Diverging From the Arbitrary: The Gray Scholars and Innovation in the U.S. Marine Corps


A military professional reading this sentence today will confront a national security dilemma in the next ten years. They may find themselves developing autonomous swarms and new maritime concepts to break through anti-access/area-denial challenges in Europe and Asia. They may lead a planning team exploring how to reduce defense budgets in the wake of rising debt levels, inflation, and the crippling costs of a broken social safety net. And they almost certainly will find themselves at the pointy end of a spear asking fellow warriors to “take the hill and breathe fire.”

The question before us is how to prepare these individuals – the military professionals of the future – for those critical moments. The military profession rests on expertise in the management of violence. Just as lawyers and doctors are prepared to practice first through years of schooling and then through licensing exams and on-the-job training military professionals need a life-long system of professional educationIf that system fails to prepare the professional for the changing character of war, much less anticipate future trends, it becomes as useless as medical schools that taught bloodletting techniques.

In other words, when professionals are not experts, the profession withers. Outlets like War on the Rocks play a key role in outlining the growing concern over the state of professional military education. To prevent stagnation in the military profession, the U.S. military needs schoolhouse environments where students work in research teams to address military challenges. These teams should be guided by history and strategic studies while remaining focused on contemporary concepts and capabilities as well as actual war plans and defense planning scenarios. This article offers a portrait of one such effort to unleash grassroots innovation and creativity in the military profession at Marine Corps University: the Gray Scholars.

The Current Crisis

The 2018 National Defense Strategy declares that defense education is “stagnant.” Senior leaders, faculty, and even junior officers are all asking why investments in professional military education are not producing the desired result: new concepts for joint warfare and competent staff officers and commanders to lead the force. This deficit appears to extend from entry-level training and education to senior courses designed to cultivate strategic leaders.

Many critics have singled out the lack of student-led research initiatives focused on contemporary military challenges, as well as outdated curriculum. . Younger veterans are advocating for a more networked, collaborative research environment than the traditional classroom provides, as well as for new approaches to professional reading lists. Moreover, experienced faculty are calling for focusing more on vital military skills that go far beyond generic military history and strategic studies, while also ensuring a higher degree of rigor than 20-page capstone papers demand.

With respect to curriculum, too many courses cater to pop psychology like personality sorters and banal MBA-style mantras on “leading change” under the mantle of teaching leadership. A tired reading of 1990s international relations literature and historical discussions about military revolutions crowds out more contemporary academic research and forums on military practice. It’s true that professional military education requires a foundation in liberal arts and must preserve a special place for history, but too often these portions of the curriculum are outdated or taught by faculty that have failed to stay at the forefront of their profession. The defense education system relies far too much on retired officers who long ago stopped reading, publishing, or attending the military exercises required to stay current. Meanwhile, not enough civilian academics within the professional military education orbit are doing what is expected of other professional academics: publishing in scholarly outlets.

Consequently, graduates often do not understand the task of command at the strategic level or joint campaigns. They are not exposed to actual defense planning scenarios or war plans and know little about topics like Russian strategy and military doctrine. They do not understand how other services plan to employ key capabilities like integrated air defenses, cruise missile strikes, or naval composite warfare. They are rarely exposed to future-oriented operational art. They don’t read current articles from major journals like International Security, Journal of Military History and Journal of Strategic Studies. Without research and a focus on contemporary challenges, the expertise at the core of the profession stagnates.

 The Profession Strikes Back: Meet the Gray Scholars

Since 2013, a quiet experiment in Marine Corps University has sought to reverse some of these trends. Originally called the Advanced Studies Program, the initiative is now named after the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray. The group’s charter is to connect student research teams with external organizations studying contemporary military challenges in a manner that fosters creativity, innovation, and adaptation. The program is voluntary, group-oriented, and organized around research and applied learning. Gray Scholars engages students with contemporary challenges while pushing them to use current scholarship from social sciences and history.

