Strategic Horizons: U.S. Professional Military Education on the Chopping Block

Strategic Horizons: U.S. Professional Military Education on the Chopping Block

The American military is led by some of the most educated professionals in the world. It's not unusual for a retiring commissioned officer to have spent more time learning in the classroom than a physician, attorney or professor. All commissioned officers and a surprising number of career noncommissioned officers have a four-year college degree; many add an advanced civilian degree -- or several of them. This is bolstered by what is called the "professional military educational system," which is made up of specialized schools operated by the military services themselves. The most important are staff colleges, whose students have 12-14 years of service, and war colleges, which normally come between the 18th and 22nd years of an officer’s career.

The American staff and war colleges were first created in the 1880s to mimic their European counterparts. They evolved and expanded greatly after World War II. The quality of the professional military educational system is one reason the United States has what may be the most effective armed forces in human history. But like all aspects of the military, the educational system is now facing cuts or major reorganization as the defense budget shrinks. While this is certainly necessary, it is important to understand what the professional military system does in order to distinguish good changes from bad ones.

As pressure mounts to cut defense spending, experts and pundits have proposed several ways to lower the cost of professional military education. One is to move away from traditional staff and war colleges altogether, instead sending officers to civilian universities for one- or two-year programs. Selected students today already undertake fellowships at universities and think tanks instead of attending the war colleges. This proposal would make that the model for all senior-level professional military education, thus allowing the war colleges to be closed.

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