Finally Getting Serious About Professional Military Education

Senior leadership conducts warfighting PME during MEFEX 2015

Two years ago, much of the professional military education community was startled by the National Defense Strategy’s declaration that its wares had stagnated and that the community had lost focus on lethality and ingenuity. This month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff responded with a new vision and guidance statement for professional military education: Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War. As the document is signed by each service chief, it neatly erases tensions between what the Joint Chiefs as a corporate body believe is necessary to educate officers capable of leading in a joint environment and each individual chief’s responsibility to educate officers within their own services. Most crucially, the new vision signals that the services are “all in” on the need to reform professional military education.

Take a moment to consider the implications of this “buy-in.”

The Joint Chiefs are not only agreeing that professional military education has stagnated but also boldly stating the system is not currently optimized to give them what they need to win future wars. In perusing the document, it becomes clear that the Joint Chiefs are casting almost all the blame for this failure at senior-level professional military education. This valuation is probably an on-target assessment, as — for over seven decades — the U.S. military has won nearly every tactical battle it has fought without translating this battlefield acumen into the strategic results desired by policymakers.



Why Change?

While the new vision statement praises the admirable performance of previous graduates, it also calls out the fact that the dramatic changes expected in the future character of war require a profound transformation of how the services prepare and educate future leaders at every level. The Joint Chiefs realize that such change will not be easy and are demanding key professional military education leaders “not shy away from fundamental change where appropriate.”

While the document clearly demonstrates an appreciation for the fact that mass and technology will still matter in any future conflict, it also recognizes that the U.S military may find itself challenged by enemies with much larger forces than its own that will be armed with technologies equal — and in some cases — superior to its own. In this case, victory is going to go to the side that outthinks the other. Put simply, the professional military education system is being told to create leaders who can “achieve intellectual overmatch against adversaries.”

Such overmatch demands a return to rigor that has been too long absent within senior professional military education. Before unleashing what the Naval War College still refers to as the “Turner Revolution,” Adm. Stansfield Turner noted, “Rarely does one meet a graduate of any War College who said that he had been intellectually taxed by the War College course of instruction.” To make sure they were taxed, Turner uprooted the entire curriculum, did away with obsolete teaching methods, and brought in civilian professors to add depth. Turner’s methods worked and — in so much as other professional military education institutions followed the Naval War College’s lead— learning measurably improved.

But, over time, stasis set in and professional military education garnered a reputation as a place and time where tired officers could reunite with their families and “take a knee.” In the meantime, the world moved on, leaving much of senior professional military education behind. They had neglected Turner’s most important dictum: “Every academic institution must periodically review whether it is fulfilling its mission.” Such neglect is not a new phenomenon. In fact, in the midst of World War II, Gen. George Marshall complained, as quoted in the minutes of an April 1943 Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting:

Marshall said … he was been disappointed in the War College, in that its curriculum was not adequately realistic. He said that graduates … took 6 months after reporting for duty in the War Department before they could orient themselves to a practical point of view. He pointed out that students at the War College do not work in the same manner as officers on active duty. He said that in their contacts with the White House, Congress, and civilian agencies, officers from the Army War College have difficulty taking a flexible point of view on matters and are slow in adjusting themselves to rapidly changing situations. He thought that the Army War College curriculum could be modified to adopt a more realistic curriculum …

He said that was always afraid of schools and colleges from the viewpoint of their curriculum in that it was not adequately practical should be more realistic, and students should look at the picture with life. He said that the school from the viewpoint of its curriculum in that it was not usually not adequately practical. [Marshall wanted the students] in close proximity with the activities of the War and Navy Departments and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their planning agencies. As a result, the students would finish their course with a better understanding of practical problems.

What Is Changing?

To ensure future professional military education students are imbued with the practical knowledge needed to confront tomorrow’s challenges, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have established a set of professional military education “end states,” all of which are focused on warfighting:

  • Discern the military dimensions of a challenge and recommend viable military options within the overarching frameworks of globally integrated operations.
  • Anticipate and lead rapid adaptation and innovation during a dynamic period of acceleration in the rate of change in warfare under the conditions of great-power competition and disruptive technology.
  • Conduct joint warfighting, at the operational to strategic levels, as all-domain, globally integrated warfare.
  • Build strategically minded warfighters or applied strategists who can execute and adapt strategy through campaigns and operations.

Employing the word “must” 52 times in a document that is only ten pages long, the Joint Chiefs spell out how the various schools are to achieve these end states. In what must be counted as the document’s central controlling passage, one finds:

PME schools must incorporate active and experiential learning to develop the practical and critical thinking skills our warfighters require. These methodologies include use of case studies grounded in history to help students develop judgment, analysis, and problem-solving skills, which can then be applied to contemporary challenges, including war, deterrence, and measures short of armed conflict. Curricula should leverage live, virtual, constructive, and gaming methodologies with wargames and exercises involving multiple sets and repetitions to develop deeper insight and ingenuity. We must resource and develop a library of case studies, colloquia, games, and exercises for use across the PME enterprise and incentivize collaboration and synergy between schools. To achieve deeper education on critical thinking, strategy, and warfighting.

