Category Archives: Professional Military Education

May Madness: Competitive Wargaming in a Pandemic


War on the Rocks

June 1, 2020

What starts with the enemy sinking three of your amphibious assault ships, and ends with a toddler interrupting the outbrief to a three-star general? A successful wargame in the age of COVID-19.

When the Marine Corps Command and Staff College was forced to shift from in-person instruction to a distance-learning model in response to the outbreak, the faculty and staff were confident that we could make our seminars work. We were not so sanguine about the execution of our capstone exercise, Pacific Challenge X. The scale and complexity of running a 250-odd person wargame, remotely, seemed daunting, indeed.

The results exceeded even our highest expectations. What was thought to be a threat to execution turned out to be an incredible opportunity. The distributed virtual medium actually increased participation from a host of different agencies and stakeholders, who otherwise would not have been able to support the event. And the natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism.

Given the realization that disaggregation is not only possible but, in many ways, better, future exercises will capitalize on the insights of this event.


The exercise is designed to test and evaluate students’ planning and decision-making abilities against a thinking opponent at the operational level of war. Driven by both our own insights and the newly-issued Commandant’s Planning Guidance, our faculty set out last summer to redesign what had been a two-week planning exercise, into a longer and more demanding one, culminating in a competitive wargame at the combined joint task force and functional component level.

Contrary to assertions professional military education was stagnant, this exercise, like the rest of the College’s curriculum, had evolved with every iteration, incorporating feedback from students, the civilian historians and political scientists and seasoned military officers on the faculty and staff, and external participants. It was a robust planning exercise, incorporating not only the organic resources of Marine Corps University, but also outside senior mentors, including three retired general officers, a retired deputy administrator at the United States Agency for International Development, and a retired U.S. ambassador. Our leadership believed students needed an opportunity to not only apply the operational design concepts they learned throughout the year, but to test their plan against a peer adversary.

To ensure the “fight” was informed by both capabilities and threat, our faculty and staff collaborated with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and the Marine Staff Training Program to add a second phase to the exercise. In this phase, students would be “battle staff” for “Blue.” participating in a dynamic wargame against an adversary force. A retired general officer would lead the adversary “Red” force, which would include a number of our students and a delegation from the National Intelligence University.

That was the plan.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. In accordance with Defense Department health protection procedures, the College shifted to a simultaneous distributed online format on March 19. Executing the lectures and seminars wasn’t an issue. Our College of Distance Education has conducted online professional military education for decades. Faculty and students alike quickly adapted to the virtual environment. Indeed, we anticipated this would be the easiest part of the remaining curriculum to execute virtually. We shifted the remaining security studies, war studies, and leadership department courses to earlier in the curriculum, in order to allow our warfighting department maximum time to prepare and rehearse for a remote execution of the exercise.

The efficacy of executing a large planning exercise along with a competitive wargame with over 250 participants under such conditions was very much in question. The staff and the students, though, were not deterred. The faculty jumped into high gear, tested a battery of information management and collaboration tools, and conducted multiple rehearsals. To account for the multiple competing demands on the students, the battle rhythm was adjusted, and the exercise extended to provide the staff the flexibility to account for anticipated friction.

We were hoping to achieve at least a significant fraction of the in-person experience. In many ways, we got much more than that.

The distributed virtual medium actually increased participation from a host of different agencies and stakeholders, who otherwise would not have been able to support the event. The paucity of Navy officers, especially unrestricted line officers, has been a challenge for all of the staff and war colleges ─ even at Newport ─ in recent years. Indeed, we had only three naval officers in the class. This year, cadre from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center augmented the combined joint task force maritime component staffs. They served as subject matter experts on mine countermeasures operations, amphibious operations, maritime logistics, and composite warfare command and control.  And they did this all remotely, from three hours away, at Little Creek. Students representing the logistics staff participated in video teleconferences with service liaison officers at the Defense Logistics Agency at Fort Belvoir. Even our international officers, who were ordered home during the pandemic, were able to participate from their countries.

The natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism. Students playing the role of headquarters staff officers could not simply walk next door to discuss targeting or collection with colleagues. The framework forced the students to communicate via various digital media to collaborate and produce products.

The tyranny of distance defines the future operating environment in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. Operations there would necessitate the dispersion of the functional components over multiple countries and time zones. Furthermore, the ability to collaborate and plan as a battle staff, while distributed, will be an operational necessity in the future operating environment. The survivability of fixed command posts with thousands of servicemembers working in close proximity under canvas may have worked for stability operations in the Middle East, but will not survive in a high-end fight against a peer adversary. The exercise demonstrated the efficacy of distributing the staff in population centers, masking signatures by riding on local networks, and virtually hiding in plain sight.

Counterintuitively, the distributed virtual format actually increased the students’ access and exposure to the senior mentors. In previous exercises, mentors played the role of the task force and ground component commanders, receiving briefs and generating and responding to requests for information. During the virtual planning portion of the exercise, though, their role was more that of a coach, dialing into individual staff and functional component planning collaboration rooms to ask questions, offer guidance, and provide mentorship. For the actual “fight” and during commander-focused battle rhythm events, they provided the joint commander’s perspective through virtual battlefield circulation tours conducted with a mere keystroke.

For the first time, students conducted cross-functional staff integration in the form of boards, centers, cells, and working groups. to put their plans into execution. The student “staffs” shifted from planning to supporting the commander’s decision cycle under conditions of uncertainty generated by adversary actions. This reinforced the concept of operational tempo relative to an adversary.

Adding direct competition to the capstone exercise increased the quality of the products. The level of analysis and detail was both qualitatively and quantitatively superior to previous iterations. The complexity of the students’ plans, reflected in a system of systems approach, required the students to think through synchronization in all domains. Cyber operations were timed to support global strike; operations in the information environment shaped deception operations; open source intelligence found holes in host-nation logistical support ripe for exploitation and allowed aircraft to scramble to safety ahead of an incoming strike.

