October 1, 2009  

Return of the Jedi

It’s that time again. About once a decade, the military services attempt to reform how they educate officers. This time, the catalyst is a series of Senate and House hearings on how well the services educate officers. The Defense Science Board will begin a study on military education reform soon. The defense intellectual blogosphere is electric with calls for reform. Other creative ideas for reform will follow in the coming days. And all will fail.

They will fail because the services will not be able to attract the brightest and groom them through proper schooling for positions of responsibility unless the intellectually gifted are rewarded with selection for promotion and command. Unless intellectual excellence is tied to the services’ personnel systems, true reform is impossible. Only once in the past century have powers of reform overcome the cultural glue that binds together the services’ systems of professional rewards. In the mid-1980s, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., as part of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation, forced the services to learn how to operate efficiently — the essence of “jointness.” Skelton’s effort gained traction because of the failure of the services to fight together as a team during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Skelton leveraged the law to hold the services’ reward systems for promotion and command hostage to a meaningful commitment to jointness. To ensure that his reforms would last, Skelton legislated that staff and war colleges bring together student officers from all services to study joint as well as service-specific subjects.

The complexities of recent wars suggest that the reforms that dictated jointness, while necessary, are no longer sufficient. Today’s conflicts demand officers who can lead indirectly and perform in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex, chaotic and inherently unpredictable environment. Our educational system needs to produce more men and women who can anticipate conditions that do not yet exist. They must be capable of dealing with unfamiliar cultures and an enemy who is unconstrained by Western values and methods of warfare. To be sure, the services possess many talented, and indeed some brilliant, practitioners of the strategic art. But the demand for strategists is greater than the supply. Our system of professional military education produces too few officers capable of understanding and dealing with the complexities of war at the strategic level.

We have too few of these officers because the services tend to accelerate the careers of officers who, early in their careers, show talent at the tactical level of war. Battalion, squadron and ship commanders habitually reward subordinates who mirror themselves. These subordinates tend to be officers who get things done, the go-to, can-do types who make their mark with managerial brilliance. The irony of the system is that the requirement for competence shifts from the tactical to the strategic at just the time in their careers when tactical officers leave command to move on to higher levels of responsibility at the colonel and flag level. As a result, too often we see skillful tacticians thrust into strategic staff jobs they are ill-prepared to perform.


We have met the archetype strategic warrior, and his name is David Petraeus. He is joined by a remarkably successful cadre of leaders who have demonstrated exceptional talent in the chaotic environments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some names are familiar because they reached three or four stars: Chiarelli, Stavridis, Dempsey, Ward, Dubik, Eikenberry. Others are equally successful but less well known because of their lesser rank and profile. These are behind-the-scenes officers who have offered advice and insight to their flag officer bosses: Nagl, Yingling, McMaster and Mansoor, among a few others.

Most of these proven strategic thinkers share a remarkably common provenance. Very early in their careers they learned to think critically and communicate strategically by attending a government-financed graduate program at a top-tier civilian university. Later, most of them sharpened these skills by teaching at a service academy. They all share (along with fellow intellectual travelers such as Adm. Mike Mullen and Marine Gen. Jim Mattis) a lifelong obsession with reading history and studying the art of war. At some time in their careers, they ignored the caution of personnel officers about spending too much time in school while under scrutiny for command selection. Today, this is a critical period for upwardly mobile officers because those who are screened for command are on the fast track to flag rank. Those who don’t command will not grasp the brass ring. The proclivities of service culture cannot be easily overcome. The reality is that educational reform hinges on the ability to create a path for the intellectually gifted to be promoted to flag rank. But the climate today tends to reward tactical rather than strategic excellence. This must change.


