The vision calls for senior service colleges to “ruthlessly reduce coverage” of topics that are not focused on the “ingenuity, intellectual application, and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting.”
In the spring of 2020, as I prepared to relinquish battalion command and enroll at the U.S. Army War College, the Joint Chiefs of Staff released a strikingly bold vision for joint professional military education. It was nothing short of a call to action; the Joint Force needs to drastically change its approach to developing joint officers so as to gain “intellectual overmatch” of future adversaries. The vision calls for senior service colleges to “ruthlessly reduce coverage” of topics that are not focused on the “ingenuity, intellectual application, and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting.” I read this document and other commentary with a strong sense of dread for the year to come.
My trepidation was not unfounded. I had a similar experience while attending the Command and General Staff Officer Course at Fort Leavenworth. Prior to beginning the “best year of my life,” a common refrain for the course, there was a movement to increase the “academic rigor” of the curriculum. The result was excruciatingly full days consisting largely of busy work, limited time for reflection, and little serious study. The best year of my life turned out to be anything but that. I was ultimately frustrated with the curriculum and felt that, for all the work put in over the year, I had actually learned little.
In general, the challenge with professional military education curriculum development, especially under pressure to produce high-quality education in a short time, is that it ends up becoming an over-decorated Christmas tree. Well intentioned requirements are added more quickly than others are discarded. As a result, the Christmas tree approach to curriculum development often leads to officers passing through military education bewildered by what they are learning, why they are learning it, and if or how it’s all even connected.
When I arrived at Carlisle Barracks, I fully expected the Army War College’s curriculum tree to be distending in response to the Joint Chiefs’ vision statement. My experience, however, has not been the soul crushing endeavor that I feared. I was assigned to the Carlisle Scholars Program (CSP) seminar and based on what I have observed, the program’s approach is a viable framework to achieve the Joint Chiefs of Staff vision for joint professional military education.
As the Joint Chiefs of Staff intimate in their vision, strategic decision-making is most often about choosing what not to do. By design, CSP is structured to remove ornaments from the curriculum tree without sacrificing learning outcomes. A special program at the War College, CSP aims to provide an accelerated core curriculum in the first half of the academic year to create time for students to conduct client-based research in the spring. Carlisle Scholars must still complete the major graduation requirements expected of all students, including a Strategy Research Project, an oral comprehensive exam, and a public speaking engagement. To accomplish this, the program uses a committee-based approach that in the past has produced strategic thinkers like General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
One of the principal benefits of the committee-based approach is that learning occurs primarily by doing. For a typical block of instruction, the seminar of 15 students is divided into three to four committees who are then assigned an aspect of the block’s theme. Students are then given a week or more to investigate, research, and develop a high-quality presentation that serves to teach fellow students about their topic and to facilitate dialogue amongst the greater group. The committee-based approach exemplifies self-directed and transformative adult learning theories at their best, combining collaborative, self-directed research and peer learning.
The true power of CSP’s model is that it allows sufficient time for reflection, intellectual exploration, and increased rigor in the work produced by students. CSP features much reduced student-instructor contact time, providing students with more discretionary time for committee work and time to reflect on what they are learning or to explore various aspects of the curriculum more deeply. Furthermore, the primary core courses in the War College curriculum all overlap in CSP, setting conditions for students to make linkages between important strategic topics. Finally, CSP reinforces academic rigor through quick turn research projects and strategic surveys, relying on scholarly and non-scholarly research to gain perspectives on current national security problems and to produce practical joint warfighting research.
Past students have conducted comprehensive studies of joint all-domain command and control for the Joint Staff, war termination studies to inform the Department of State’s reconciliation strategy in Afghanistan, and even a readiness wargame.
Beyond individual student learning outcomes, however, CSP presents a significant opportunity for the Army War College to deepen its connection and value to the greater Army and Department of Defense through client-based research. Past students have conducted comprehensive studies of joint all-domain command and control for the Joint Staff, war termination studies to inform the Department of State’s reconciliation strategy in Afghanistan, and even a readiness wargame. In the spring of 2021, students will research and propose policies regarding great power competition for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and develop a competition-based wargame for the Center for Army Analysis and United States Africa Command, among several other projects. These are exactly the types of projects that the Joint Chiefs prescribe in their vision statement. Over time, this body of work will also serve to increase the prestige of the Army War College.
The framework is not without criticisms, however. Some critics argue that expansion of the model college-wide is untenable as too many officers would view the reduced contact time intended for collaborative research and reflection as but an opportunity to “take a knee.” These arguments, however, would suggest a problem not with CSP or its framework but with how the Army selects senior service college students.
While the Army War College does not select its students directly, each Army officer has already been through a centralized selection board after serving in a command or equivalent key billet as a lieutenant colonel. People that are unmotivated or lack initiative are generally not competitive for the War College – selection is typically limited to less than the top 15% of eligible officers. There is nothing inherently special about CSP students aside from the fact that, with limited information beyond past student testimonials, they volunteered for a special program prior to arrival. If we can trust War College students to command battalions, brigades, or beyond, can we not trust them to be responsible enough to self-direct their own learning with appropriate guidance from faculty?
The CSP model is a validated proof of concept to implement the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s vision for improving joint professional military education. While maintaining current curriculum requirements, CSP has already begun to take steps toward this vision. In addition to in-depth strategic surveys, the program also focuses on historical analyses of joint warfighting through the lens of current doctrine and continues to examine the efficacy of joint warfighting doctrine. To expand the model college-wide, Army War College leadership could easily adapt the CSP framework, focusing the client-based research phase on joint wargaming, warfighting, and concept development to more fully achieve the Joint Chiefs’ vision.
Going forward, the War College and broader senior service college community should look for ways to leverage and expand the methods of the Carlisle Scholars Program to develop an even more effective approach to intellectually preparing joint warfighters to lead on future battlefields.
Marc Sanborn is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and graduate of the AY21 Resident Class at the U.S. Army War College. In addition to his military education, he holds a doctorate in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has several postsecondary teaching experiences.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Products created by individual study programs within the Carlisle Scholars Program. Left to right: Map from CSP playing Eisenhower’s command and staff team for the planning for D-Day; CSP work doing a military geographic survey of West Africa/the Sahel; CSP product looking at the INDOPACOM theater, in this case producing a theater strategy for the Pacific theater in the mid-1930s. Front cover of the May 2020 Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management.
Photo Credit: Provided by Carlisle Scholars Program faculty