This is not to say the students’ plans were perfect. Failure produced the best learning opportunities. For instance, the efficacy of Blue’s deception plan diminished when their targeting board failed to include an enemy radar on the no-strike list. By taking out the radar, they eliminated a channel of information that they had intended to use to show Red their feint.

The detail generated by the students, even at the operational level, was exceptional, but proved challenging for the wargaming cell to digest and process. The adjudication cell went to great lengths – working into the early morning hours to properly account for player actions to the degree of detail that satisfied their professional judgment.

The competitive aspects of the exercise started long before planning transitioned to wargaming. Students needed to react to a contested information environment in which their narrative, legitimacy, and access were under continuous attack. Dueling narratives played in the “media” and “social media” under the supervision of strategic communication experts from headquarters Marine Corps. Students conducted mock press briefings and were subjected to hostile questioning from journalists, followed by detailed outbriefs. Embedded within the media injects was open source intelligence on the adversary’s disposition. When the student “staffs” were paying attention, collection plans were augmented with open source intelligence.

Shifting to a distributed online format required us to rescale the exercise. Instead of three combined task forces,­­ each planning and then fighting an adversary force, we collapsed players into two combined task forces for planning. Only one had the opportunity to fight their plan.

But even this setback was mitigated. The remaining students were organized into operational planning teams to work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on its PROTEUS digital wargame. They test their decision-making skills against a thinking adversary ─ their fellow students ─ in a time-constrained environment. PROTEUS provided the students with a multi-domain, combined arms wargame to test their ability to jointly plan and execute battlefield operating systems, in an environment where the electromagnetic spectrum was contested. As part of a cross-functional team, students completed their planning based on a situation that included unmanned systems and logistical constraints and then fought it out, tournament-style, to crown the best team as the winner.

Lessons Learned

Instead of balking at the unexpected impact of the pandemic, we revised and improved the exercise with the traditional marine skills of adaptability, flexibility, and commitment to overcoming challenges. The team created new, virtual opportunities for dialogue and collaboration. These new digital spaces for cooperation and team-building did not simply duplicate the capabilities that were lost due to social distancing; these spaces made room to bring in expertise from other professional military education centers, services, and government agencies beyond the Marine Corps University campus.

Even aside from the short-notice switch from an in-person exercise, backed by months of planning, to a remote execution, we faced unique challenges from the pandemic. Not only were the students, faculty, staff, senior mentors, and other participants operating via unfamiliar remote technologies. They were doing so with a myriad of competing demands and stressors. Most of the students and many of the faculty had school-age children at home and had to juggle the demands of the exercise with the need to assist in home-schooling. Additionally, their short-term futures were in limbo, with stop-move orders temporarily canceling the needed steps for packing up their households and transitioning to their follow-on assignments. And, like most other Americans, they had to deal with the social deprivations of the lockdown and concerns for at-risk loved ones. While the interruptions from small children provided some additional friction and much-needed levity, we have no intention of building it in to future exercises.

Additionally, we are keenly aware that our ability to shift so smoothly to remote teaching was facilitated by having spent the past seven months building relationships in-person. There’s no way to fully replicate the resident experience remotely.

Way Ahead

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance issued last July by Gen. David Berger directed professional military education schools to be more rigorous and competitive. Accordingly, we have added more educational wargames to the 2020-2021 curriculum. The university will provide students with venues in which they can compete, fail, iterate, and learn from multiple tries against their peers and faculty. Intra- and inter-seminar group wargames are expanding to channel and encourage healthy competition, allowing opportunities for students to win and lose in an educational environment, ultimately learning from each outcome, and preparing them to make better decisions when real lives are on the line. In this way, gaming is a key part of learner-centric education, reinforcing efforts to increase academic rigor and accountability, while developing more lethal warfighters who are also ethical leaders, creative problem solvers, and critical thinkers.

The unanticipated experience of executing the capstone exercise virtually, in the middle of a global pandemic, had a silver lining; it expanded what we thought of as possible. Despite little planning time, and all parties operating in crisis mode, we were able to get support from a variety of Marine Corps and Defense Department agencies. Personnel who would not have been able to attend in-person due to travel and budgetary restrictions could still, on short notice, support a remote exercise.

With the advantage of more lead time, the principle could be applied at much greater scale to make the exercise richer and more realistic. For example, the land, air, and maritime component commanders and staff sections were played by army, air force, and marine students in Quantico. In the future, they could be played by students at our sister institutions at Fort Leavenworth, Newport, and Maxwell Air Force Base. Indeed, it would be possible to increase realism and complexity much further by expanding the concept to include students at the war colleges.

This would be challenging, requiring the alignment of not only schedules but curricula and equities across multiple institutions. But the result would be a more realistic exercise, leveraging the talents of the Joint force. Moreover, it would further the Joint Chiefs’ new vision for professional military education, suggesting that “Curricula should leverage live, virtual, constructive, and gaming methodologies with wargames and exercises involving multiple sets and repetitions to develop deeper insight and ingenuity.”  Our colleague, James Lacey, explored this recently.

Such efforts would help make wargames more robust and break down barriers between the siloed communities that too often work in isolation from each other. The new online collaboration forums created for Pacific Challenge could help address the concerns of Jon Copton and others of “how the next generation of wargamers will be trained.”

To put it mildly, we would have much preferred not to have the academic year disrupted by a global pandemic. But being forced to adapt on short notice taught us valuable lessons that opened the aperture of what is possible in future exercises.

Original article

Does the Military Really Need More Strategists?

War on the Rocks

November 8, 2018

Former National War College dean and retired Brig. Gen. Paula Thornhill should be commended for kicking off a vigorous round of debate on professional military education institutions in July. Many of my objections to her argument have been ably expressed by others, notably my Marine Corps University colleague Tammy Schultz as well as Richard Andres of the National War College. But none have questioned Thornhill’s central premise: that professional military education needs to produce more strategists. Indeed, several, most notably Tino Perez, have amplified it.

The U.S. military doesn’t need to produce thousands of strategists a year, which is a good thing because it cannot. Further, while the professional military education system is a vital part of educating strategic thinkers, the primary obstacle to producing strategic leaders is a personnel system that bases promotions on tactical competence over the first quarter century of an officer’s career.