I started the group – with the support of Marine Corps University leadership William F. Mullen III, Mark Desens, and Doug McKenna and assisted by Russ Evans and Anne-Louis Antonoff – after joining the faculty in 2012. I arrived fresh from a deployment to Afghanistan as an Army Reservist working on a Red Team for First General David Petraeus and, later, General John R. Allen. The experience of seeing war and being asked to challenge key assumptions about it collided with what I saw across professional military education. As many in my generation found, the experience did not match the classroom.

I organized the Gray Scholars to provide students a space to challenge key assumptions as they thought about the future of war. The program combined elements of existing faculty-student research programs like the Local Dynamics of War , Halsey Advanced Research Program, and U.S. Air Force Blue Horizons but adapted them to topics of interest to the U.S. Marine Corps.

During the first year, the group partnered with military fellows in the Office of Net Assessment and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to explore new operating concepts for littoral maneuver. The result: a concept for Distributed Maritime Operations, a 21st century Corbettian “fleet-in-being,” organized around a network of smaller, multi-domain systems that could hold an adversary at risk. In the second year, the group branched out to work with the U.S. Army Future Studies Group (previously known as the Strategic Studies Group) to explore the challenge of dense-urban terrain (i.e., megacities). The third year the group shifted to a regional focus and examined future concept and capabilities for the Arctic. During the fourth year, the team worked directly with Generals Robert S. Walsh, commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and H.R. McMaster, commander of Army Capabilities Integration Center, to explore the future of manned-unmanned teaming and human-machine collaboration as well as expeditionary logistics. Last year, the group partnered with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to study new concepts and capabilities for amphibious operations in Northeast Asia.

Giving students a space to research future war alongside faculty is bearing fruit. Each year the Gray Scholars publish in outlets like War on the Rocks, Strategy Bridge, Parameters and Marine Corps Gazette. More importantly, their ideas and the collaborative network they embody have helped deployed units in Operation Inherent Resolve and planners working on contingencies for the Korean Peninsula. They have supported important Department of Defense exercises on artificial intelligence and provided support to U.S. Army groups wargaming the Russian threat.

In academic year 2018 and 2019, the group will pursue three lines of study in partnership with DARPA, the Office of Naval Research, and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. Part of the team will study military applications for artificial intelligence, including augmenting existing warfighting functions as well what major competitors are doing. Other team members will explore 21st century information warfare. The scholars will combine these research efforts to think about physical and cognitive maneuver by swarming: how low-cost, hunter-warrior platforms alongside robust information operations can achieve advantage on the future battlefield.

This initiative will be rooted in historical case studies on maritime operational challenges. For example, what do Thomas Jefferson’s interest in swarming naval militia boats and Alexander Hamilton’s interest in coastal defenses tell us about maritime strategy, operational art, and tactical innovation? What do 19th-century debates about Jeune Ecole illustrate about the use of low-cost platforms to hold high-cost critical requirements – from old battleships to contemporary fiber optic nodes – at risk?

The Gray Scholars will also use war games to test their assumptions about modern warfare. War games function as a laboratory, helping students test their hypotheses in a dynamic, competitive setting. The games will include a mix of table-top and decision exercises as well as larger games using a mix of adjudication methods including adapted commercial software.

The multi-stage research process gives students the opportunity to ask questions, develop answers, and assess their merit. Students, not faculty, become engines of curiosity and change. They produce a mix of academic studies, published articles, and concept papers in lieu of a capstone paper. These products gain traction in the national security community, circulating beyond the schoolhouse and the Kafkaesque archives of the Defense Technical Information Center. Finally, I should note that the additional effort is rewarded. Since 2017, students who complete the Gray Scholars program have received a graduate certificate in Future Concept Development in addition to their Master of Military Studies degree.

Conclusion: Expanding Scholarly Initiatives on Future War

The Gray Scholars is an investment in the next generation of military leaders. For too long a mix of contractors, think tanks, journalists, and pundits on cable news have dominated the defense marketplace of ideas. To join this debate, the military profession requires more venues for researching and debating practice across its schoolhouses.

