For all of the Bush administration’s determined efforts to “transform” the American military for the new century, one crucial ingredient has so far been deferred. That is education. But without exploiting the extraordinary educational assets at the Pentagon’s disposal, the process of transformation cannot be sustained or kept alive, well and vibrant. The Pentagon leadership has not yet recognized this necessity.
In fairness, the Pentagon is busy. It is fighting three wars — Afghanistan, Iraq and against global terror. It is transforming itself. It is coping with the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review and the latest round of the politically radioactive base realignment and closure process. Understandably, with this huge educational system that does a pretty fair job as is, making change has been a lower priority. That is a waste of a colossal opportunity.
A few points regarding education and the Department of Defense must be understood. First, education and “training” are too often mistakenly used interchangeably. You train people to shoot rifles and to drive, ships, tanks and aircraft. You teach and educate people to be leaders, commanders and thinkers. Education is about learning. It must be oriented on what is learned not on courses attended. As Gen. John Jumper, chief of staff of the Air Force is fond of noting, his master’s degree in business was mandated by the requirement for an advanced degree, not what he actually learned or could use effectively during his long and distinguished career.
Second, across government, the Department of Defense has unique educational capabilities. These extend from sending potential service academy applicants to preparatory schools to the best war colleges in the world. Indeed, a former commandant of the Army War College at Carlisle, Penn., retired Gen. Robert Scales, who hold a doctorate, calls the Naval War College at Newport, R.I., the finest heuristic teaching institution in the world. Unfortunately, relatively few naval flag officers attend that war college because of the press of other, more important assignments, often at sea, or legally mandated promotion requirements that prevent tours at educational institutions.
Third, if the United States is to prevail in the struggle against jihadist extremists and others who use terror as a tool and a tactic to advance their political agendas, far greater knowledge and understanding of different human behavioral patterns, cultures, regions and societies are essential. These cannot be acquired in two- or three-day familiarization courses or part-time. And, as technology, science and knowledge grow exponentially, the military must keep up.
So, what should be done? First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should make transformation of education in the department a priority equal to military transformation. That can be done through planning, organization and management. The department’s educational system already has sufficient assets. Huge amounts of money need not be spent. However, these assets must be used more effectively.
Second, at the start of every planning cycle, senior military and civilian leadership must determine the learning and education requirements expected of officers, enlisted and civilian employees. Such a step will help separate military education from its rigid and linear progression, namely a function of rank and length of service. For example, officers graduate from service academies, receive a master’s degree along the way and then attend junior and senior war colleges at specific points later in their careers. Hence, officers may get an MBA at a young age and not use it until they are far more senior and may have forgotten what they once knew. Or they may need war college exposure before they become senior officers. Education must be tailored and applicable to nearer-term jobs —a variant of just-in-time practices.
Third, in addition to the annual performance report, every service person should have a learning report. Compiled in close consultation with a superior or commander, that report would specify what each individual intended to learn professionally and personally for that year. At year’s end, the superior would evaluate the individual on the progress and the report would be an informal part of the service record. The focus should be on learning — not on what courses were attended or degrees awarded.
Finally, to emphasize the importance of education, the president of the National Defense University (NDU) should be made a four-star billet held by either an active duty or retired officer of unique distinction. Furthermore, the NDU should be designated as the National Security University and its enrollment greatly expanded to include non-defense government employees of appropriate rank working in the field of national security, including members of congressional staffs and agencies.
Education is the nation’s not-so-secret weapon. It need not be expensive to wield. All that is needed is leadership. And that may be the most demanding task of all.