Thornhill cites retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who lamented that “those who rise to the top of the strategic decision-making pyramid are too often poorly qualified for the task.” Further, while she acknowledges their importance, she contends that “overview courses in strategy and policy, the international system, and key domestic actors in the national security arena” — which, in full disclosure, are my remit — “only tangentially prepare officers for future responsibilities as senior commanders and strategists.” She’s right. But the radical overhaul of professional military education she suggests wouldn’t fix that problem and would create new ones.

While we tell ourselves that the staff colleges transform tactical thinkers into operational leaders, and the war colleges are there to create strategic thinkers, the reality is quite different.

Thornhill wants intermediate level institutions like my own to “focus more on the challenges facing service chiefs and military department secretaries.” Yet, while a handful of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College’s 220-or-so graduates a year go on to a four-star or secretarial staff, the overwhelming number of them will retire without ever serving above the regimental level. Because of the vagaries of Marine Corps officer management, our students range from captains about to pin on the oak leaves of a major to senior majors who will be selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel while in attendance.  Their next assignment could be anywhere from a battalion staff to a four-star staff. By contrast, our sister school, the Army Command and Staff College, selects almost exclusively from the youngest part of that cohort and therefore primes them for battalion operations officer and executive officer posts, with some preparation for battalion command if successful in those assignments. In neither case, then, would it make sense to scrap the current curriculum for one that’s designed to prepare them for jobs they’re unlikely to fill.

Similarly, Thornhill would have senior-level schools “focus more on staffing the senior joint leaders like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense,” even though most war college graduates go on to tactical-level assignments and never move beyond that. Indeed, while almost all of America’s future generals and admirals will be graduates of the war colleges, almost all the graduates of its war colleges will retire as colonels and captains. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of a given cohort will advance as far as one-star. Even two-star division commanders, a lofty position few will ever achieve, are still tactical leaders.* Indeed, there are only 38 four-star officers in the entire U.S. military.

To be sure, some small portion will serve as aides or staffers for much more senior officers, including service chiefs, combatant commanders, and civilian secretaries. But Scales himself estimates that the entire joint force needs only “about 200 flag officer and senior colonels-in-waiting as strategists.”

Professional military education absolutely has a role in helping prepare those officers for those key roles. As Andres points out, we already do quite a bit to familiarize them with the structures, complexity, and vocabulary of those environments, as well as the research and writing skills necessary to function as action officers. But transforming 42-year-olds selected for their excellence as tactical leaders and low-level staffers into brilliant strategic thinkers in the course of a ten-month program is simply unrealistic. There’s a reason that Perez, Scales, Thornhill, and other soldier-scholars get PhDs. While not essential or sufficient for creating strategic thinkers, in-depth study of history, political science, or similar disciplines is hugely helpful in having the foundation to move on to the practical application that Perez wants to substitute for education.

The Army recognized that long ago with the creation of its Strategist — or Functional Area 59 (FA59) — program, which selects a handful of talented young officers, typically post-command captains, for their intellectual acumen and then invests considerable time and money educating them to be strategic thinkers. Perez himself is an exemplar of that program.

The problem, as Scales argues elsewhere, is that these officers are taken off the command track and thus are unlikely to make it past the field-grade ranks, creating the “painful dichotomy that those officers best prepared intellectually to become strategic decisionmakers are least likely to rise to positions where they can exercise their decisionmaking talents.” Conversely, ambitious officers who see stars in their future are unlikely to take the strategist career path, meaning those in strategy-making billets are unprepared for them.

Scales has argued for fixing this by selecting a larger pool of strategists early and then putting them through a Darwinian process managed at the very top, such that the finest soldier-scholars emerge as senior leaders. While this might indeed produce better strategists at the top, it would have the perverse effect of wasting the competent tactical leaders that our military produces in abundance. We need hundreds of battalion commanders and destroyer captains at a time — and scores of regimental and wing commanders. While strategic competence might be a bonus in those billets, it’s hardly a prerequisite.

I would suggest that, rather than attempt to create hundreds of strategic geniuses and then put them through their paces for 25 or 30 years of tactical assignments for which they may well be unsuited, we simply decouple the two altogether. Let outstanding tactical officers command our formations, from platoon through division, while allowing officers who show strategic promise to utilize their talents where they can best serve the nation. Indeed, we have done that with some frequency in the not-too-distant past.

Dwight Eisenhower, who wrote the U.S. war plan for both the European and Pacific theaters and served as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, is perhaps the epitome of American strategic genius. He had essentially no command experience below the three-star level, having only briefly held company and battalion command (for five and four months, respectively). He had spent almost his entire career up to that point on the personal staffs of generals like Fox Conner, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur, or in very senior aide and chief of staff posts. He also excelled as a staff and war college student.

Eisenhower spent most of his career in an Army that was essentially a cadre force. In today’s Army, it would be impossible for someone who followed his career path to get promoted past lieutenant colonel, much less to the general officer ranks. That’s precisely the problem: Someone with his talents would have been squandered as a low-tactical staff officer and, indeed, he may well have grown bored. But, if the goal is to identify and nurture strategic talent, Eisenhower is precisely the sort of officer we want to retain.

Gen. George Marshall, who was Army chief of staff during the war, had a similarly non-traditional career. While he had more troop time than Eisenhower, serving as a platoon leader, company commander, and in multiple tours as a brigade and regimental commander, most of his career was nonetheless spent as a staff officer and aide to senior officers. He rose to five-star rank never having commanded a division, corps, or higher formation. Like Eisenhower, he had also excelled in school, graduating first in his class at the infantry school and staff and war colleges.

Gen. (ret.) Colin Powell, arguably the most highly regarded American military strategist since World War II, was also known as a “political general.” To be sure, he excelled in tactical command assignments from lieutenant to colonel. But his strategic acumen was formed in Washington assignments, including White House fellow, assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, assistant to the secretary of energy, senior military assistant to the secretary of defense, and national security advisor. Befitting the requirements of the modern-day personnel system, he served briefly as commander of both V Corps and Forces Command. But he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at 52, the youngest officer to hold that post to this day, at an age where his contemporaries were assuming division command. He likewise excelled in the classroom, earning an MBA at The George Washington University and graduating at the top of his National War College class.

