Winning in the Cognitive Age: Is ‘Education for Seapower’ Enough?

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Recently, I’ve had several enlightening conversations with career Marine officers about professional learning. In each case, these fellow officers — with something approaching pride in their voices — proclaimed they hadn’t read a new book since graduating Basic School. They had no problem getting promoted or being assigned competitive billets, which kept them on the standard career track for further advancement. Lifelong professional learning, to them, was a distraction from real work.

I can’t blame these officers: They did what the institution valued, and professional learning wasn’t on that list. Yet these comments, combined with my own observations over years of active duty service, reveal a dangerously corrosive cultural attitude toward any “learning” that extends beyond a tactical manual. War on the Rocks’ own series on Educating the Force highlights the stunted and passive creature that the American military’s culture of professional learning has become.

Against this background, the Navy’s newly released Education for Seapower (E4S) report is a welcome sea change. In his memorandum summarizing the key institutional changes the report recommends, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer states, “I am convinced, now more than ever before, that the intellectual development of our naval leaders is the most critical warfighting capability for our national security.” In an era of fifth-generation fighters and rail guns, this is a powerful statement, with disruptive implications for the two U.S. naval services.

Therein lies both my hope and fear in reading this document. E4S is ambitious, proposing many changes that require uncomfortable shifts inside the institutional cultures of the Navy and Marine Corps. The services will need to change how they evaluate sailors and marines; how they select for promotion, command, and career-enhancing schools and billets; and most of all, the current institutional perception of the value of intellectual development.

My perspective is admittedly Marine Corps-centric, but in fact I find that in several areas the report gives an overly sanguine assessment of Marine Corps learning – an assessment that serves as a cautionary tale for the Navy. As the Navy looks to close the gap in professional learning between itself and the Corps, it must not learn the wrong lessons from its sibling service.

This essay will highlight key policy recommendations from E4S and propose tangible steps needed to alter the naval services’ stagnated perception of professional military study. Taken together, the report’s recommendations are indeed enough to grant the Navy and Marine Corps the cognitive advantage needed in future war; but only if the services’ leaders find the courage to enact those recommendations through to their logical conclusions.

The Background

Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly commissioned the E4S study as part of the Navy’s response to the challenges laid out in the National Defense Strategy of 2018. The strategy, which observed that the United States was emerging from a period of strategic atrophy gave a particularly stinging indictment of the state of professional military education, calling it stagnant and “focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” In response to this criticism, Modly chartered the Education for Seapower, or E4S, study and charged the E4S commission members to maximize talent management and modern learning tools “to ensure every possible advantage for our sons and daughters sent into harm’s way.”

The ensuing eight-month effort canvassed the entirety of the naval education enterprise — brick-and-mortar schools and distance education programs alike — retired Navy and Marine Corps leaders, and innovators in modern learning techniques. And while some of the report’s proposals echo those found in War on the Rocks’ Educating the Force series — revising curricula, leveraging critical thinking activities like decision-forcing cases, increasing the presence of civilian instructors — E4S also includes far more disruptive recommendations that would radically change the Navy and Marine Corps’ systems of managing manpower.

The Policies

“Require the President, Naval University and Naval Education Board to develop selectivity standards and admission requirements for each of the Naval University institutions…”

This recommendation from the report seems odd, as one would assume the Navy’s advanced schools already have some method for selecting their student bodies. Yet E4S makes it clear that the Navy stands alone among the services in not utilizing a board process for competitive education programs. The report recommends the Navy follow the example of the Marine Corps, which adopted a board process for school selection in 2011. From 2011 onward, this new process, yearly convened a panel of senior officers to review the population eligible to enroll in the next academic year and select those prospective students the board considered the most qualified for the limited number of resident professional military education classroom seats.

This is a good suggestion, but the Navy needs fair warning: “Board-selected” sounds impressive until you dig into the details of how the Marine Corps boards select their students. The company-grade Commandant’s Career-Level Education board assesses those officers “scheduled to move from their current command no later than 30 September 2019.” The field-grade Professional Intermediate-Level Education board similarly makes the key eligibility requirement being “scheduled to move from their current command no later than 30 September 2019.” The School for Advanced Warfighting notes that officers “who have not satisfied time on station requirements and are not eligible to execute PCS [Permanent Change of Station] orders during the Summer of 2019” do not fall in the eligible population.

In a world where intellectual development is “the” critical warfighting capability, the first criteria in the corps’ selection of students for resident professional military education is when they can move. Not intellectual prowess, nor tactical acumen, nor broader professional contributions to national defense issues, but how much time they’ve spent at their current duty station. I realize that within the PCS-eligible population, boards examine individual records to assess performance, and the institution must weigh fiscal constraints in moving people off-cycle. Still, right out of the gate, the Marine Corps eliminates much of its manpower from consideration for intellectual development based on PCS timelines that are completely independent of cognitive abilities.

