June 1, 2010  

Letters: Officer education

Paula Thornhill made the case in “Improving Capstone” [April] that the “charm” school for newly minted brigadiers and rear admirals should be turned into an opportunity to train strategic leaders. My counter would be: too little, too late.

I’d argue great strategic leaders and thinkers start young. Neither Washington nor Lincoln had any formal training. Yet, each had seminal life experiences that prepared him to be a world historic figure.

Strategic leadership in the 21st century also requires a kit bag of skills, knowledge and attributes that today’s leaders probably didn’t pick up in their careers. No amount of homework could make up the lost ground.

Rather than tinker with charm school, we ought to go to the heart of the problem. The centerpiece of the reform discussion should be on senior-level professional military officer education. The reason for that is simple. Fundamental change requires making three difficult but critical decisions: strategic leaders must be educated earlier in their careers; where strategic leaders are educated must be greatly expanded to include civilian universities; and the scope of senior-level strategic education has to change.

The current system still proceeds at a languid pace, layering on formal education every few years in an officer’s career. The world is changing too fast to wait for that. The military model is outmoded. We need to instill strategic leadership as soon as leaders are prepared assimilate it — not just before we think they need to exercise it.

The military defers senior-level professional military officer education until most attendees are over 40 years old. That is a mistake. Officers need this experience when they are young — before they are 30 — when education will have its greatest impact. Early education will prepare officers to accept strategic responsibilities earlier in their careers, be better mentors and be ready for a “lifetime of learning” throughout their professional careers.

The next difficult decision that must be made is fundamentally rethinking where senior-level professional military officer education takes place. While the service academies rightly remain the touchstone for precommissioning education, through the ROTC, future officers are also trained at colleges and universities around the nation. There is no reason why senior-level professional military officer education cannot follow the same model.

To build a well-educated, diverse officer corps, the military should use the free market. A requirement for educating a large pool of military officers will create a vast new demand. Officers should have a wide variety of options and opportunities. The primary goal of military education is to teach officers how to think. What or where officers are learning is less important than the types of skills that they are developing — skills that will serve them well in a wide spectrum of situations and conflicts. An officer can gain the same critical analysis skills from a political science course as from an advanced engineering course.

In addition, the military’s war colleges should have to compete with civilian schools to attract military students. Competition will lead to better services and programs as well as guarantee a diverse and well-trained officer corps. In addition, expanding senior-level professional military officer education to civilian schools will strengthen the bonds of civil-military relations.

Finally, joint professional military education requirements have become overly prescriptive. They are also growing. Quality is becoming a victim of quantity. The attribute most needed by military officers is the critical thinking skills that come from a graduate education program. Thinking skills are the best preparation for ambiguity and uncertainty. Virtually any graduate program would suffice. In fact, the military should seek as broad a range of graduate experiences as possible as a hedge against unexpected operational and strategic requirements.

— James Jay Carafano, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.