Gen. (ret.) David Petraeus, the most famous general of the post-9/11 era, had a far more traditional career. He commanded at every level from lieutenant to four-star general. He did, however, spend far more time in school than his contemporaries. After graduating at the top of his staff college class, he went on to earn his master’s in public administration and PhD in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and later completed a fellowship at Georgetown. Additionally, he served an unusual number of times working directly for influential generals. He served twice as a personal assistant to John Galvin, first as his aide-de-camp as 24th Infantry Division commander and later as his military assistant as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. He was an aide and assistant executive officer to Gen. Carl Vuono during his time as Army chief of staff. Later still, he served as executive assistant to the director of the Joint Staff and then to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Henry Shelton.

As those examples show, the professional military education system plays a vital part in producing military strategists. Just as important, though, is identifying officers with the intellectual and political acumen to succeed in that domain early and grooming them with assignments where they can utilize and build on their talent. Graduate education in top civilian universities, attendance at additional planning courses like the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies or the Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting, or grooming through something like the Army’s Strategist Functional Area program may also be quite useful. But this means accepting deviation from the cookie cutter personnel management system.

All of this focus on grooming strategic talent for the upper ranks of the armed services elides another important point: Strategy-making is increasingly the province of civilians. While it has been the case for generations that presidents and service secretaries make policy, the National Security Act of 1947 and the massive standing military of the Cold War, and beyond, led to the creation of massive professional staffs at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There is a huge pipeline of talent coming from our top graduate schools through various programs like the Presidential Management Fellowship. Rather than spending their 20s and early 30s proving their mettle in tactical leadership billets, they start their careers at the strategic level, and the best enter the Senior Executive Service (equivalent to the general officer ranks) while their uniformed counterparts are still attending staff colleges.

We still want our senior generals and admirals to be able to perform at the strategic level, translating civilian-made policy and political strategy into military strategy and operational art. But proficiency at the operational and tactical level is the sine qua non of the officer’s career. Let’s not sacrifice what we’re demonstrably good at in search of a handful of unicorns.


*The precise line between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war — or whether these even properly exist — has been a topic of endless debate going on for nearly four decades. Army doctrine assigned the operational level to the three-star corps commander with the 1982 edition of its Field Manual 100-5, Operations, which introduced the concept to American doctrine. Current joint doctrine assigns the operational level to combined task force leaders at the three-star level. See Joint Publication 3.0, Joint Operations, I-12-15.

Original article 

Who Suffers the Most from Government Shutdowns?

The National Interest

January 23, 2018

he federal government shutdown of 2018—or, at least, the first one—ended with only one workday missed. To the extent ordinary citizens noticed at all, they likely think it was no big deal. This is especially true with regards to the impact on the U.S. military, who they’ve been steadily assured went right on working, without so much as having to endure the hardship of missing the weekend’s NFL playoff games. In fact, however, millions of man-hours of productivity have been lost from this continuing crisis, with a real impact on readiness.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a memorandum at the onset of the shutdown declaring, “We will continue to execute daily operations around the world—ships and submarines will remain at sea, our aircraft will continue to fly and our warfighters will continue to pursue terrorists throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.” While that absolutely happened—and would have continued for quite some time even in an extended shutdown—that’s not all his department does on a daily basis.

While current operations continue, many training and support activities cease—especially those that require travel. Military students at resident courses, including the one where I teach, are allowed to remain in place to continue their studies, but their civilian faculty are sent home. Ongoing field exercises are typically suspended, with personnel required to return to home station. And, depending on which pots of money they’re paid from, students at nonresident schools are often sent home mid-course, only to have to come back at a later date.

At my own institution, which has a roughly even mix of military and civilian faculty, we were able to weather the 2013 shutdown with only modest inconvenience. While we were in the middle of a block of instruction taught by civilian PhDs, we were able to slide lessons taught by lieutenant colonels and commanders to the left.

This go-around, we happen to be in an elective period, and because we have several outside faculty teaching, adjusting the schedule was impractical. Had the shutdown continued another day, the classes designed and normally taught by the furloughed PhDs would have been picked up mid-term by colonels and lieutenant colonels with twenty-four hours to prepare. It was likely the best out of a set of really bad options, but it would have not only been a suboptimal outcome for the students—themselves majors and lieutenant commanders deserving of the best education we can provide—and put the new instructors in an incredibly awkward position, but it would have taken up valuable preparation time for upcoming classes and exercises led by those same officers.

Additionally, while the military students would have remained in the course, their interagency civilian colleagues were furloughed for the duration. During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted sixteen days, this meant that not only were students from the CIA, State Department, and other agencies missing a significant chunk of the curriculum, but the military students were missing the invaluable perspective that they’re in the room to provide. And, because they’re staffed almost exclusively by civilians, the library and similar critical support facilities were closed, as were all manner of base programs and services for the troops and their families.

As I noted in this space after the October 2013 shutdown, the best estimates are that it costs between $2 billion and $4 billion to prepare for a government shutdown and the same amount to get back up and running. And, while this was the first actual shutdown since then, there have been more than a dozen near-shutdowns in the interim, as we continue to fund the government by continuing resolutions, often mere weeks at a time, and play a constant game of chicken with the debt ceiling.

Beyond the financial cost, of course, there is the impact on morale. DoD civilians constantly worry about being furloughed and whether the next paycheck is coming—including right before Christmas this past year. Then-SecretaryChuck Hagel declared “we can’t continue to do this to our people, having them live under this cloud of uncertainty.” If anything, it’s gotten worse, given the frequency of the brinkmanship.

Perhaps worse than the uncertainty is the constant reminder that we’re less valued. While we’ve finally gotten rid of the insulting “essential” vs. “nonessential” label, opting for the more sterile “exempt” and “nonexempt,” the fact remains that the vast majority of the civilian workforce is considered expendable while every single uniformed member of our armed forces is considered mission-critical—even though they’re frequently doing the identical job.

