Rethinking War Colleges and the Education of U.S. Military Leaders.
By Steven Metz, July 30, 2014
Recent reports that Sen. David Walsh may have committed plagiarism while a student at the U.S. Army War College brought unaccustomed attention to the military's senior schools. Discussion of the issue showed that despite the long history of America's war colleges, they are not widely understood. It also suggested that there is a need for wider debate on how the United States educates its senior military leaders, particularly given the deep changes underway in the armed forces.
All of the services use war colleges or an equivalent fellowship as a gate to higher rank—full colonel in the Air Force, Marines and Army, and captain in the Navy. Only a small percentage of eligible officers are selected. Civilians from the Department of Defense and other government agencies attend, as do officers from friendly foreign nations. Even though most students already have an advanced degree, U.S. war colleges are accredited master's degree-granting institutions that have to meet the same academic requirements as civilian graduate and professional schools.
War colleges have multiple purposes, and limited time to achieve them in: less than a year in a resident program and two years in a nonresident one. This forces them to balance competing demands for scarce time and to make tough tradeoffs. For instance, the colleges help officers make the transition from a tactical or operational focus to a strategic one. They provide their students a deeper understanding of the other services. And, at the same time, they seek to broaden their students, particularly in the area of rigorous, critical and analytical thinking.
As a result, war colleges have a dual personality. One aspect of this personality is purely academic: Even though war college students are not selected because of prior academic performance or academic potential, war colleges use scholarship and academic rigor to broaden students’ thinking and push students out of their comfort zones. The other aspect is more applied, concentrating on the development of professional skills that the students will use in remainder of their military careers, especially higher-level command, leadership, management and planning. This is a lot to cram into a short period of time. Imagine a civilian graduate program that, in the course of a year, tried to make sure its students mastered research and teaching methods, developed a working understanding of an existing body of knowledge and perhaps honed their skill at academic administration.
Even with these challenges the system works: American war colleges help produce an extraordinarily talented cadre of senior leaders for the U.S. military. Despite the attention that Walsh's war college paper is drawing, academic integrity problems are rare. But things could always be better. Unsurprisingly a number of ideas have been floated for improving the U.S. war colleges.
One is to do away with the war colleges altogether and require all senior officers to get a master's degree from a rigorous civilian school. The idea is that this would push the officers even further outside their comfort zone and reinforce rigorous, creative, critical thinking. But this would optimize the "broadening" part of the war colleges at the expense of applied professional development. It would also be problematic in terms of the time required, since most graduate master's programs take two years. Ultimately it is not clear that the benefits of abolishing the war colleges in favor of civilian graduate school justify the costs.
The inverse approach would strip away the broadening function of the war colleges and concentrate solely on professional development. Clearly the military wants leaders with intellectual rigor, creativity and critical thinking skills, but scholarship and academic work might not be the only or even the best way to get this. Dropping the academic component of war colleges could leave senior military leaders more narrowly focused. But is this truly a problem? No other profession feels compelled to take time away from the focused development of professional skills for the broadening of its senior leaders, or to assign them scholarly tasks only loosely related to what they will do during the remainder of their professional careers. They might consider an individual’s breadth of knowledge and experience when selecting senior executives, but they do not send the candidates off to graduate school. Yet for some reason, Americans feel that the military is so different from every other profession that its education needs a dual personality.
A compromise solution might be to drop the requirement that every colonel or Navy captain be a war college graduate. The military could take a hard look at the jobs held by officers at these ranks and decide which ones truly benefit from a war college education and which don't. Then admission to war colleges could become more selective, with academic performance or potential factored in. Perhaps the services could set up a qualifying course for war college with the idea that some percentage of students would fail it and not qualify yet still could be promoted to colonel or Navy captain and be eligible for the jobs that do not require war college.
There is no question that today's war colleges provide the United States with outstanding military leaders and planners. But because of the war colleges’ dual personality, they are inherently inefficient. As the U.S. military looks for ways to sustain effectiveness more efficiently, the basic concepts behind the war college system merit consideration. Technology might eventually solve the problem and allow them to tailor an individual program for each student using things like virtual seminars. Until then, though, the military, educators, Congress and the community of national security experts should think about exactly what attributes senior officers need and find ways to make sure the war colleges contribute to this both effectively and efficiently.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.