In no uncertain terms, the Joint Chiefs are directing professional military education schools to cease what they are currently doing in the classroom. These practices are to be replaced by teaching practices and classroom activities that lie at the heart of 21st-century active learning methodologies but are only rarely seen within professional military education. No part of this transformation will be easy as this vision demands large increases in the use of history-based case studies just as the number of graduate students studying operational military history is approaching nil. Moreover, although wargaming and other types of experiential learning have demonstrated their effectiveness in multiple studies, the number of faculty employing gaming throughout their courses is vanishingly small.

However, the greatest resistance to the Joint Chiefs’ vision will come from those for whom maintaining the status quo is always the preferred option. Of course, any dean or professor worthy of their title can easily demonstrate how every class on their respective schedules is essential for the development of future strategic leaders. As such, many will claim that there is simply nothing that can be safely cut to make space for military history, warfighting-based case studies, and multiple “sets and repetitions” of wargaming events. Foreseeing this resistance, the Joint Chiefs stated a final enjoinder: “PME programs will have to ruthlessly reduce coverage of less important topics.”

If anyone is in doubt as to what constitutes a less important topic, the Joint Chiefs provide an answer. Anything that does not emphasize “ingenuity, intellectual application, and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting, while deepening knowledge of historyis automatically suspect.

A past Army War College commandant once lamented that the “Vietnam era curriculum was aimed at turning soldiers into diplomats, economists, scientists, historians, and lawyers at the expense of turning out officers.” In his view, the curriculum had gone too far in the direction of social and political matters at the expense of producing warfighters. Though the Turner Revolution partially reversed much of this trend, it returned with a vengeance during the decades of strategic drift after the end of the Cold War. To repair the damage, the Joint Chiefs are directing that “all” curriculum changes be infused within a joint context, starting at the earliest possible point in an officer’s career, as jointness can no longer be considered an “afterthought that can be bolted on later, in the midst of a crisis.”

To the Next Level

In a major conceptual leap forward, the document goes beyond a pure focus on professional military education to create a long overdue link between education and talent management, meaning that an officer’s future promotions and assignments are going to be tied to their performance within the professional military education system. The vision’s intertwining of professional military education and the services’ talent managers demonstrates that the Joint Chiefs are no longer willing to rely on luck in the hope that the system will produce soldier-scholars like Gens. Mattis and Dunford when the nation needs them. Rather than count on continued good luck, the vision systematizes the links between professional military education and talent management in several ways. First, the document emphasizes the need to select the right officers for schooling, noting that such selections are to be done at the appropriate moment in an officer’s career. Just as crucially, the educational performance of these officers will now become part of their future assignment process. The goal is simple: The Joint Chiefs want to ensure that professional military education will never again be considered an assignment where one can “take a knee.” As stated by the Joint Chiefs, the ultimate goal is to create

A fully aligned [professional military education] and talent management system that identifies, develops, and utilizes strategically minded, critically thinking, and creative joint warfighters skilled in the art of war and the practical and ethical application of lethal military power.

To ensure the benefits of innovation within the professional military education enterprise are felt by the entire Joint Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are appealing for similar levels of innovation and adaption in the services’ talent management efforts.  The new focus will be on selecting the “best and brightest” for professional military education attendance and then to ensure post-school assignments maximize both the student’s potential and the benefit for the joint force. In the Joint Chiefs’ view, the critical factor in future senior-level professional military education attendance is that it “must be based on talent, potential for strategic responsibilities, and return on investment, rather than a fair share or mechanistic allocation of all occupational specialties across a particular Service.” As the vision clearly states, “It is essential that officers with the highest potential to be the warfighting generals and admirals of the future attend a resident 10-month War College program.”

During World War II, 34 Army officers achieved corps command. Every one of them, at some point in their careers, served as instructors within the interwar professional military education system. Two-thirds of them spent over a decade in the classroom. To ensure that the professional military education system attracts such outstanding officers in the future, the vision offers a number of suggestions. Foremost among these suggestions is that certain faculty positions be coded as joint-qualifying positions. Other suggestions include improving the future competitiveness of military faculty by highlighting them to promotion boards and tracking officers who leave professional military education teaching positions to ensure that their follow-on assignments capitalize on their newly acquired skills. While the Joint Chiefs recognize that this change involves a major cultural shift for their respective personnel systems, they implore “leaders, at all levels, to corporately value faculty assignments … and remove any stigma devaluing the importance of educating our future senior leaders.” If professional military education reform is to have any chance of success, this hill is the first one to take.

This vision and guidance statement put out by America’s most senior military leaders is a tremendous first step in realigning professional military education to address the challenges the U.S. military will confront in the 21st century — but it is only a first step. There is already a plan to follow this guidance with implementation instructions that will spell out the specific items that the services and schools must undertake to meet the Joint Chiefs’ vision. Intended in the near term is a study to examine the adequacy of current Joint Professional Military Education II requirements in the face of new challenges from peer military powers. Finally, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is preparing instructions that will move every professional military education institution toward an outcomes-based approach to instruction and learning, which truly is the only way to confirm the students have learned anything.



Dr. James Lacey holds the Horner Chair of Military Theory at Marine Corps University. He is the author of the recently released The Washington War and, with Williamson Murray, the forthcoming Gods of War.

Image: Cpl. Timothy Lenzo