The flip side of that is that, as Mattis declared in his memo, “active forces will stay at their posts adapting their training to achieve the least negative impact on our readiness to fight.” For the duration of the shutdown—and, again, this one was thankfully short—our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen pull double duty, doing their own jobs while trying to cover for the furloughed civilians.

This is a great cost to the nation and its armed forces for no obvious gain. Historically, Congress has always authorized and the president always signed off on back pay for employees furloughed during a shutdown, so we’re actually paying people not to work. Like the debt ceiling, wherein Congress periodically has to authorize borrowing the money it has already voted to spend or else put the nation in peril, it’s an absurdity that needs to end.

In the meantime, we’re scheduled to go through this farce again on February 8.

Original article

Professional Military Education and the Rigor Problem

War on The Rocks
March 15, 2016

In “Rigor in Joint Professional Military Education,” Nick Murray argues that Congress and the Pentagon have done a poor job defining what it is they want the staff and war colleges to do and, especially, in holding their feet to the fire. This has led, he claims, to “the problems of poor strategic decision-making that have plagued us for the last fifty or more years.”

While there is undoubtedly substantial room for reform in America’s professional military education (PME) system, measuring “rigor” is much more complex than counting buzzwords in school mission statements. Murray’s essay elides the diversity of the PME experience and substantial distinctions between the intermediate- and top-level schools. Further, much of the problems of measurement he points to are just as apparent, if not more so, in graduate education everywhere. Indeed, it’s arguable that PME is more rigorous by Murray’s standards than most civilian master’s programs.

Murray tells us that the staff colleges fail the test of academic rigor because theOfficer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP) guidelines that govern them don’t require our graduates to understand strategic thinking at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. While remembering, understanding, and applying are indeed lower levels of mental processing than analyzing, evaluating, and creating, as Murray himself acknowledges, the appropriate expectation varies based on a student’s place on the hierarchy. At the staff colleges, we introduce our students to the policy and strategic levels but we’re decidedly not expecting to produce graduates who are ready to “create” at those levels; that’s what the war colleges, which teach more senior officers, are for. Our graduates need familiarity with the higher levels for context, but they’re only expected to graduate with proficiency in “creating” at the high tactical and operational staff levels. We succeed at that.

Further, the OPMEP makes it very clear that the joint PME requirements “will not be delivered as a stand-alone course; they must be integrated across a diverse array of academic topics” by the service and joint schools that conduct it. These schools have vigorous debates among the faculty and administration about what to include and omit from the curriculum.

Despite sharing some broadly defined common mandates via the OPMEP, schools at the same JPME level vary widely in culture, size, mission, and style. Regardless, their curricula are vetted through an internal review process and subject to outside accreditation by both the same regional body that reviews other colleges and universities in the state as well as by the Joint Staff. At my institution, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, students in all 16 conference groups are assigned the same set of readings and graded on the same set of written assignments assessed using a standardized rubric. While there’s variation across the board in teaching style, emphasis, grading standards and the like, it’s nothing like what exists in civilian colleges. I’ve taught at several of them and was in every instance the sole arbiter of what readings to assign, what content to teach, what types of graded assignments to offer, and how I would grade them. This was even true of the courses I taught as a graduate student.

Indeed, professional pride on the part of the professoriate is the main guarantee of “rigor” in civilian universities. There’s next to zero emphasis on teaching in most graduate programs, where tenure and promotion are almost entirely based on scholarly production, ability to attract grant money, and the like. Professors would revolt against deans or provosts who even presumed to question the rigor of their courses.

PME, by contrast, is more regimented, for both good and ill. But our faculty, both military and civilian, have very powerful professional incentives to hold our students to high standards. After all, they will plan and lead our country’s future wars.

Original article

In Defense of Crazy Talk: Why Bradford’s West Point Article is Worth Talking About

War on The Rocks

September 10, 2015

The dust has now settled after William C. Bradford, a newly hired West Point law professor, made headlines for a controversial essay published in the little-read student-run National Security Law Journal. The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman reported that Bradford was denied tenure a decade ago from the Indiana University School of Law for wildly misrepresenting his military service and that, in the law review article in question, he seems to have misrepresented his affiliation with the National Defense University. These offenses made his employment by a military academy whose honor code is central to its mission untenable. It was therefore not surprising when Bradford resigned.

So that’s the end of it, right? We can all just forget about this sorry episode? Wrong.

While I wholeheartedly reject not only Bradford’s outrageous argument but most of the premises from which it flows, I rise to a qualified defense of the article on a number of fronts and I think we owe it to ourselves to keep talking about it.

Bradford’s article argues that a handful of prominent American legal scholars are a “fifth column” lending support to the Islamist enemies of the United States and should therefore be targeted for death as combatants in the war on terrorism. The argument is absurd on both first glance and deeper reading. It is nonetheless a highly valuable contribution to the national security debate.

First, there’s great value in outrageous but well-argued polemic. By pushing an argument to its logical extreme, Bradford has invited a vigorous pushback from the scholarly community. Second, debating the article would be especially valuable for cadets and more senior officers alike, many of whom share some of Bradford’s premises, even if they might never come to his extreme conclusions. Third, Bradford’s argument presents an opportunity to examine some actual U.S. policies.

Following the firestorm, the article was repudiated by the incoming editorial board of the National Security Law Journal in which it was published as an “egregious breach of professional decorum” and excoriated in its pages as “bonkers” by George Mason law professor Jeremy Rabkin, who calls its central charge that prominent scholars are intentionally acting on behalf of Islamists “too preposterous for anyone to take seriously.”

Interestingly, Bradford and Rabkin were among the signatories of a March 2003 public letter calling attention to the legal prohibition against Saddam Hussein’s government’s use of human shields to protect its military forces from impending attack from the U.S.-led coalition. Both are conservative legal scholars inclined to sympathize with the plight of a United States government hamstrung by international norms in fighting enemies who do not observe them. They simply reach different conclusions on where to draw the line.