This call for research-driven professional military education is not a novel one. In 1929, Colonel James C. Breckinridge called for rethinking military education by creating an “experimental college.” He envisioned a new model where student and faculty researched current challenges, applying a mix of methods. According to Breckinridge:

There is no progress without criticism. Every improvement is born of criticism…curiosity leads to investigation, which opens discussion, which gives rise to opinion, which breeds criticism, which results in improvement. All of this bespeaks a wide freedom in thought and an acute divergence from the arbitrary. The military mind should not accept things for no better reason than they are so stated….As [military] classes advance in scope and breadth, being designed for men of experience and maturity, they should become more and more open forums for discussion and dissection of special episodes….[students] are taught how to develop their inherent intelligence and to use their minds for original thinking.

As someone who straddles the worlds of academia and the military profession, I find Breckinridge’s proposal a timeless call to arms. Collaborative research environments are common in civilian academia and there are simple ways to incorporate them in professional military education. Bringing Breckinridge’s vision to life through programs like the Gray Scholars doesn’t require radical, top-down reform. Rather, it can be done through localized experimentation, empowering students, and recruiting top faculty talent. These efforts will help the military profession determine the right ways to institutionalize research-oriented efforts across its schoolhouses.

First, encourage schools to experiment. Even as the military rethinks professional military education, it should be mindful of proclamations from the mountaintop . What works at Newport might not work at Carlisle. What works at Maxwell and Leavenworth might not work in Quantico. Each schoolhouse should be asked to experiment and share best practices with each other as well as senior service and Joint leaders. Just as the modern military profession preaches mission command – communicating intent to encourage freedom of action – it should embrace varying ways of fostering knowledge as long as the common objective remains the same: enabling more rigorous and collaborative student research initiatives addressing the changing character of war.

Second, empower students and cultivate a more diverse environment. Far too much of the curriculum across professional military education is defined by academic bureaucrats bogged down by requirements to count contact hours and evaluate educational outcomes against arbitrary lists. Instead of empowering bureaucrats, professional military education should empower students. They should be given more choices and more creative options for study They should be encouraged to travel, even if on only short exchange trips and staff rides. Furthermore, they should be confronted with diverse academic viewpoints from a wide a range of thinkers . Educational institutions can do this through visiting fellowships, invitational travel, and partnerships to bring in more civilian academics, as well as by mixing the students across classes. Far too often, schoolhouses fall into a conference group mentality, where a small group stays together for nine months with few opportunities to meet other faculty and students. Like traditional university settings, professional military education should encourage students to meet a broad range of peers, especially those that have different worldviews and beliefs.

Third, recruit and reward top talent. Faculty at professional military education institutions who publish and take risks to create opportunities for student research should be financially rewarded and promoted. Moreover, institutions should recruit top talent eager to cultivate dynamic learning environments, something the Naval War College has been successful with in recruiting young political scientists like Jacquelyn Schneider and Nina Kollars. Even more so, schoolhouses need top military talent. Uniformed instructors should be well-known top performers and teaching should be a key development position, if not counted as a second command.

Military innovation requires a marketplace of ideas. Militaries that encourage open, vibrant discourse and experimentation evolve; those that fail to do so risk catastrophic defeat. Students and faculty who do not publish or apply their research to current challenges are undermining expertise within the profession and perpetuating stagnation. Efforts to reverse these problems are underway, but rather than limiting the Gray Scholars, Halsely Advanced Study and Blue Horizons to small voluntary cohorts, the profession should find ways to bring in more students and faculty, institutionalizing collaborative, research-driven education across the schoolhouses.

Someone attending professional military education this academic year will one day make a defining strategic choice in their career. Someone is the embodiment of “Brute” Krulak testing the limits of bureaucracy as they search for new approaches to amphibious operations and vertical envelopment. These “someones” deserve more innovative and creative learning environments. The Gray Scholars are a testament to the fact that professional military education needs more rigorous, research-driven initiatives that allow students to work together with faculty to study the changing character of war.


Benjamin Jensen, PhD holds a dual appointment as an Associate Professor at Marine Corps University and a Scholar-in-Residence at American University. He is also a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-authored two recent books: Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity and Competition (Cambria 2018) and Cyber Strategy: the Evolving Character of Power and Coercion (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Image: marines.mil/Cpl. Timothy Lenzo