As US national security issues become more complicated, interrelated and less amenable to easy or simple solution, and as resources will be subjected to greater constraints, the nation can draw on a not-so-secret weapon to prepare our military for this dynamic new world. That weapon is education on which the Department of Defense spends many billions of dollars a year.
But, while these individual institutions generally work well, they are still often oriented around 20th century practices and methods that do not always capture the demands of the 21st century. A revolution can change that.
From non-commissioned officer and service academies, through command and staff and other technical institutions to senior war colleges, the Department of Defense is the largest bill payer in the world for education (let alone training). Despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the best and most advanced weapons and combat systems in world, the advice of Robert Jones, arguably the greatest golfer ever to swing a club, applies.
In golf, it is the 6six inches between the ears where the game is played. And it is this space that must be the strategic center of gravity for preparing service personnel to defend the nation.
This is where the revolution must begin, in the minds of our greatest resource: our people.
Several years ago, at the direction of Gordon England, twice secretary of the Navy and once deputy secretary of defense, a major study of naval education was conducted. That study could be the model for a broader evaluation of DoD education. Three areas for improvement became strikingly apparent.
•First, Virtually none of the naval institutions were integrated or even closely linked with each other, or worse, within the "joint" world. That meant that any synergies from transfers of knowledge and leverage from joint research and academic curricula were being wasted. Despite the need for service "jointness," this absence of educational interconnectivity is even more pronounced across the services.
•Second, Education is still based on a 20th century vertical structure based on time in service and experience. Graduate school, command and staff, and then senior war college assignment depended on seniority and not need. Hence, while a relatively junior officer serving in a joint assignment in the Middle East or Arabian Gulf where the more advanced education of a war college might be important, he or she would have to wait to become more senior before attending.
•Third, Much of that education was based on 20th century models and not fully aligned with the information and social media revolutions of the 21st. While textbooks are important, it is the Internet that has become as or more dominant in education and learning. In today’s world, separating useful information and knowledge from the nearly infinite amount of often-useless material that exists on the Internet must be central to teaching and learning no matter the subject matter. In today’s world, it is the excess and not the availability of information and knowledge that must be central to teaching and learning no matter the subject matter.
For a revolution to take hold, the secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs must recognize the extraordinary potential education offers. A study based on Secretary England’s may be the most effective means of demonstrating this potential. And the private sector must be part of any evaluation in order to expand the intellectual horizon and incorporate the most effective new ideas and teaching methods.
In that regard, we offer three ideas to frame this study.
First, the aim of this revolution must be to enhance greater understanding of these issues through continuous pursuit of knowledge and learning at all points of service and not just during assignments to staff and war colleges.
Second, without greater seniority of educational leaders, the bureaucracy will doom any effort. When we were in the Navy, the chief of education and training was a four star admiral. Today, the nation’s most senior educational institution, the National Defense University, is headed by a two-star. We believe that post should be held by be a retired four star or the civilian equivalent. And the service war colleges should be led by officers of at least three star grade.
Third, as the national security environment has expanded well beyond defense, the National Defense University should become the National Security University (NSU). This new NSU should have the principal role of enhancing strategic thinking and analysis at the most senior levels of government. Students and faculty must come from across the whole of government. And we believe that aligning NSU with an equivalent civilian university or universities is needed to broaden intellectual perspectives.
Whether or not Churchill said, "now that we are out of money, we need to think our way clear of danger," we do. A revolution in education can and must harness this not-so-secret weapon and do so now.
James Stavridis is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO; Harlan Ullman chairs the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of business and government on strategic matters.