Indeed, Rabkin and the student editors are not indisputably right. While I find the notion that the scholars should be murdered because their arguments happen to aid the jihadists risible (to put it mildly) there is certainly precedent for arguing that scholars have some responsibilities as citizens to consider how their arguments impact their country’s war efforts. There’s room for debate as to whether that obligation still exists and, if so, where the line is drawn and how the interests of the state are balanced with freedom of speech.

Bradford repeatedly feeds into a variation of the sentiment, popular in military circles since the Vietnam era, that America is fighting a “limited war” with one hand tied behind its back while its enemy fights a “total war” with no constraints. His central premise is that the Islamist foe, notably the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, are fighting a “fourth generation war” on the field of battle but nonetheless “will prevail if they psychologically exhaust the West, inveigle its peoples into doubting the utility and morality of the war, make the price of victory exceed the costs, and compel its peoples to pressure their governments to abandon the fight.” In particular, Bradford contends, the Islamists are exploiting Western fealty to the rule of law and, especially, a law of armed conflict (LOAC) that evolved over centuries of fighting like-minded foes.

Building from this foundation — which is itself perfectly reasonable — Bradford argues in exhausting detail (the essay is 193 pages long and contains 774 footnotes) that prominent Western legal scholars are abetting this strategy by harping on violations of these rules while giving little attention to the fact that the enemy is not playing by them at all.

He notes that respect for the rule of law has been a core belief of Americans, especially the elites, going back to the Declaration of Independence and is central to its foreign policy. Therefore, “for America to be chastised for violations of law, or worse, branded a rogue and anomic regime, threatens the fundament of U.S. legitimacy.” Thus, mere allegations of LOAC violations — and especially charges by well-respected legal scholars that their country is fighting an illegal war — “directly assault American political will.” Further, Bradford argues, this is not an indirect effect but central to the enemy’s strategy:

This is precisely why Islamist strategists have orchestrated a two-dimensioned operational plan consisting of an information element — a PSYOP campaign — supported by a military element — the unlawful use of armed force — to convince Americans that the United States is an evil regime that elected to fight an illegal war against Islam, that the United States systematically commits violations of law in prosecuting this war, that U.S. crimes erode national security and destroy core values, and that the only way the United States can restore its moral virtue, recommit to the rule of law, and protect itself, is to withdraw in defeat.

Bradford here evokes the “stabbed in the back” mythos popularized by Colonel Harry Summers and other military apologists for the loss of the Vietnam War:

The most transparent example of the power of elite institutions to shape popular opinion as to the legitimacy of U.S. participation in wars is the traditional media. During the Vietnam War, despite an unbroken series of U.S. battlefield victories, the media first surrendered itself over to a foreign enemy for use as a psychological weapon against Americans, not only expressing criticism of U.S. purpose and conduct but adopting an ”antagonistic attitude toward everything America was and represented” and ”spinning” U.S. military success to convince Americans that they were losing, and should quit, the war. Subordinating reality to a “narrative,” journalistic alchemists converted victory into defeat simply by pronouncing it; Americans, sitting rapt at their televisions but lacking facts to gainsay the media version of events and as yet unaccustomed to doubting media personalities, accepted the verdict. When CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite misrepresented the failed North Vietnamese Tet Offensive of January 1968 — an operational win for the U.S. — as a Communist victory,” the imprimatur of “the most trusted man in America” made it so.

Bradford’s rhetoric here is almost comically over-the-top. But his version of events has strong support in both military and national security circles.

From here, Bradford argues that “Islamists have identified strongpoints and force multipliers” to help them “attrit American political will” within “an interconnected government-media-academic complex” of “public officials, media, and academics who mould mass opinion on legal and security issues.” Bradford asserts that “Whereas these institutions and intellectuals once embraced values consonant with the society in which they root, over the past half-century they have sharply diverged.” Again, while this argument is strained, its basic premise is widely shared in military and conservative foreign policy circles.

Nor is Bradford mistaken in arguing that legal scholars at America’s most prestigious institutions are generally “regarded as neutral arbiters of truth dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and above the American political and cultural fray.” While it greatly overstates things to say that “their pronouncements on all manner of subjects, including U.S. conduct in the war with Islamism, are received by the lay public as the essence of wisdom itself,” they doubtless shape public opinion substantially. Indeed, Bradford is likely right that those of us who question the way the United States has fought the war on terror have helped to undermine domestic support for the war effort — questioning everything from our use of torture and drones to the excesses of Abu Graib and Guantanamo — and that this helps the Islamists. In my judgment, that’s the price of living in a democracy. Bradford is simultaneously correct that the LOAC hampers our fight against an enemy that doesn’t abide by it and wrong in concluding that we should therefore abandon it.

Jumping from this premise, Bradford identifies “about forty contemptuously critical LOACA scholars” who have stood out in this regard “by proposing that LOAC restrictions on Islamists be waived to provide unilateral advantage, that Western states face more rigorous compliance standards, and that captured Islamist militants be restored to the battlefield, effectively tilt the battlefield against U.S. forces, contribute to timorousness and lethargy in U.S. military commanders, constrain U.S. military power, enhance the danger to U.S. troops, and potentiate the cognitive effects of Islamist military operations.” Furthermore, “rather than make good-faith legal arguments as to what LOAC does, does not, should, and should not require, offers up politicized arguments — against evidence and reason — that the Islamist jihad is a reaction to valid grievances against U.S. foreign policy.” Thus, Bradford contends, they are actively helping the enemy and thus should be targeted accordingly.

While the implication that we should execute these critics strikes me as nuts, it’s not that far down a slippery slope from actual U.S. policy during the war on terror. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed into law the USA PATRIOT Act, greatly increasing the discretion of the president and power of the agencies under him to go after those suspected of ties to terrorist organizations, both at home and abroad, while substantially curtailing judicial authority to check excesses.

