The US military has an extensive professional education system to prepare its leaders as they assume higher levels of command and increased responsibility. Selected officers enter staff college and war college in the middle of their careers as they prepare for the final phase of their time in uniform. The professional education system is the mechanism to ensure that each new cadre of leaders has a common skill set and knowledge base, its curriculum reflecting what future military leaders need to understand. Today, the system needs to refocus on America’s top security challenge: China.
Much of the curriculum in professional military education is based on enduring topics such as responsible command, military professionalism, team building in large organizations, civil-military relations, and complex enterprise management. But it also represents what senior military leaders need their subordinates to know about the strategic environment. It is evolving as the global security system and US strategy change.
During the Cold War, professional military education naturally focused on the Soviet Union. Senior schools examined many issues and challenges but understanding the Soviet Union was key. A. While not every graduate of the staff or war college bone Soviet experts all had a basic understanding of the enemy’s methods, organization, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Other missions were, in the army’s phrase, “less embedded contingencies”. After the Cold War, the professional military education system shifted to a more diffuse curriculum as America’s global strategy was no longer focused on a single challenge. Students could focus on a region or potential enemy but, the thinking was, the United States needed to prepare for so many contingencies that staff and war colleges had to paint with a broad brush.
It made sense once but no longer. A clear, top security challenge facing the United States must refocus the professional military education system. While continuing to educate students on the enduring skills possessed by senior military leaders, staff and war colleges must ensure that all their graduates have an understanding of Chinese tactics, operations, organizations, capabilities, history, strategy, and strategic culture.
A professional military education system should certainly check the most dangerous scenario—Chinese aggression against Taiwan—but, like the Chinese challenges, must be comprehensive and holistic. China is a global power active around the world, developing new strategic approaches from security partnerships to global energy projections. Thus any US policy designed to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan or other nearby nations must be global, not local. It needs to include things like widespread social media, connectivity and transparency as well as the effective use of information power in the context of space security. Future leaders of the US military must view China as a regional military power and a multifaceted global power, understanding global integrated deterrence and the armed forces’ role in it.
This refocused staff and how the War College curriculum is taught is also important. Effective innovation and rapid adaptation will be imperative in the future security environment. If anything, technology and connectivity will make innovation and adaptation even more crucial. A refocused curriculum in professional military education should be as experiential as possible to build skills, emphasizing unscripted war games where failure or defeat is a real possibility, simulations stressing organizational entrepreneurship, and rigorous, historically based case studies.
For example, staff or War College resident students may collaborate with distributed teams in extended exercises that require them to rapidly reorganize the global organization of the U.S. military after a major strategic shift, such as Chinese military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. After the redesign, students must then use the organizations they created or adapted to protect American security in a new strategic environment. They will both create and use new institutions and concepts. As another example, students could participate in an exercise where the United States would have to raise and mobilize its forces during a multi-year war. Many other high-stress, complex experiential learning systems are possible, focused on China.
Admittedly, refocusing America’s vocational education system will be difficult. Staff and war colleges have spent decades building curriculum and faculty for broad-band rather than focused education—for a time when it was impossible to predict where or how the U.S. military was likely to be used. Major change will require a coordinated effort by the staff and war colleges, the Pentagon’s joint staff, and Congress. But the payoff can be good. Preparing the US military to fight the Soviet Union during the Cold War prevented a military invasion by Moscow and then prepared the US military to defeat Iraq. A refocusing of professional military education on China could do just that, creating a future U.S. military better prepared for potential challenges, more adept at preventing conflict, and more successful if resistance fails.
Steven Metz is a professor of national security and strategy at the US Army War College. The ideas in this essay are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of the US Army or the US Army War College.