Does the U.S. Military Really Need More Strategists?


Former National War College dean and retired Brig. Gen. Paula Thornhill should be commended for kicking off a vigorous round of debate on professional military education institutions in July. Many of my objections to her argument have been ably expressed by others, notably my Marine Corps University colleague Tammy Schultz as well as Richard Andres of the National War College. But none have questioned Thornhill’s central premise: that professional military education needs to produce more strategists. Indeed, several, most notably Tino Perez, have amplified it.

The U.S. military doesn’t need to produce thousands of strategists a year, which is a good thing because it cannot. Further, while the professional military education system is a vital part of educating strategic thinkers, the primary obstacle to producing strategic leaders is a personnel system that bases promotions on tactical competence over the first quarter century of an officer’s career.

Thornhill cites retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who lamented that “those who rise to the top of the strategic decision-making pyramid are too often poorly qualified for the task.” Further, while she acknowledges their importance, she contends that “overview courses in strategy and policy, the international system, and key domestic actors in the national security arena” — which, in full disclosure, are my remit — “only tangentially prepare officers for future responsibilities as senior commanders and strategists.” She’s right. But the radical overhaul of professional military education she suggests wouldn’t fix that problem and would create new ones.

While we tell ourselves that the staff colleges transform tactical thinkers into operational leaders, and the war colleges are there to create strategic thinkers, the reality is quite different.

Thornhill wants intermediate level institutions like my own to “focus more on the challenges facing service chiefs and military department secretaries.” Yet, while a handful of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College’s 220-or-so graduates a year go on to a four-star or secretarial staff, the overwhelming number of them will retire without ever serving above the regimental level. Because of the vagaries of Marine Corps officer management, our students range from captains about to pin on the oak leaves of a major to senior majors who will be selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel while in attendance.  Their next assignment could be anywhere from a battalion staff to a four-star staff. By contrast, our sister school, the Army Command and Staff College, selects almost exclusively from the youngest part of that cohort and therefore primes them for battalion operations officer and executive officer posts, with some preparation for battalion command if successful in those assignments. In neither case, then, would it make sense to scrap the current curriculum for one that’s designed to prepare them for jobs they’re unlikely to fill.

Similarly, Thornhill would have senior-level schools “focus more on staffing the senior joint leaders like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense,” even though most war college graduates go on to tactical-level assignments and never move beyond that. Indeed, while almost all of America’s future generals and admirals will be graduates of the war colleges, almost all the graduates of its war colleges will retire as colonels and captains. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of a given cohort will advance as far as one-star. Even two-star division commanders, a lofty position few will ever achieve, are still tactical leaders.* Indeed, there are only 38 four-star officers in the entire U.S. military.

To be sure, some small portion will serve as aides or staffers for much more senior officers, including service chiefs, combatant commanders, and civilian secretaries. But Scales himself estimates that the entire joint force needs only “about 200 flag officer and senior colonels-in-waiting as strategists.”

Professional military education absolutely has a role in helping prepare those officers for those key roles. As Andres points out, we already do quite a bit to familiarize them with the structures, complexity, and vocabulary of those environments, as well as the research and writing skills necessary to function as action officers. But transforming 42-year-olds selected for their excellence as tactical leaders and low-level staffers into brilliant strategic thinkers in the course of a ten-month program is simply unrealistic. There’s a reason that Perez, Scales, Thornhill, and other soldier-scholars get PhDs. While not essential or sufficient for creating strategic thinkers, in-depth study of history, political science, or similar disciplines is hugely helpful in having the foundation to move on to the practical application that Perez wants to substitute for education.

The Army recognized that long ago with the creation of its Strategist — or Functional Area 59 (FA59) — program, which selects a handful of talented young officers, typically post-command captains, for their intellectual acumen and then invests considerable time and money educating them to be strategic thinkers. Perez himself is an exemplar of that program.

The problem, as Scales argues elsewhere, is that these officers are taken off the command track and thus are unlikely to make it past the field-grade ranks, creating the “painful dichotomy that those officers best prepared intellectually to become strategic decisionmakers are least likely to rise to positions where they can exercise their decisionmaking talents.” Conversely, ambitious officers who see stars in their future are unlikely to take the strategist career path, meaning those in strategy-making billets are unprepared for them.

Scales has argued for fixing this by selecting a larger pool of strategists early and then putting them through a Darwinian process managed at the very top, such that the finest soldier-scholars emerge as senior leaders. While this might indeed produce better strategists at the top, it would have the perverse effect of wasting the competent tactical leaders that our military produces in abundance. We need hundreds of battalion commanders and destroyer captains at a time — and scores of regimental and wing commanders. While strategic competence might be a bonus in those billets, it’s hardly a prerequisite.