Most notably, the Bush administration claimed the right to declare American citizens suspected of ties to al-Qaeda or the Taliban “illegal enemy combatants” and deny them the most fundamental civil liberties, including imprisoning them without trial or access to an attorney. Yaser Esam Hamdi was detained for almost three years without charge, until the Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to due process. He continued to be held for several months after that ruling and only released on the condition that he renounce his citizenship, agree not to sue the U.S. government for its treatment of him, and agree to be deported to Saudi Arabia.

Hamdi, at least, was actually an enemy combatant, captured fighting against American soldiers in Afghanistan. Jose Padilla was arrested at a Chicago airport on suspicion of plotting a radiological bomb attack, held without habeus corpus as a material witness, and then declared an enemy combatant and held in a U.S. military prison despite having no military affiliation. Specifically, the president found “that Padilla was an enemy combatant who (1) was ‘closely associated with al Qaeda, an international terrorist organization with which the United States is at war’; (2) had engaged in ’war-like acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism’ against the United States; (3) had intelligence that could assist the United States to ward off future terrorist attacks; and (4) was a continuing threat to United States security.”

Despite several judicial rulings that this exceeded the president’s constitutional authority (the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on this for technical reasons), he was denied access to counsel for two years. He was ultimately convicted on charges tangential to those on which he was held, namely that he had “participated in a South Florida-based al-Qaeda support cell that in the ’90s began to send money and people to wage holy war in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo and Somalia.”

More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s successor, a former constitutional law professor at an elite university, authorized a fatal strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen “who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes,” for his role as an al-Qaeda recruiter and jihadist motivational speaker. (I should add that, while I have some misgivings about the rationale used and its potential implications, I support the specific decision in the killing al-Awlaki for reasons outlined elsewhere.)

And yet as Freedom House’s Arch Puddington and Thomas O. Melia note in their assessment of the impact on civil liberties of the war on terror,

It is important to point out that the setbacks to individual rights during the war on terrorism pose less severe threats to American liberty than those that arose during the major conflicts of the past. The United States has not declared a wholesale suspension of habeas corpus rights, outlawed political dissent, placed tens of thousands of nonwhite residents in domestic detention centers, ordered security services to conduct campaigns of surveillance against war critics, or blacklisted entertainers and academics who differed with the policies of the federal government. Nor has the government taken sweeping action against the press, despite article after article that revealed sensitive information about counterterrorism initiatives.

It’s noteworthy that Melia is now a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Thankfully, most of us agree that killing thinkers for the crime of pointing out the legal and moral flaws in U.S. war policy goes way beyond the pale. But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles. Bradford, presumably unintentionally, points to the absurd extreme. Where the actual line between the two is drawn, however, is subject to continuous debate. Bradford’s essay can help drive it.

Original article

Senator Walsh’s Unrepresentative Black Mark on Professional Military Education

July 26, 2014

Not unreasonably, Tufts University professor and Washington Post columnist Dan Drezner has some things to say about Montana Senator John Walsh’s plagiarized masters paper at the Army War College. As his headline puts it, “On what academic planet does a 14 page paper merit John Walsh an M.A.?”

Actually, it’s a bit complicated.

First off, let’s stipulate that I think the evidence crystal clear that Walsh intentionally plagiarized the paper. This wasn’t a case of shoddy citation. He deliberately included large chunks of others’ text, passing them off not only as his own research but as his own analysis, with zero indication that he’d referenced said others. Had he been caught, he’d not only have had his thesis rejected but likely not only been kicked out of the Army War College but ended his career with prejudice. As it is, AWC has convened an academic review board to consider revoking his degree; it should.

Second, I concur with Drezner that Walsh wrote an exceedingly bad paper even aside from the plagiarism issues.

But, as someone about to start his second year teaching in a sister Professional Military Education (PME) institution, I’d push back on the notion expressed in both the headline and the more emphatic concluding sentence of Drezner’s piece, “how in the hell did this piece of s**t result in the awarding of an M.A. degree?”

I teach at an intermediate service school, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and Walsh’s degree was from a senior service school, the Army War College. But the master’s requirements are fairly similar. At CSC, the master’s program is optional; at many other professional military education schools, it’s required. But a relatively short paper is often the norm. At CSC, the minimum is 20 pages and we emphatically don’t call it a “master’s thesis” because, as Drezner correctly notes, a paper of that length doesn’t merit that name.

But PME isn’t grad school. It’s graduate level education and, at least at my institution, quite rigorous and demanding. The paper requirement is light by political science or history master’s program standards but we’re not awarding political science or history master’s degrees. (Although it’s worth noting that many civilian masters programs have a non-thesis option. Indeed, I didn’t write a thesis for my MA in political science at Jacksonville State. I took 36 credit hours of course work instead of 30 hours plus a thesis because I needed to be done in a year and was advised to go that route.)

At CSC, we offer an optional Master of Military Studies.  Like our sister senior service school, the Marine Corps War College, the Army War College awards a Master of Strategic Studies.  All these schools are accredited to award these degrees by the same body that oversees civilian universities in their region (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in our case and the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in the case of AWC) and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to award Joint Professional Military Education degrees.

As previously noted, that Walsh’s paper passed muster with his faculty even aside from the plagiarism issue is rather embarrassing. It speaks to some inconsistencies across PME that have been widely documented elsewhere, perhaps most ably by Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College. (Although, in fairness, some pretty lousy master’s papers manage to get through at non-PME institutions, including at some rather prestigious schools, from time to time.)

Despite those problems, however, the war colleges and command and staff colleges are incredibly intensive institutions. They require far more contact hours and much more extensive – and broader – course work than is typical for a master’s degree. Taking 12 hours of class work a week, as I did during my master’s work, was unusually ambitious. It’s typical for our students to be in class twice that long; during exercises, they can have well over 40 hours a week in the classroom, in addition to outside reading, writing, and research requirements.

Whatever problems the Army War College might have—and I’d note they’re under different leadership now than they were when Walsh graduated and that I have enormous respect for their current dean—their curriculum is intensive. Their website is slightly out of date but here’s their program as of the 2011 academic year:

  • Courses on strategic thinking, theory of war and strategy, strategic leadership, national security policy and strategy, theater strategy and campaigning, and defense enterprise management, as well as five elective courses
  • An individual strategy research project culminating in a research manuscript which meets “contemporary standards for professional scholarship”
  • A strategic decision making exercise in which students confront multiple crises and navigate interrelated strategic processes including interagency policymaking, crisis action planning, multinational coordination, and resourcing
  • A weeklong national security seminar featuring nationally-known guest speakers.

