Rethinking Enlisted Education: Expanding the Professional Military Education Debate

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In the wake of the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s bleak assessment of American professional military education, authors on this site and others have spilled much ink discussing the complexities of modern warfare and how to best prepare leaders to win. This debate, while vitally important, views education through a single lens: commissioned officers. We would be well served by a similar debate about non-commissioned officer (NCO) professional development. Enlisted leaders well-versed in operational art and strategic leadership add major value to their organizations.

In an interview with the Army’s NCO Journal, former division commander and Army War College commandant Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo said, “When I was commanding U.S. Division-North in Iraq, I needed my command sergeant major to operate at that level with me as much as my two one-stars and as much as my chief of staff.” He continued:

Every member of a command group needs to be operating at the same level. … You need things like understanding grand strategy, how strategy turns into policy, the economics of warfare, and oral and written communications so you can go toe-to-toe intellectually when you get put into those positions.

Six years since that interview, are NCOs prepared to add value to policy and strategy conversations at the operational and strategic levels? If not, what can the Army do to bridge the gap?

The conflicts of tomorrow demand preparation today. To create well-rounded enlisted leaders, the U.S. Army should pursue two enlisted leader development initiatives: First, the Army should align officer and NCO professional military education so that they complement and directly engage with one another, ensuring leaders “speak the same language” once they return to the force. Second, the Army should provide avenues for enlisted leaders to attend college as a resident student. These institutional domain initiatives, when coupled with hard, realistic training experienced in the operational domain, will prepare NCOs to win in complex environments.

Symbiotic Professional Military Education: Speaking the Same Language

The Army should ensure its leaders speak the same language. It can accomplish this by co-locating and synchronizing the content of its officer and NCO professional education. The purpose is not to merge the courses or steal instruction time away from one class or the other, but rather to blend portions that contain similar themes. Indeed, NCOs and officers have separate yet interdependent roles, and each course has a responsibility to develop those specific roles. Nevertheless, there are subjects (e.g., military decision-making, leadership) where officers and NCOs can learn from one another. This initiative also sets conditions for future leaders to network, collaborate, and share ideas during their education before returning to the force.

Merging portions of the Senior Leader Course and the Captains Career Course would create a collaborative learning environment and provide an opportunity for company-grade leaders to network and share. There usually exists a disproportionate relationship between these ranks and their doctrinal knowledge and real-world experience. Typically, an officer brings the former while an NCO brings the latter. This initiative can help close that gap while learning in a combined-student environment. The NCOs will likely gain some much-needed appreciation for the military decision-making process, while the captains tap into a wealth of operational experience. The benefit is mutual. Currently the Army’s Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course (infantry lieutenants) and the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course (pre-command infantry and armor captains) collaborate on a culminating exercise where the captains lead the lieutenants during a force on force exercise. In some cases, they incorporate senior NCOs attending the Senior Leader Course to serve as platoon sergeants and first sergeants during the exercise. Adopting a similar program, that integrates the curriculums of NCO and officer professional military education, would provide an incredible opportunity for future commanders and platoon sergeants to interact and network with one another without the shackles of traditional supervisory-subordinate relationships. When these leaders return to the force, they are better prepared to work with one another.

At the field-grade level, co-locating and synchronizing the content of the Command and General Staff Officers Course and the Sergeants Major Course is mutually beneficial and long overdue. Both courses are ten months long and exist to transform perspectives from the tactical to the operational level. In both cases, students transition — often for the first time — from direct-level leaders into organizational-influencers, guiding formations through more indirect approaches. As the Sergeant Major Course recently became a satellite campus of the Command and General Staff College, the time is ripe to implement this change. Much like the benefits to company-grade leaders, these soon-to-be organizational leaders will gain an opportunity to network, collaborate, and share experiences before returning to the force.

Co-locating multiple levels of professional military education on the same campus could yield significant benefits. Mentorship programs could form between the cohorts. Senior Service College and Sergeant Major Course students could attend executive leadership seminars as peer learners. Students could collaborate on academic research projects, expanding professional knowledge of the force. Combined staff exercises could offer an opportunity for majors and sergeants major to refine their roles and responsibilities while serving in capacities that simulate future functions. Indeed, the opportunities to collaborate are nearly limitless.

Of course, this requires a paradigm shift in the culture of Army professional military education, including rejecting ideologies that suggest we must train our own. To be sure, NCOs have plenty to learn from officers, and equally so, officers have plenty to learn from NCOs. Consolidating professional military education on one campus allows for faculty sharing and collaboration across multiple courses, generating broader impacts on more students. Furthermore, it recognizes the reality Gen. Charles Krulak foreshadowed 20 years ago in Three Block War. Gone are the days where it is believed that all a combat soldier needs in war are beans, bullets, and bandages. Today, enlisted leaders must be more intelligent to succeed on modern battlefields. Creating more symbiotic relationships during professional military education would help accomplish that end.

