Looking Beyond Professional Military Education to Evaluating Officers


The debate regarding how best to cultivate military leaders to meet America’s challenges often centers around professional military education. War on the Rocks recently published a few well-argued views. That they diverge so dramatically highlights a lack of consensus on the way ahead. However, this debate is missing an important element: Mid-to-senior level professional military education reform should complement advancements in officer evaluation reports. The promotion system already has Congressional attention, which might get the armed services to lean-in rather than to lean-back.

So, why focus on the evaluation report? It is often said that budgets are moral documents. They are the best articulation of what one values and provide a realistic assessment of the mismatch between words and deeds. Similarly, while the services articulate the qualities they want in their officers through speeches, manuals, and various journals, we should look instead at how they promote to see what they value.

It remains true that earning a promotion, the leading indicator of individual “success,” is only achieved by navigating the respective evaluation systems. And while there are characteristics that the services desire in their officers, there remains both a lack of an incentive to attain the skills and the subsequent assessment of those skills needed for today’s joint force.

Gen. (ret.) Martin Dempsey, ever a staunch advocate for leader development, argued that the future force requires “leaders who can out-maneuver, out-think, and out-innovate our adversaries, while building trust, understanding, and cooperation with our partners.” He established a list of desired leader attributes, yet these remain largely absent from the promotion system:

#1 – Understand the security environment and the contributions of all instruments of national power.

#2 – Anticipate and respond to surprise and uncertainty.

#3 – Anticipate and recognize change and lead transitions.

#4 – Operate on intent through trust, empowerment, and understanding.

#5 – Make ethical decisions based on the shared values of the profession of arms.

#6 – Think critically and strategically in applying joint warfighting principles and concepts to joint operations.

Gen. Dempsey naturally targeted professional military education curriculum as the vehicle to cultivate these attributes and countermand the prevailing sentiment that mid-to-senior level institutions fall short. The fact that student failures are rare unless someone does not meet physical fitness standards or does something unethical should provide ample evidence of insufficient academic rigor. There have indeed been novel attempts by services to bridge the perceived development gap such as the Army’s Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program. Educational investments like these are necessary but an insufficient condition for systemic reform and disparities exist across military departments regarding similar programs outside of traditional professional military education.

In addition to altering the mission of military departments to “organize, train, and equip” forces for various mission sets, the Goldwater-Nichols Act mandated a baseline of joint service and joint education as essential elements to develop an effective force. This imperative strove to reconfigure the composition of the Joint Staff by changing the incentive structure. Many officers still seek to avoid these assignments at all costs, demonstrating indifference to the broad recognition that the combination of schooling and assignments is necessary for the U.S. military. With what might best be described as a lethal combination of operational tempo and bureaucracy, obtaining “joint credit” has become increasingly ill-defined and bastardized. Anecdotally, one of us was denied credit for a White House assignment that was not deemed “strategic enough.” Officers also routinely defer schooling because of incentives to do so (e.g., operational needs, senior officer guidance).

Undoubtedly, these dynamics contributed to what Maj. Gen. (ret.) Robert Scales described as the late Rep. Ike Skelton’s “lament”:  that there is an “inability of uniformed leaders to shape and influence decision making by their political betters.” Skelton implicitly acknowledged that we are at a place where we are sufficiently “jointed,” and while “jointness” remains essential between the services, assignments have outgrown this definition. Officer assignments now demand the integration of joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational (known as JIIM) activities — and we should accommodate the expansion of this aperture. As Maj. Gen. Scales stated, “The military isn’t short of strategic talent. The problem is that the military’s promotion and rewards bureaucracies too often fail to clear a path for the most talented to reach the top.”

Samuel Huntington’s canonical The Soldier and the State argued for professional officers to operate autonomously within a clearly defined military sphere. This entrenched view is antiquated and the services seem to lag behind this realization. Skelton’s foresight recognized that there is no such thing as a designated military space long before modern conflicts amplified that fact. Thanks to his efforts, we now have the luxury to focus on enhancing the joint force by virtue of having a legitimately joint force in the first place. Subsequently, we should continue to adapt how we educate and assess our officers. We support an integrated approach that values changes in professional military education but also encourages the need to include joint screening criteria in a way that drives the services to improve evaluative mechanisms.

