colleges and war colleges incorporate their development.

Parting Thoughts

It is worth concluding with some final words from Samuel Huntington. In The Soldier and the State, he wrote:

The skill of the officer is neither a craft nor an art. It is instead an extraordinarily complex intellectual skill requiring comprehensive study and training. The management of violence is not a skill which can be mastered simply by learning existing techniques.  It is in a continuous process of development, and it is necessary for the officer to understand this development and to be aware of its main tendencies and trends.

Huntington not only defined the need for expertise but also how it might be attained and maintained.

My aim here has been to draw out a contemporary definition of the character and outputs of the profession of arms. This will hopefully assist military professionals better appreciate the dimensions of their profession and the demands that exist to constantly remain at the forefront of that profession. More importantly, it provides a starting point for developing an institutional view on the priority for developing the components of professional mastery. This institutional view must also include how we might better measure professional mastery and the how we might continue to evolve our training and education system to achieve it.

The president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Tom Mahnken, recently stated in congressional testimony that “wars of the future may no longer lie that far in the future and that these wars are likely to differ considerably both from the great-power wars of the past as well as the campaigns that we have been waging since the turn of the millennium.” Regardless of which strategy or strategies are chosen by governments in this potential return to great power competition, the competitive edge generated by highly professional military personnel honed to individual and collective excellence must be a foundational element. Mastering the profession of arms will be one of the cornerstones of military organizations that seek to successfully prosecute operations in the age of digital warfare.


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: Australian Army