November 15, 2013

School House Rock for Flag Officers: Developing Military Leaders in Austerity

By Stuart Montgomery

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” –Benjamin Franklin

As defense spending continues to decline and the international security environment becomes increasingly complex, the military will be forced to make difficult decisions on how to use their resources and manage the diverse array of challenges that lay ahead.  This will require military leaders to accurately design strategy and doctrine, acquire the necessary capabilities, and develop the human capital necessary to implement military requirements.  In order to be successful in this endeavor, a recent report by the CNAS Responsible Defense program argues, the military must focus on improving flag officer assignments, education, and selections and evaluations. 

In Building Better Generals, David Barno, Nora Bensahel, Katherine Kidder and Kelley Sayler argue that increasing the lengths of flag officer assignments, in addition to dividing flag officers into Operational and Enterprise tracks, will deepen specialized knowledge and promote critical thinking and prudent risk taking.  The authors also note that the opacity of the current system of evaluations and selections at the three- and four-star level inhibits accountability and recommend implementing expectations setting sessions, performance reviews and written evaluations.  Finally, the authors argue that a rigorous PME program must be established, capitalizing on longer careers and providing the foundation for expanding knowledge and deepening expertise. 

As the report notes, the military wisely invested in PME during the austere years after World War I, which developed highly educated officers and innovative thinking, critical to overcoming the challenges posed by World War II. The U.S. Army emphasized the challenging Command and General Staff College, a rigorous two-year program, the Army War College, and teaching assignments.  The U.S. Navy revolutionized its doctrine through exercises at sea and the Naval War College.  Likewise, the U.S. Marine Corps developed an amphibious doctrine for modern warfare, believed to be impossible by many contemporary strategists, because of the failure of Gallipoli in 1915.  These developments laid the foundation for success in World War II. 

Although PME has been institutionalized by the services in various ways, it has evolved to meet neither the complexities of the future security environment nor the expansive politico-military bureaucracy.  Most strikingly, PME virtually disappears after a flag officer pins on his or her first star (with the exception of limited, short-term opportunities) even though, as the report notes, career lengths have significantly increased.  Building Better Generals addresses the discrepancies in PME for flag officers and recommends how to the U.S. military can reform the system, capitalizing on the longer careers of flag officers.  The success of the U.S. military’s ability to navigate through the tough times ahead will largely depend upon having a leadership that sees the value in education and innovation as well as one that promotes accountability among its ranks.

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