How We Do Strategy as Performance up at Newport

March 18, 2019
Mahan Hall Naval War College_edited

There has been no shortage of recent criticisms directed at professional military education, with some asking the question, “What is it good for?” The 2018 National Defense Strategy claimed professional military education has “stagnated.” Moreover, my Naval War College colleague Joan Johnson Freese has argued in these pages that “Joint professional military education in the United States needs to be fixed. And yet too few seem willing to take on the challenge.”

To his credit, Celestino Perez, Jr. of the Army War College attempts to address the challenge in a recent article that proposed an annual competition among national and international professional military education institutions for strategy formulation. While presenting a convincing case for the importance of evaluating this skill set, Perez wrote that he “welcomed other scholarly approaches.” This article seeks to contribute to the discussion by describing how the National Security Affairs department at the Naval War College assesses its students’ performance regarding strategy development and military force planning. The capstone exercise does many of the things he proposes and could serve as a model for other institutions.

The exercise is a true capstone event that provides the students with the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to think critically and apply course concepts in national security decision-making learned during the entire trimester. Strategy is a problem-solving endeavor and the National Security Affairs department gives its students near total freedom (the exercise is conducted at an unclassified level) over a dedicated two-week period to accomplish the assigned tasks and provide specific deliverables for assessment.

There are no assigned roles (e.g., chief of staff, J-5, etc.) and the faculty are not always in the classroom, but instead serve as consultants and are available whenever the seminar requests their expertise and advice. The exercise is student-run and the roles, decision-making processes, and work schedule are determined by the seminar, with the exception of a mandatory presentation review (i.e., a rehearsal) by the faculty prior to the students’ presentation to a separate grading panel. While some students complain about the ambiguity or difficulties of group dynamics and frictions, working through these challenges in an academic environment will better prepare them for their subsequent assignments, which may include serving as members of joint and coalition planning groups on major staffs. Due to the collaborative nature of the exercise, the capstone is the only collective graded event the department offers.

During the exercise, each seminar acts as a national strategic planning working group to produce and present a global strategic estimate of the future security environment over the next 20 years, the key tenets of a National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy that advances and defends U.S. national interests (ends), operating concepts that describe how the future force will operate (ways), a future joint force structure within given budget guidance that supports the National Military Strategy and operating concepts (means), and an implementation case.

The seminars are not required to produce actual national strategy documents, but are instead providing an executive-level briefing that can facilitate development of the actual products. Because they will have spent considerable time and effort conducting research on a number of important strategy and security-related topics, the seminar must edit and prioritize the issues they wish to discuss while simultaneously presenting a coherent strategic logic that connects ends, ways, and means. Immediately following the presentation, the students are required to engage in a question-and-answer period that tests the rigor of the analysis underpinning their work. There is no prescribed format for the presentation as a standardized “template” might inhibit originality and critical thinking. This upsets some, but the department wants its students to get comfortable with ambiguity while emphasizing that there is no single “answer” to the strategic challenges facing the United States.

Strategy is easy if one’s resources are unlimited, so the capstone requires students to reconcile the inherent tenions between service organizational interests and combatant command operational challenges by designing a strategy-driven joint force within prescribed budget constraints. In addition to determining the appropriate balance between active duty and reserve component forces, the seminars must also make difficult force structure tradeoffs between modernization and the retention of legacy capabilites.

The capstone includes a method to simplify and aggregate force structure costs. The department makes no apologies for this as the exercise is intended to make students wrestle with force structure decisions and how they support and advance the seminar’s National Military Strategy, as opposed to fixating on the more technical aspects of the budget. The department finds this approach leads to improved comprehension of capabilities development rather than giving the Pentagon a $700+ billion defense budget to spend.

While creativity and ingenuity are encouraged, the capstone also requires students to address the practical matter of implementing their initiatives. The exercise deliverable products include an implementation case where seminars must select a challenging or ambitious aspect of their strategy, operating concepts, or force structure and identify relevant stakeholders that may oppose or support the innovation. The seminar is required to identify the senior leader who would be charged with implementation (e.g., the secretary of defense, chairman, service chief, combatant commander) and explain how they might overcome the full range of inluences and obstacles associated with implementation (e.g., organizational resistance, existing legislation or policies, industry sectors, international norms).

The capstone provides students with the ability to make strategic choices that deviate from the status quo. For example, seminars were raising concerns about the alarming rise of near-peer competitors and strongly promoting for the return to geopolitics back in 2010, even as the Department of Defense was conducting counter-insurgency and irregular warfare operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Quadrennial Defense Review emphasized the enduring threat of violent extremist groups “for the indefinite future.” The ensuing discussions about strategic priorities and resource investments were often spirited and occasionally contentious, but demonstrate the exercise’s value as a vehicle for education.

More recently, students have generally advocated for a less activist strategy while relying more heavily on modernization for deterrence. Specifically, they encourage greater investment in unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, and advanced space and cyber capabilities. Over time, the department has also observed the students anticipate major changes to the defense establishment such as the creation of Africa Command, Cyber Command, and Space Command.

While the seminar presentation and student grades are the academic outputs and outcomes of the capstone, its real value comes from the classroom discussions, where students share their expertise, experience, and academic research. Like all U.S. professional military education institutions, the Naval War College student body is diverse, with members from each military service and the Coast Guard, civilians from across the interagency, and international officers from around the world. In the department’s experience, civilian students provide a greater appreciation for all of the levers of national power in strategy formulation. Additionally, the unique perspectives of international students help to guard against a U.S.-centric view within the seminar while offering different ideas to address global security challenges. Providing students with a specific task and allowing them the time and opportunity to interact and work together as a strategic planning group is where much of the real learning occurs.

In addition to being a graded event, the National Security Decision-Making capstone is also a competition where students contend for the James V. Forrestal Award for Excellence in Strategy Development and Force Planning. Seminars are divided into brackets in which faculty panels award grades and advance the “best” seminars to a quarter final “Executive Panel” that then selects two finalists. These two seminars present their work to a 4-star level panel on a stage in front of the entire student body. More broadly, the Naval War College shares its student presentations with combatant commands, the services, and the Joint Staff. The students can provide a fresh, outside perspective, as they are unencumbered by the day-to-day operations within these very busy organizations. Most recently, one of the seminars shared their presentation with the J5 strategy branch for U.S. Africa Command, which was impressed with the students’ analysis of the security environment and interested in their ideas to address regional challenges.

The capstone is an appropriate event for students to demonstrate mastery of the numerous concepts learned during their trimester of study in national security decision-making. Given its focus on strategy development and connecting ends, ways, and means through the required deliverable products, the exercise addresses many of the issues raised by Perez. The National Security Decision Making capstone could serve as a viable model or blueprint for the annual competition among national and international professional military education institutions he proposes.


Jim Cook is an associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he specializes in strategy, military force planning, and the Middle East. The views expressed here are the author’s own and are not official positions of the Department of Defense, the Navy, or the Naval War College.

Image: U.S. Naval War College