Resident Civilian Education

The Army recognizes that educational development begins at junior NCO levels and spans an entire career, as evidenced by efforts to accredit portions of enlisted professional military education. These efforts are welcomed, and leaders of all stripes should applaud them. Nevertheless, current efforts represent a starting point from which to do more. Senior leaders often cite resident educational programs as critical to their development. Articles such as Gen. Raymond Odierno’s “Leader Development and Talent Management,” Gen. David Petraeus’ “Beyond the Cloister,” and Gen. Peter Chiarelli’s “Learning from Our Modern Wars” attest to the value of resident education programs. A common theme among these articles is the underlying value of removing leaders from their comfort zones, challenging their perspectives, and developing new frames of reference. Recognizing the value resident education has in officer development, the Army should offer avenues for high-potential NCOs to attend academic institutions and earn degrees.

Early-Career NCOs: The ROTC Model

If the Army expects more from its NCO, then it should invest appropriately by allowing competitive staff sergeants to attend university and earn a degree. Depending on experience at military schools, the academic institution, and prior educational experience, a staff sergeant could possess 20 to 50 transferable college credits. Because of this, the Army would only have to cover the latter half of a degree, which tuition assistance programs and the GI Bill could offset. Furthermore, the Army can find value by using the NCO as a member of the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps detachment. While college should remain the primary focus, the ROTC program could utilize the staff sergeants as assistant instructors during classroom instruction, lab studies, field training, and during Basic and Advanced Camps at Cadet Summer Training (the mandatory field training all cadets must pass before commissioning).

This program would benefit the staff sergeant, ROTC, and the Army. Foremost, competitive staff sergeants would gain an avenue to complete a resident degree. Second, future platoon leaders would receive valuable mentorship from high-potential junior NCOs before commissioning. As ROTC billets are usually filled by more senior NCOs, this program would provide a precious opportunity to interact with a staff sergeant similar in age to those they will encounter in their first platoon. For the staff sergeant, this program would offer a chance to receive an education while honing mentorship skills — a rehearsal of sorts, before becoming a platoon sergeant. Organizationally, this program would enlarge Cadet Command’s talent pool for classroom instruction, field-training exercises, and Cadet Summer Training. Finally, the Army would increase its presence within the academic community. Top performing NCOs are uniquely qualified to educate non-military students and educators on the Army experience, thus helping to close the civil-military gap that exists today.

Mid-Career NCOs: Graduate Studies Model

As NCOs mature in responsibility, the Army should allow mid-career NCOs to pursue graduate studies in fields related to training and development, strategy, leadership, organizational behavior, or their functional area (e.g., logistics, cyber, health care). These fields provide value to the Army and expand professional knowledge. A program similar to the Army’s Fully Funded Graduate Program, which allows officers to attend graduate school, would benefit mid-career NCO development significantly. As an example, the Army could offer a two-year program for mid-career NCOs to complete graduate studies, providing sergeants first class and master sergeants a chance to immerse in graduate studies alongside civilian professionals who represent many backgrounds and experiences. Additionally, the structure of graduate education lends well to challenging frames of references and providing the cognitive dissonance that so many senior leaders claim is critical to leader development. Finally, the Army could find utility in having these NCOs participate in public speaking engagements at local high schools, youth groups, civic centers, or with local ROTC departments in a similar capacity described in the ROTC model.

Senior-Career NCOs: Strategic Education and Cross-Cultural Competency

The Army should develop strategic mindedness and cross-cultural competencies to prepare senior NCOs for the upper strata of responsibility. It can accomplish this by allowing senior NCOs to pursue graduate studies and attend foreign academic institutions. The U.S. Army’s Advanced Military Studies Program provides an ideal venue for promotable-master sergeants and sergeants major to hone operational perspectives, and the Olmsted Scholars Program provides a template for developing cross-cultural competency. The Advanced Military Studies Program is a 10-month resident program that produces critical thinking leaders who can present viable options for operational problems. This course would prepare sergeants major for service on division and higher-level staffs. The George and Carol Olmsted Scholars Program sends exceptional captains to the Defense Language Institute followed by duty at an overseas university for two years of graduate school. A program of this structure would provide sergeants major with a deep understanding of other cultures while gaining skills necessary to win in multinational environments. In return, the Army could pair this program with Regionally Aligned Forces or service in a Security Forces Assistance Brigade. Together these programs prepare senior enlisted leaders to add significant value to their formations, staffs, and commanders.


Expanding educational programs and creating a complimentary professional military education structure will better prepare leaders at all levels for future challenges. These initiatives do not suggest that civilian education programs will somehow replace the necessity of combat training, nor does it suggest that current enlisted education lacks value. On the contrary, the experience gained through tough, realistic training events must remain the primary development tool for military leaders. This article does build upon the U.S. Army’s current enlisted development programs by recognizing a simple truism: Winning wars often requires out-thinking adversaries. Symbiotic professional military education offers a chance for NCOs and officers to learn, network, and share in collaborative learning environments. Resident education programs offer NCOs an opportunity to depart their comfort zones and develop new perspectives while earning a college degree. Together these initiatives prepare Army leaders to out-think adversaries and win in a complex world.

Master Sergeant Matthew Reed is an airborne infantryman who cares about leader development and enlisted education. He served in all Infantry leadership positions from Team Leader to Brigade HHC First Sergeant, including tours as a Ranger Instructor and ROTC Senior Military Instructor. Currently, he is pursuing his Masters at the University of Texas at El Paso while he sharpens his mind as a student at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Sergeants Major Course, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Lisa Ferdinando