Flag officers with highly developed strategic skills are needed principally in the key operations, planning, strategy and civil-military billets — a relatively small cohort that embraces conservatively about a sixth of flag and general officers from all services. Consider a reform scheme that establishes a Senior Strategist Program (SSP) that would identify key strategic appointments and fence them for officers educated in a program of demanding, selective advanced schooling and preparation. The system would reserve appointment of officers to the operational (G/J-3) principals and deputies on the service and joint staffs as well as all strategy, policy and political-military positions (G/J-2, 5, 7, 9) in these staffs. Added to the reserve list would be flag billets on the National Security Council, military representatives in other federal agencies and foreign area officers from all services. Similarly, key combatant command staff positions as well as faculty positions in staff and leadership in war colleges should be reserved for this new cohort of specially selected and educated officers.

A reform that reserves key strategic billets for the most intellectually gifted and proven would change the cultural dynamic dramatically. In order to have a larger cohort of competitive officers suitable for flag positions, the services would have to change criteria for those they promote to key command billets early in an officer’s career. As in any profession, our young officers are ambitious and seek promotion. They will see that intellectual excellence has become a prized credential for promotion, and they will actively seek higher education and intellectual preparation as the surest means for achieving flag rank.

Promotion of these specially selected and accredited officers to flag rank would begin early in their careers after successful completion of captain/lieutenant-level command and selection for attendance at graduate school for two years. These officers would study the human and social sciences with particular emphasis on history, international relations, anthropology, economics, language and culture. Officer students would be expected to complete the course requirements for the Ph.D. A successful preliminary examination would waive the education and service requirements necessary to gain credit for joint service, thus leveling the career playing field by giving these officers the same amount of time to command as their conventionally educated peers.


Prior to Desert Storm, Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf created a small cell of four majors and a colonel to act as his intimate “brain trust” to plan his campaign. The group became known as the “Jedi Knights.” All were graduates of the School of Advanced Military Studies, essentially the Army staff college’s second year honors program. The success of SAMS was emulated by other services and became the model for a similar program at the Army War College focused on strategic studies.

Success of the SAMS model provides a good template for an advanced learning program for specially selected strategic staff officers. In this scheme, each service would be responsible for teaching their respective version of SAMS. The SAMS course would last two years with eligibility reserved principally for officers who completed the two-year program at civilian graduate schools. Others could be accepted provided they pass a very rigorous entry examination. During the course, SSP students would be required to finish their dissertations for the doctorate degree and demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. Like today’s SAMS, the course would be enormously rigorous. The curriculum would be history based. Students would follow the case study method and would be evaluated and graded by an experienced faculty, most of whom would be SSP program alumni. Graduates would then return to operational assignments and subsequent selection for battalion, squadron and ship commands.

The final step in the education of world-class strategists would come at the National War College in Washington, D.C, at Fort McNair. The college would be transformed into a national-level strategic SAMS — an institution reserved solely for educating and selecting out competitively the best qualified for the highest levels of strategic leadership. At this critical stage, management of SSP officers would become a responsibility of a joint four-star commander, preferably the head of Joint Forces Command (JFCom) in Norfolk, Va. The JFCom commander would oversee student and faculty selection, curricula and follow-on assignments. By now, this pool of strategically qualified officers would possess terminal degrees and would have completed a service SAMS course as well as a successful squadron-, ship- or battalion-level command. Everyone in this cohort would compete by examination for entrance to the National War College. The SSP selection board, headed by a SSP credentialed four star, would consider two co-equal records of performance. The first would include academic evaluations as well as a full disclosure of an officer’s papers and published works; the other would be based on demonstrated performance in the field. The number of students accepted would be limited by the requirements for SSP-supported colonel and flag officer billets.

The SSP war college course likely would last a year and a half. The first full year would consist of a strenuous immersion in the strategic art. Learning would again be by case study, and the curriculum strictly history based with none of the fluff that clogs war college curricula today. Too much would be at stake for this to be a gentleman’s course. At the end of the academic phase, students would receive a numerical class standing based on the quality of their demonstrated performance.