I hope the new Naval Education Board proposed in E4S removes the arbitrary restriction of PCS eligibility. I further suggest that the board — and any parallel process on the Marine Corps side — amend other eligibility requirements not directly grounded in intellectual capability. For instance, many Marine Corps boards automatically exclude those who have been passed over for promotion. I have sat on several promotion boards, and sometimes a good marine gets passed over simply because there’s no room at the inn. This can result from limited promotion allocations for certain military occupational specialties or badly managed manpower models that cause over-staffing in other specialties down the road. These marines suddenly become radioactive to education boards, which treat being passed over for promotion like a magic nullifier of any previously demonstrated ability to write, communicate, and think critically.

So I challenge the Naval Education Board to make finding the “best and most fully qualified” the only eligibility criterion of the selection process, and not translate the wrong lessons from the Marine Corps to the Navy. If that means disrupting traditional PCS and manpower management molds, that is a small price to pay for gaining superiority in the intellectual realm of warfare.

“Require Reporting Seniors of each Service to comment upon learning achievements as a separate category in officer fitness reports and enlisted evaluations, and make continuous learning achievements an essential part of promotion precepts signed by the Secretary of the Navy.”

It is an ugly truth in the military that the things we evaluate are proof of what the institution truly values. Naval personnel evaluations offer extremely limited metrics for capturing intellectual development. The report’s recommendation to distinguish “learning achievements” from more traditional evaluation criteria has the greatest potential to change naval culture to value professional learning.

E4S notes that the Marine Corps is ahead of the Navy in capturing education and learning on personnel evaluations. Again, though, the Navy should not learn the wrong lessons, since the Marines’ method for doing this is not as robust as E4S implies. The Marine fitness report — done annually on every commissioned officer, as well as every enlisted marine holding the rank of sergeant or higher — has a professional military education category, but it is simply a letter grade representing whether the marine is above, below, or average. The report also has a comment box, but it is limited to a dozen lines of text to annotate all a marine has done, including any notes on professional learning or lack thereof. This text is rapidly consumed by mandatory comments — medals awarded, physical fitness achievements — leaving the evaluator with few lines to capture remaining accomplishments. Evaluators naturally gravitate to comments about achievements in the marine’s technical job. Thus, while on paper the fitness report “specifically addresses” professional learning, in practice this amounts to a simple letter grade with no additional assessment of the quality of the marine’s engagement in intellectual development. This is only marginally better than the Navy fitness report, which includes no such category.

To improve Navy and Marine personnel evaluations, the Naval Education Board should revise both to allow a separate, detailed discussion of professional learning. Add a distinct comment box for “Learning Achievements and Professional Reading”; including the latter will remind reporting seniors that, per specific order of the Marine Corps Commandant, they are supposed to specifically note the professional reading progress of each marine they evaluate (a worthy mandate but rarely enforced). Whereas promotion boards spend most of their briefing time on fitness report comments, this new comment block would allow reporting seniors to give sufficient attention to an individual’s self-study and educational achievements.

One other metric deserves a closer look. Commanders bear unique responsibility for cultivating an environment that encourages lifelong learning. As such, the Naval Education Board should separately evaluate unit-level professional military education programs. The unit program occupies a vital space between an individual’s self-study and service-wide professional military education requirements like resident school. Ideally, a commander shapes his or her unit program toward the unit’s mission. This can take many forms, like carving out time to collectively focus on unit-applicable education modules, group reading discussions, or where able, battlefield tours and staff rides.

Yet today, the shape of unit professional military education programs are at the commander’s discretion, which often means they simply do not exist. The Marine Corps gives lip service to “lifelong learning” by making it a unit-inspectable item, though the checklist shows the commander need only name an education officer and leave it at that. The Navy does not even go that far, with unit education omitted from its list of inspectable areas. Spencer’s comments on intellectual development, the National Defense Strategy’s acerbic point about stagnation, and E4S’s recommendation to capture professional learning on fitness reports point to a hard truth: individual marines and sailors are failing in the realm of professional learning because their commanders fail to enable them.

“Require in-residence, strategically-focused Master’s Degrees of all future unrestricted line Flag and General Officers.”

“Begin the process of developing a differentiated talent management system that uses education … to reveal, groom, and develop a deep bench of leadership in the services … acting as a retention and permeability tool in concert with … new officer promotion flexibilities.”

These two recommendations overlap, so I will tackle them together. To begin, it is troubling that a focused master’s degree is not already mandated for flag and general officers. E4S quotes Adm. Ernest King on the value this “mental training” offers in creating an “abler and better naval officer.”

However, this is why I find the recommendations to be incomplete in addressing other problems related to master’s degrees in the services. If a master’s degree is that important to generals and admirals, those of lower rank who have completed such programs — especially when their leaders have not — should have those programs given extra weight on promotion and education boards. Relatedly, if this mental training is valuable, and the Navy wants to maximize the intellectual development of its leadership, quality civilian graduate distance education programs deserve equal consideration to resident military courses.