I would suggest that, rather than attempt to create hundreds of strategic geniuses and then put them through their paces for 25 or 30 years of tactical assignments for which they may well be unsuited, we simply decouple the two altogether. Let outstanding tactical officers command our formations, from platoon through division, while allowing officers who show strategic promise to utilize their talents where they can best serve the nation. Indeed, we have done that with some frequency in the not-too-distant past.

Dwight Eisenhower, who wrote the U.S. war plan for both the European and Pacific theaters and served as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, is perhaps the epitome of American strategic genius. He had essentially no command experience below the three-star level, having only briefly held company and battalion command (for five and four months, respectively). He had spent almost his entire career up to that point on the personal staffs of generals like Fox Conner, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur, or in very senior aide and chief of staff posts. He also excelled as a staff and war college student.

Eisenhower spent most of his career in an Army that was essentially a cadre force. In today’s Army, it would be impossible for someone who followed his career path to get promoted past lieutenant colonel, much less to the general officer ranks. That’s precisely the problem: Someone with his talents would have been squandered as a low-tactical staff officer and, indeed, he may well have grown bored. But, if the goal is to identify and nurture strategic talent, Eisenhower is precisely the sort of officer we want to retain.

Gen. George Marshall, who was Army chief of staff during the war, had a similarly non-traditional career. While he had more troop time than Eisenhower, serving as a platoon leader, company commander, and in multiple tours as a brigade and regimental commander, most of his career was nonetheless spent as a staff officer and aide to senior officers. He rose to five-star rank never having commanded a division, corps, or higher formation. Like Eisenhower, he had also excelled in school, graduating first in his class at the infantry school and staff and war colleges.

Gen. (ret.) Colin Powell, arguably the most highly regarded American military strategist since World War II, was also known as a “political general.” To be sure, he excelled in tactical command assignments from lieutenant to colonel. But his strategic acumen was formed in Washington assignments, including White House fellow, assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, assistant to the secretary of energy, senior military assistant to the secretary of defense, and national security advisor. Befitting the requirements of the modern-day personnel system, he served briefly as commander of both V Corps and Forces Command. But he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at 52, the youngest officer to hold that post to this day, at an age where his contemporaries were assuming division command. He likewise excelled in the classroom, earning an MBA at The George Washington University and graduating at the top of his National War College class.

Gen. (ret.) David Petraeus, the most famous general of the post-9/11 era, had a far more traditional career. He commanded at every level from lieutenant to four-star general. He did, however, spend far more time in school than his contemporaries. After graduating at the top of his staff college class, he went on to earn his master’s in public administration and PhD in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and later completed a fellowship at Georgetown. Additionally, he served an unusual number of times working directly for influential generals. He served twice as a personal assistant to John Galvin, first as his aide-de-camp as 24th Infantry Division commander and later as his military assistant as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. He was an aide and assistant executive officer to Gen. Carl Vuono during his time as Army chief of staff. Later still, he served as executive assistant to the director of the Joint Staff and then to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Henry Shelton.

As those examples show, the professional military education system plays a vital part in producing military strategists. Just as important, though, is identifying officers with the intellectual and political acumen to succeed in that domain early and grooming them with assignments where they can utilize and build on their talent. Graduate education in top civilian universities, attendance at additional planning courses like the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies or the Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting, or grooming through something like the Army’s Strategist Functional Area program may also be quite useful. But this means accepting deviation from the cookie cutter personnel management system.

All of this focus on grooming strategic talent for the upper ranks of the armed services elides another important point: Strategy-making is increasingly the province of civilians. While it has been the case for generations that presidents and service secretaries make policy, the National Security Act of 1947 and the massive standing military of the Cold War, and beyond, led to the creation of massive professional staffs at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There is a huge pipeline of talent coming from our top graduate schools through various programs like the Presidential Management Fellowship. Rather than spending their 20s and early 30s proving their mettle in tactical leadership billets, they start their careers at the strategic level, and the best enter the Senior Executive Service (equivalent to the general officer ranks) while their uniformed counterparts are still attending staff colleges.

We still want our senior generals and admirals to be able to perform at the strategic level, translating civilian-made policy and political strategy into military strategy and operational art. But proficiency at the operational and tactical level is the sine qua non of the officer’s career. Let’s not sacrifice what we’re demonstrably good at in search of a handful of unicorns.


*The precise line between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war — or whether these even properly exist — has been a topic of endless debate going on for nearly four decades. Army doctrine assigned the operational level to the three-star corps commander with the 1982 edition of its Field Manual 100-5, Operations, which introduced the concept to American doctrine. Current joint doctrine assigns the operational level to combined task force leaders at the three-star level. See Joint Publication 3.0, Joint Operations, I-12-15.


James Joyner is a security studies professor at the Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.  These views are his own.

Photo: U.S. Marine Corps, Pfc. Nicholas P. Baird