A half year’s Global Staff Ride would culminate the war college experience. Essentially an intensive “hands on” evaluation, the staff ride would take students with their SSP flag officer assessors on a tour of historical battlefields and regions of current conflict. Peers, instructors and a panel of flag officer would hold students accountable for their knowledge, wisdom and strategic acumen — under great pressure — just like war.


Some officers who survive the rigor of the global grand tour would then be assigned as instructors at service staff and war colleges. Others would command at the brigade/wing level before standing before a conventional service flag selection board. The system would be self-disciplining in that the services would not likely fail to pass on qualified SSP officers and risk losing out on prime flag officer billets. Experience with the Skelton reforms suggests that such a system would require iron-tight oversight at the very top to prevent the services from suborning the spirit or the letter of the SSP program. To ensure that the program prospers, a “chief learning officer” at the assistant secretary level in the Office of the Secretary of Defense should be appointed co-equal to the head of manpower and reserve affairs to ensure that the intellectual demands of the officer corps aren’t held captive to the respective service human resources communities. The military partner to the CLO at the Defense Department would be the commander of JFCom. They would work together to oversee all aspects of professional military education, and both would have a direct line of authority to the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress.

The SSP concept need not be implemented from a standing start. The foreign area officer (FAO) program offers a useful bureaucratic and procedural template around which to model SSP reform. For more than half a century, the Army has carefully managed a career specialization that selects talented young officers to attend graduate school in foreign languages and culture followed by career-long service in a specific geographic region. The program has paid enormous dividends far beyond its modest investment. The problem with the program has been the difficulty in getting these enormously talented officers promoted to senior ranks. This would be solved when FAOs are folded into the broader SSP effort.

I submitted an early draft of this paper to a small group of respected leaders within the defense intellectual community. Their criticisms and my responses follow:

å Such reforms are elitist. Reserving key staff billets for SSP alumni would certainly be selective. Today, the military insists that the surgeon general have a medical degree and the judge advocate general pass the bar. Yet no credentialing is required for strategists, arguably the most critically important task for those who defend the nation. The SSP concept would guarantee that those eligible for the highest strategic-decision-making positions in the military at least meet minimum intellectual requirements for the task. At best, the competition and rigor of SSP selection would allow the brightest and most qualified to move to the top.

å Favoring one war college would diminish the quality of other colleges. The service staff and war colleges do a superb job of educating officers. This reform would not alter the existing system for officers who attend these institutions. In all likelihood, over time, the staff, leadership and faculty of service colleges would be populated by SSP alumni. Sadly, very few superbly qualified faculty and staff at service colleges get promoted today. In fact, a teaching assignment is considered to be a career-ender by most officers. This system would offer SSP credentialed faculty and staff officers an excellent chance of promotion to flag rank and command after completing their college assignments. As we all know, the promise of upward mobility is the surest means for invigorating any organization. Service colleges are no exception.

å No educational system will guarantee that the best and brightest will gravitate to the top; in fact, many successful strategic leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan did not come from the Petraeus model of career development. True. But the purpose of this reform is not to pick who will be advanced to flag officer but to add accountability and rigor to the selection of strategic leaders and to build a much broader bench of candidates for the most critical jobs within the Defense Department.

The Skelton reforms have shown that often legislation is the only sure way to achieve what cultural friction cannot overcome. To be sure, no effort as culturally disruptive as this can be implemented quickly. At least five years would be needed to get it off the ground, and more than a decade would pass before SSP-qualified officers would advance to positions of authority. But if we are to create a body of gifted officers capable of dealing with the complexities of modern warfare, we soon must begin to break the stranglehold of the service personnel systems and offer the proper rewards to those young, talented and ambitious officers who are most gifted in the strategic art. AFJ

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT H. SCALES (RET.) is president of Colgen Inc., a consulting firm specializing in land power, war gaming and strategic leadership. He served more than 30 years in the Army, commanding two units in Vietnam. He was awarded the Silver Star for action during the battles around Dong Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill) during the summer of 1969.