In short, it’s not a 14-page paper that justifies the awarding of a master’s degree but rather a very intensive course of study. The “thesis lite” is designed to give students a taste of a typical graduate school experience while recognizing that they’ve only got 10 months to get the degree completed before going on to another demanding assignment in the operating forces and that the students have to balance their writing and research with all the other coursework, family obligations, and various non-academic professional responsibilities.

As I was settling in last year, I had a lot of discussions with my colleagues about just this issue: How much is PME really like graduate school? One of my more senior colleagues hit on the perfect analogy: It’s very much akin to an Executive MBA program.

In a typical master’s program—and, certainly, most doctoral programs—the students tend to be very young and highly focused on a relatively narrow subject matter. Typically, they’re recently out of an undergraduate program in the same or a closely related field of study at which they’ve excelled. By contrast, intermediate- and senior-level PME, like EMBA programs, takes in mid-career professionals who have excelled in their careers but mostly not been in a classroom in a decade or more and have come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.

It’s a very different program than what Drezner’s students are getting at Tufts. But they’re definitely earning their master’s degrees.

Original article

The Military and the Shutdown: Assessing the Damage

The National Interest

October 22, 2013

With the government back in business, it’s worth reflecting on the toll the sixteen-day shutdown inflicted on the nation’s defense. While most of the media attention went to relative trivialities like service-academy sports and the closure of war memorials, we wasted enormous resources that could otherwise have gone toward the nation’s security.

Thanks to last-minute action by Congress, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines—along with, after a brief interruption, most of their civilian counterparts—continued to draw salaries and benefits during the crisis.

Their ability to do their jobs, however, was seriously hampered.

Gordon Adams, an expert on defense budgeting at American University, estimates that it costs between $2 billion and $4 billion to prepare for a government shutdown and the same amount to get back up and running. We’ll likely never be able to precisely calculate the costs of the shutdown. But massive amounts of money were being needlessly wasted on a daily basis. DOD comptroller Bob Hale estimated $600 million in “lost productivity”at the Pentagon alone.

Ongoing operations, most notably the war in Afghanistan, were fully funded, but most training and maintenance went on hold owing to “the absence of available appropriations.” And some critical national-security personnel in other agencies, including civilian analysts at our intelligence agencies, were deemed nonessential and thus unable to report for duty.

All travel and temporary-duty assignments had to be approved at or above the combatant-commander level. Not only were troops who had been scheduled to travel to attend military schools unable to do so but, infuriatingly, those already in the middle of training were sent home in most cases. Even those weeks into classes had to return to their home base, wasting the money the taxpayer had already spent on travel, lodging, and subsistence. Further, the taxpayer will have to send them back, paying a second time, now that the government has reopened. In most cases, the students will have to start from scratch. And, of course, the instructors continued to be paid, despite not being able to do any instructing.

All of this was somewhat arbitrary, owing to vagaries of funding categories, different interpretations of very unclear rules, and the situation of individual personnel. So while the NCO Academy at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City sent 155 of its students homemidway through its six-week course, 25 students whose permanent duty station was Tyndall or were in the National Guard, and thus funded by their states, were allowed to continue. (Although, paradoxically, most of our Reserve and National Guard forces were prohibited from attending weekend drills and annual training, as well as active-duty training.)

Because this was uncharted territory, everything was in flux. So, for example, those already on orders for the Army’s Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia were allowed to finish their training and graduate, but those who showed up Tuesday expecting to begin a new class were sent home.

The impact across professional military education was mixed, owing to different staffing cultures and curricular patterns. The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California all but shut down during the week that its civilian faculty was on furlough. Ditto the Naval Academy at Annapolis . Conversely, the Military Academy at West Point and the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, whose faculty are primarily uniformed military, more or less continued operations.

At the Marine Corps Command and Staff College (CSC), where I teach, we simply moved up a block taught by our military faculty when the PhDs were furloughed. Conversely, at one of our Marine Corps University sister schools, students who were in the middle of a major field exercise away from campus had to be brought back home.

But even at CSC, the shutdown has resulted in waste. To begin with, our leadership has devoted untold hours that they would have otherwise spent working to improve the education of the majors and lieutenant commanders in their charge to shutdown-related contingency planning.

While the military officers who are our primary student population continued under a realigned schedule, their CIA and State Department classmates were furloughed and unable to attend school. Not only did this take away from the intellectual capital of our interagency national-security team, but our military students were deprived also of the exposure to the different perspectives of midcareer professionals from outside the armed services.

Faculty members scheduled to present research at conferences during the shutdown were suddenly unable to do so. One of our professors was called back from Australia a day before giving his paper—with the added bonus of a higher cost to the taxpayer for the earlier flight. Not only was this professionally embarrassing and a missed opportunity to engage with colleagues at other institutions, but it was also a colossal waste of money since, in most cases, conference and travel fees were already spent.

The long-term impact on military training and education should be minimal. Civilian faculty at our war and staff colleges and service academies only missed four days, and schedules can be adjusted to make up for lost ground. Presumably, students at TDY schools whose classes were canceled or who were sent home will be rescheduled at a later date. While disruptive, we can recover.

The more lasting issue is that all this wasted money has to come from somewhere. DOD is already scheduled, and reasonably so, to take hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts as we come off a dozen years on a war footing. Another year, or more years, of sequestration appears inevitable. Adding the shutdown on top of that was doubly disruptive.

Adding insult to injury, the taxpayer will eventually be on the hook for back pay for DOD’s furloughed employees. So, to recap: we’ve disrupted hundreds of thousands of lives, ruined weddings and vacations, and degraded the nation’s security without saving any money. Indeed, we’ve wasted countless billions on top of our misery. That’s a high price to pay for, well, nothing.

Original article