Former Director General of the Defence Academy of the UK, Vice Admiral (Retd) Duncan Potts, asks if a focus on Professional Military Education give a military advantage disproportionate to the investment needed
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGOin 1919, the Treaty of Versailles finally concluded World War I and, as many historians now recognise, cast the long shadow that led to World War II 20 years later. What is less well-known, is how Germanyused that time to recast and reset its military capability. The Treaty severely restricted the size, role and physical capability of Germany’s military. However, what was not constrained was its ability to develop new ideas and doctrine to reflect rapid advances in technology, and the education of its officer corps to exploit this. As is so often the case, it is the losers that learn the lessons and transform. The results are now well known: manoeuvre, Blitzkrieg and asymmetric war at sea with U-boats; a fusion of land, sea and air power that in the early years of World War II caught the Allies off balance.
What do we mean by Professional Military Education (PME)? Within a military context, training and education are often grouped together, or worse, used interchangeably. Individual training is something that is prescriptive in nature; in short it teaches people how to do things, develops functional skills and gives people a toolbox of skills to apply to their trade. In the military we often talk about tactics, techniques and procedures; these need to be taught, it is the distilled wisdom of best practice to carry out specific tasks. PME is much more about how we develop people’s analytical capability to apply that which has been taught to shape the context that one finds oneself in. It hones judgement and encourages reflection and challenge. It gives people the thinking skills to deal with ambiguity, change, complexity, competing demands and new situations; in short it is about ‘how to think, not what to think.’
Why is education so important for military leaders? First, the military is a profession unlike most others. Most professions require skill and mental capacity. However, whether you are a surgeon, accountant, lawyer or industrialist, you practice your profession daily, accumulating wisdom and judgment based on that experience. This is not the life of the military. Most military careers are spent preparing for what one hopes will never happen. Warfare has always been a ‘come-as-you-are’ event and if personal, daily experience is not available, PME becomes invaluable in developing judgement and confidence to overcome this.
At best, poor judgement costs lives, at worst it loses wars. Second, many careers are complicated. For example, running Heathrow Airport is an extremely complicated enterprise, with thousands of interrelated, moving parts, but essentially it is predictable, can be modelled and effectively once flight schedules are set, with the exception of events such as fog, each day becomes a known event that has been experienced before. Crisis and war are not like this. They are both complicated and complex, where ambiguity, chaos and incomplete information abound and wicked problems are faced daily – this is the context in which one operates. Usually, the military is only employed when the other levers of national power have either failed or been overtaken by events. Those events are inevitably sui generis, experience and certainty are not available to leaders, but PME can mitigate this.
Finally, militaries are almost invariably bottom-fed organisations. Whilst this is by no means unique amongst professions, it does have its drawbacks. New entry military training establishments usually attract a specific type of man or women. Even then, disparate young civilians are essentially moulded in a way that suits the tactical needs of that Service. At the tactical level where the importance of discipline, teamwork and confidence in others’ skills is paramount, this approach is entirely understandable. Also, at this stage a culture of pride and loyalty to your Service ‘tribe’ becomes firmly established; conformity gives tactical advantage.
However, as a mid-grade officer that paradigm needs to change fundamentally. People need to develop an ability to analyse and challenge. Pride and strong cultural links to one’s own Service can soon become hubris and obstruction to joined up thinking. Lord Mountbatten when Commander Combined Operations Directorate summed this well when he told his staff “ … forget not your skills but your individual loyalties and patterns of thinking …” Those words of 1942 resonate increasingly today where joined up thinking and action amongst and beyond the single-Services is increasingly needed.
At what stage is this education needed? In short, early in one’s career. In the fog of war, the philosophy of what we call ‘mission command’ has stood thinking militaries in good stead throughout history. What mission command means is that commanders should focus on what needs to be achieved, rather than the detail of how it should be done. This gives subordinates the freedom to react and adapt when events don’t turn out as initially assumed. Some have argued that the notion of mission command has been overtaken by the real-time ubiquitous connectivity enabled by the information age; we all recall President Obama watching the Bin Laden capture or kill mission. However, the same information age has increased the tempo of operations and the ability to sense, understand, act or react has accelerated. Consequently, this means that at the coalface distributed command and control and freedom of action remains essential.
So, some education is needed early in an officer’s career. However, where it really becomes a necessity is at the higher tactical and operational level of operations; the level at which operations are planned, synchronised and executed. This is the level at which the science of warfare is practically blended with a good dose of operational art. Commanders must have this ability, but so must their staff if plans and action are to be executed at the pace required and in concert with others. This means that there must be an immersive education effort at the Lt Col/Commander level. This should make this rank the point of inflection between single-service specialisation and loyalty, to being wider, defence-wide minded officers schooled in critical analysis, reflection and a curiosity to learn and question those norms they have previously accepted. Finally, there needs to be ongoing education thereafter, especially for those that aspire to formation or higher command. At this level, the military instrument will rarely be successful in isolation or as a single nation alone. This puts a premium on education and collective training with others, both internationally with officers from likeminded nations, but also with other government departments and institutions with whom the military will need to synchronise activity, support, or be supported by.
The nature of contemporary operations has also been made hugely more complex by the information/digital age. The ubiquity of information and the access that people have to it means that the nation state is now far from the only player in global politics and conflict. The military used to be an instrument that nation states employed when the normal discourse of diplomacy, wider relations and trade between nations broke down. The military were employed until a new status quo ante was achieved and then the normal levers would resume their dominance. For millennia this is how we defined war. Today, the world feels much more complex with nations and non-state actors in a permanent continuum between Cooperation, Competition, Confrontation and Conflict, moving up and down the scale and even being in more than one phase at the same time on different issues. This greatly magnifies the complexity military commanders and others face. This puts a real premium on judgement, political antennae, an ability to cooperate with others, understanding technology and reacting at a pace and along a broad military and non-military front to ensure initiative does not fall to those that are not constrained by law and public accountability.
This is particularly true in what is increasingly called ‘grey zone’ or ‘hybrid warfare’ where narrative on social media, true or false, eclipses the power of bombs and bullets to bend to your will. Proxies and hiding in plain sight complicate the challenge and advantage falls to those who can more quickly exploit all the means and levers available to them. Consequently education, especially with those with whom you will need to cooperate is at an even greater premium. The old adage of those that play together stay together can be extended to those that educate together; they establish a common understanding and trust that is essential in the cauldron of pressured expectation of operations. And finally, the pace of technological change means that this needs to factored into PME if decisionmakers are to keep pace with the art of the possible.
So, does professional military education represent value for money? It is widely accepted that military capability is much more than just a sum of equipment and people numbers. Yes, these are key but so are logistic support, good organisation, doctrine, infrastructure and training. To these I would add PME and reflect that good strategy and operational design and execution is a far greater force multiplier than the investment to achieve it. Education is not discretionary if you expect to be a credible military taking a lead in the world. Currently, the UK delivers its military education with about 0.4 per cent of its Defence budget. I will leave you to conclude whether this is a good investment. I know where I sit.
Universal Defence and Security Solutions Ltd (UDSS) was founded by General Sir Richard Barrons and Peter Hewitt to provide policy, strategy and operational solutions for governments, businesses and commercial organisations, on a global basis. UDSS has the largest and broadest membership of former British Armed Forces personnel, regular and reserve from SNCO to 4 Star, as well as former MoD Civil Servants. This enables UDSS to provide the very best expertise in the major defence and security challenges of today, including: leading in contemporary military ‘hard power’ capability; ‘hybrid’ or ‘political’ confrontation; information operations and cyber warfare; peace support; wider security; constabulary; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. www.universal-defence.com
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