Our review of the services’ evaluation reports (Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marine Corps) highlights existing parochialism that has implications for the joint force. Each service maintains its own list of desired characteristics and regularly applies them to most levels and most duties. There is also scant evidence of an assessment of these traits; instead, they are more apt to be highlighted if an officer does not display them.

Additionally, in some cases, the same form is used for entry-level officers that is also used for more senior jobs. While unsurprising, each form is written with coded language and none lend themselves to promoting JIIM service. These assessments largely assume that the most-skilled officers, as indicated by performance in their present position, will excel in these positions without consideration of the chairman’s desired leader attributes. They project the best future jobs for the rated officers and map a preordained path to service success. Indeed, these are deliberate service choices buttressed by Title 10 authorities.

A concerted effort should address these shortcomings, which is no minor lift as changing the physical forms can take years. In the Army’s case, despite its conversion to a new form, the same basic criteria exist for promotion. Service chiefs, in the interim, can provide guidance to promotion boards that reflect the desired leader attributes as a baseline, and adopt how current forms are used to delineate individuals who display an aptitude toward these traits. For example, perhaps the services could catalog failures as they do successes to cultivate creativity. This paradigm change would guard against risk-averse and zero-defect mentalities. It would also comport with best business practices and characteristics of our great captains. Service chiefs might also emphasize the review of academic assessments in promotion boards. Presently, performance at these institutions has virtually no impact on the assessment and promotion of officers. Attendance equates to success, which seems inconsistent with the chairman’s expectations. Academic reports from these institutions lack teeth (if they exist at all) and exacerbate the limitations in a service-centric approach to evaluations.

It is also worth considering creative ways to leverage the chairman’s existing authorities. Perhaps it is time to introduce a “joint form” for use within JIIM assignments. For instance, it is common practice for officers to write their evaluations for signature by a sister service or civilian rater. Part of this is attributed to a lack of familiarity with the service-specific language and best practices. Alternatively, it provides officers with the ability to buffer or push out old evaluations from “line time.” Why not level the playing field and validate the desired leader attributes with a standard form, or at least, “strongly encourage” service chiefs to include a section on evaluations dedicated to desired leader attributes and identifying candidates for JIIM service? A joint form could accompany explicit guidance for reporting officials to actually write the report for their subordinates.

The chairman might also issue guidance for service in JIIM billets. This could include only authorizing officers to serve in these assignments (i.e., beyond positions presently on the joint duty assignment list), once their services have validated them as demonstrated mastery of the desired leader attributes. Such endorsements might be augmented by an application for these billets to the Joint Force Development proponent (J7) consisting of interviews or essay-writing requirements.

These changes support the advancement of joint operations across combatant commands, as well as the emphasis on moving toward military integration within broader intergovernmental efforts.

Napoleon’s dictum that “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon” remains true today. Indeed, it is human nature to react to incentives. Officers only sought joint credit once the Goldwater-Nichols Act altered the incentive structure. Consider the symbolism behind wearing badges for graduation from short duration technical schools such as airborne or air assault school, but not similarly valuing, for example, a law degree from Yale or a business degree from Harvard. The logic that underpins this dynamic is flawed yet straightforward.

Traditional military skills are rightly valued in the profession of arms, but cognitive skills are largely dismissed. Decorations remain an outward manifestation of what the armed services deem important, just as the respective officer evaluation systems remain the most explicit articulation of what is inwardly valued. Yet if the joint force does not correctly incentivize and assess the right attributes during peace, it risks suffering further losses in war. It is past due for a change.


Jaron S. Wharton is an Army infantry officer and Ph.D. student at Duke University. He most recently served on the National Security Council. Aaron Martin is an Army aviation officer currently completing the Army War College Fellowship at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. Quintin Jones is a Marine infantry officer currently serving in the J-7 Exercises and Training Branch at Joint Forces Command, NATO in Naples, Italy. Antonio Fernando Nunez Martini is an Army Cavalry officer currently serving as the Chief of the Cabinet in the Joint Defense Staff (Uruguay). The views expressed in this article are their own and do not represent those of the U.S Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Department of Defense, any part of the U.S. government, or the Uruguayan Defense Ministry.

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