It appears that the Pentagon no longer intends to educate the most talented members of the officer corps to think strategically.
I say this because the status of the premier professional military education institutions – the war colleges and NDU – have been devalued, their leadership slots demoted and their educational mission degraded. As a guest columnist for Tom Ricks noted back in June:
….The new uniformed leadership of the Armed Forces, i.e., General Dempsey and his staff, apparently intend to prune NDU back to where it was a few decades ago. There will be some modest resource savings, but since the entire university budget doesn’t amount to the cost of a single joint strike fighter, one has to wonder what is motivating all of what is happening here. In the cuts that have been discussed, Dempsey’s deputy, Marine Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn has wielded the meat axe, often with the aid of micromanaging action officers. No one here in the rank-and-file is sure if the urbane chairman is on board with the details of all of this. (Ironically, both the chairman and J-7 are NDU graduates with advanced degrees.)
This set of changes took place in stages. First, while very few general or flag officer slots were cut in the armed forces, the three-star president of the university slot was downgraded to two, and the school commandants, downgraded from two to one star. No big deal, one might say, but one would be wrong, very wrong. A three star in Washington can go head-to-head with a principal on the joint staff or a senior OSD bureaucrat to protect the university. To compound the problem, the last three star president was retired in the spring and the university was left for a few months under the command of a senior foreign service officer, a former ambassador, a woman of great diplomatic talent and experience with no clout in the Pentagon. The new commandant — a highly regarded Army two-star — will not report until deep into June, when all or most of the cuts have been set in concrete. (Interesting question: can an employee of the State Department legally or even virtually assume command of a DoD organization?)
….A new “charter” was subsequently published by the Chairman. It focused the university on joint professional military education and training, which in itself, is a good thing. Immediately, however, the research and outreach activities of the university, often more focused on national strategy than military affairs, came under intense scrutiny. These outfits had grown way beyond their original charters and had become effective and highly regarded servants of a wider interagency community. Much of their work was not done for the joint staff but for OSD Policy, and some of that in conjunction with civilian think-tanks. The research arm of the university was productive, even if not always useful in a practical way to the joint staff. It also was helpful to the colleges in a much more proximate and direct fashion than other think tanks, like RAND.
….The research, gaming, and publications arms of the university — a major part of the big-think, future concepts and policy business here — will be cut to somewhere between half and a third of their original sizes. To make things worse, many of the specific cuts appear to have been crafted in the Pentagon, and nasty emails have come down from on high, about how the university is bankrupt and going into receivership, which was never the judgment of the military and civilian accrediting officials, who inspect us regularly and have generally given the university high marks.
If it would be impressive if some of our senior generals had been as effective on the battlefield as they are in the bureaucracy.
Uncreative destruction of intellectual seed corn is a bureaucrat’s way of telling everyone to shut up, don’t question and get in line. There’s nothing wrong with having excellence at joint operations as an educational goal for most future brigadiers and major generals but our future theater commanders, combatant commanders, service chiefs and their respective staff officers need something more – they need strategy. More importantly, the Secretary of Defense, the President, the Congress and the American people need the DoD to have an in-house capacity to generate deeply thought strategic alternatives, question assumptions and red-team any self-aggrandizing options the services or bureaucracy feel like offering up in a crisis.
The motivation here is simple, really. If you put out all the strategic eyes of the Pentagon, then the one-eyed men can be King. Or he can always contract out his strategic thinking to highly paid friends to tell him what he wishes to hear.
Naturally, this will have bad effects downstream in a superpower whose civilian leadership seldom has as good a grasp of geopolitics and the fundamentals of classical strategy as they do of law or the partisan politics of running for office. They will be in need of sound strategic advice from uniformed military leaders and they will be much less likely to get it. Instead, they will have senior officers who are less likely to balk when the President’s back-home fixer turned “adviser” or superstar academic with delusions of grandeur pushes a half-baked plan at an NSC meeting to “do something”. When that happens, the jackasses kicking down this particular barn will have long-since retired and cashed out with consultancies and sinecures on boards of directors.
While a lack of strategic thinking can undermine even a lavishly funded and well-trained military, the reverse is also true; strategic leadership can revive an army that is but a half-dead corpse.
A brief illustration: