Charting the Future of Education for the Navy-Marine Corps Team

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Allow me to introduce myself: I am your Navy’s new chief learning officer — the first one ever. Over the past year, there has been a flurry of activity in the Department of the Navy focused on education. During that time, Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly convened the board that authored a landmark Education for Seapower report and Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer issued a decision memorandum based on that report that laid out sweeping reforms. These include the requirement that all flag and general officers in the Navy and Marine Corps complete a year of in-residence strategic education, changes to the officer evaluation and promotion system to better value education, and the hiring of the department’s first-ever chief learning officer. Why all this attention to education? Why does education matter so much to our Navy and Marine Corps? The answer lies in America’s current strategic position.

In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States enjoyed unprecedented global hegemonic power. In 1995, the U.S. economy was by far the strongest in the world, ten times larger than China’s, and its only serious economic challengers were close allies — Germany and Japan. America’s technological and naval edge was massive, and as a result, the U.S. military could project power almost anywhere on the globe without serious interference. America’s soft power was at maximum strength,  with democracy on the rise throughout the world.



Fast forward to 2019, and all those advantages are rapidly eroding. America still has the world’s strongest economy, but China may claim that title in the next decade. America’s technological edge, once so vast, has dwindled, and in some key areas, like 5G cellular networks, drones, batteries, and hypersonic systems, the United States is behind. Meanwhile, Washington faces soft power challenges associated with the increasing influence of authoritarian nations and a gradual loss of global faith in democracy.

In this new situation, America has to learn a new strategic trick: how to maintain military supremacy as economic and technological advantages erode and perhaps even disappear.

How can the United States pull this off? For our armed forces, the answer is brainpower. If America is going to maintain its ability to deter and outfight potential opponents in a world defined by great power competition, American military professionals are going to have to out-think them.

Improved education will be central to the effort to create a smarter and thus more powerful force because it is the quickest, most cost-effective way to take full advantage of the high quality men and women serving in our armed forces and our dedicated civilian support team. The Navy and the Marine Corps are filled with smart and talented sailors, marines, and civil servants. Providing them with the most challenging, sophisticated, and powerful education will help them, and thus America’s naval force, reach their full human and military potential.

In January, we will unveil the Navy and Marine Corps’ first Naval Education Strategy designed to help the Navy-Marine Corps team become a more powerful and lethal thinking force. That strategy will be based on three important pillars.

First, America’s military officers need to have access to world-class, relevant education options at every stage of their career, and when they complete this work, they need to be rewarded through the evaluation and promotion system. This effort to strengthen and accelerate officer intellectual development should focus on improving intellectual capabilities in five crucial areas: strategic sophistication, warfighting, geopolitical awareness, technology, and weapons and systems acquisition. As part of this effort, the Department of Defense needs to rethink current joint professional military education requirements to make them more challenging and more relevant. More officers in the Navy and Marine Corps should also be sent to the advanced military schools of U.S. partners and allies in order to boost interoperability and global competence.

Second, the Department of the Navy will create a Naval Community College offering enlisted marines and sailors an opportunity to develop their full intellectual potential through accredited and transferable associate’s degree programs in high-priority areas like cyber operations, computer science, information systems, and data analytics. This critical educational initiative will boost recruiting, deepen our fighting capabilities, and provide sailors and marines who return to civilian life with a strong foundation for the next step in their educations and careers.

Finally, the Department of the Navy will seek to provide proper resources to its excellent military universities and forge a new, deeper partnership between those universities and their civilian counterparts to deliver more mobile, relevant, continuous education. Traditional “in-residence” degree programs on campus will remain a foundational approach, but naval professionals ought to have access to many more online, blended, and executive education options, including short, stackable courses in high priority areas like cyber operations, anti-access/area-denial, and space warfare in order deliver more relevant education to the fleet without disrupting operational deployments. Pilots, submariners, carrier sailors, and infantry leaders cannot always come to the classroom, so the classroom will need to go to them.

As the United States looks to a complex, uncertain, and dangerous future, it is vital that America’s naval leaders view education as the ultimate force multiplier, for it is the most cost-effective way of ensuring that the Navy-Marine Corps team reaches its full strategic and operational potential. But to achieve that goal, the Navy and Marine Corps ought to commit to one basic but powerful idea: that for America’s military professionals and their support team, academic preparation and intellectual agility is just as important as physical fitness and weapons training.



John Kroger is the chief learning officer for the Department of the Navy. He previously served as a U.S. marine, leader in residence at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, president of Reed College, and attorney general of Oregon. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in philosophy from Yale and his J.D. from Harvard Law School. 

Image: U.S. Navy and U.S. Army