Currently, marines and sailors who pursue graduate degrees on their own rarely garner much advantage from their labor. The presence or absence of an advanced degree does not make a difference in retention or promotion. On more than one occasion I’ve been briefed by an officer coming off a promotion board about how the “3 M’s” — medals, marathons, and master’s degrees — barely register compared to billet X or fitness report comment Y in one’s individual record.

This attitude is incredibly demoralizing to marines and sailors who pursue advanced degrees, on their own time, outside the formal professional military education framework. A civilian master’s degree is no small commitment, with a voluminous workload that the marine or sailor must accomplish outside of regular working hours. Deployments with limited connectivity magnify this already significant challenge. Under these circumstances, a civilian master’s degree represents a greater level of achievement than those masters of military studies offered through resident programs, where going to class is the student’s only job.

This leads to the second point, which is the institutional bias toward resident professional military education compared to distance learning. Even E4S unintentionally reflects this bias, downplaying the “online correspondence course crammed in on weekends, with a commensurate level of effort.” Well, not every marine or sailor gets selected to go to resident school, so distance learning remains a necessity. Moreover, civilian graduate institutions would likely question the claim that a ten-month resident program equates to civilian degrees requiring 18 to 24 months to complete. While Joan Johnson-Freese’s may go a tad far in her observation that war colleges are sometimes promoted as a “year off to relax and reconnect with family,” David Morgan-Owen fairly notes that the staff college model of “teaching a conceptually narrow curriculum intended to impart large quantities of information in a compressed timeframe … does not offer the same educational benefits as ‘civilian’ approaches to higher education.” Thus, the Naval Education Board should weigh appropriate civilian distance graduate programs equally with resident professional military education, perhaps with a bonus point thrown in for the initiative and effort demonstrated by completing such a program in one’s spare time.

The board should also put serious rigor into defining “appropriate.” Distance learning has long been perceived as less challenging than programs at brick-and-mortar schools. This is not the case today, as top-tier institutions are actively expanding into the online world. But to ensure that a civilian online program meets a high standard, the Naval Education Board could adopt or generate metrics similar to those used by clearing houses like the U.S. News and World Report, which annually ranks online programs based on a variety of metrics. And since some degrees are more useful to the Navy than others, the board could also borrow the good example of the Marine Corps’ process. The Corps’ professional military education messaging highlights many specific academic sub-disciplines as valuable to professional development. Fusing these two elements, the Naval Education Board could generate a list, updated annually, of universities with rigor in distance learning and relevant graduate subjects. This list would then inform Navy and Marine Corps promotion, retention, and resident professional military education selection decisions to give due credit to officers who have demonstrated a commitment to learning beyond the service-mandated minimum.

If the naval services are serious about leveraging intellectual development as a warfighting advantage, they need to make that third “M” matter to marines and sailors. That may require the more traditionally-minded to swallow some bitter pills of change. Perhaps that means passing over for flag rank someone with all the right career billets but no master’s degree, and instead selecting that student who went off the “standard” career track to pursue a quality graduate program. If those who stray from the conventional path continue to see no reward for their efforts, however, the Navy and Marine Corps will blunt that warfighting advantage at precisely the time they need it most.


E4S is a frank admission that the attitude I’ve been hearing from fellow officers — that leaders can abandon professional learning early in their careers without consequence — has carried the naval services as far as they will go. Gone are the days when the materiel advantages enjoyed by the American warfighter were sufficient to overcome mediocre thinking. E4S recognizes that the cognitive realm is the last one open to asymmetric superiority. Its recommendations are clear evidence that the naval services risk falling behind in that dimension as well.

The reforms proposed in E4S are bold and will cause significant disruption of the current educational and manpower frameworks inside the Navy and Marine Corps. These reforms might cost extra money in subsidizing PCS moves. They might cause reporting seniors to curse the additional time and effort needed to mentor subordinates in professional learning and write extra comments in their fitness reports. And yes, commanders might get fired for mediocre or nonexistent unit professional military education programs.

If those discomforts are the cost of gaining intellectual superiority, the naval services must pay it. E4S notes that any failure to “prepare our naval leaders for the future creates unacceptable risks for American citizens, who have long relied on the Naval Services to be at the intellectual forefront of national security concerns.” I believe marines and sailors will embrace the new standards proposed by the report; many have already done so, pursuing their own intellectual development regardless of whether it aided them professionally. I have seen enough corporals utilizing tuition assistance and enough captains pursuing civilian master’s degrees to know that the junior ranks believe developing their minds is worth the effort.

The onus now lies on those leaders between the secretary of the Navy and the operating forces of the Navy and Marine Corps to put old sacred cows to rest by aggressively implementing E4S. In so doing, these leaders will grant the naval services the cognitive edge most assuredly needed in the wars to come.



Ian Brown is a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot. He has previously discussed conflict theory in the Marine Corps Gazette, War on the Rocks, Strategy Bridge, and the Professional Military Education podcast. His new book from the Marine Corps University Press, A New Conception of War, is a reexamination of the historical development of maneuver warfare doctrine in the Marine Corps. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Naval War College