Time for the Next Revolution

By Captain Patrick Molenda, U.S. Navy

Admiral Turner had a plan and the tools to dramatically transform the Naval War College; in 1972 the college embarked on a path that resulted in a truly world-class educational institution. Though many of his initiatives endure, the college is at risk of losing its hard-earned stature and relevance. Resting somewhat on the laurels of Admiral Turner’s efforts, coupled with a hearty institutional bias against meaningful change, the Naval War College is not sufficiently preparing students to address current and future national security challenges.

Once again, the college is failing to adequately meet its mission of educating and developing leaders, just as Admiral Turner encountered over four decades ago. Though its wargaming and research have reached a level of global prominence, the core academic programs are what should make the institution an enduring flagship for higher education and provide the Navy’s foundation to face future challenges. However, the fundamental problem lies in the fact that this core lacks sufficient focus, depth, and reach to optimally impact today’s Navy in areas where this knowledge is needed most.

Broadly speaking, Naval War College academics are separated into intermediate and senior grade curricula. Both cover three core disciplines—joint military operations, strategy and policy, and national security affairs—but at different levels of emphasis. The course of instruction takes about nine months and focuses on areas most appropriate to rank and experience. Graduates earn joint professional military education (JPME) credit and a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies. Though the breadth of the three core academic courses and the excellent faculty are most impressive, the depth of instruction is insufficient to provide officers the level of knowledge and practical skills needed to truly excel in any of the college’s three main disciplines.

Admittedly, the intent of the core courses is not to produce subject matter experts but rather officers astute at critical analysis through exposure to a broad range of complex topics. In today’s intricate world, however, greater specialization in the three core disciplines is in order. Simply put, today’s Navy requires officers who can thrive in three functional areas: military planning, the Washington, D.C. policy and resource arena, and strategy formulation. The broad approach, at the foundation of the current Naval War College educational model, is proving inadequate to meet this need.

Evidence that the core curricula are lacking exists in the evolution of niche programs at the Naval War College, mostly in response to external stimuli. In the past 40 years the college has grown into a loose confederation of somewhat independent entities, all chartered to address perceived Navy issues and shortfalls through stovepipe and ad hoc approaches. The result of this cottage industry is a propensity to either leave the majority of students out of the equation entirely, or include only small segments of the student population. In almost every case, these concentrated efforts delve more deeply into a specific topic area, such as research or military planning.

As such, along with the core academic programs, the Naval War College contains a number of centers, courses, colleges, and programs. Among others, these include the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, the Writing Center, the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership, the maritime staff operators course, the maritime operational planners course, the executive level operational level of war course, the Advanced Research Programs (including the Mahan, Halsey, Gravely, and Stockdale Groups), and, dare we say it, even the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. The latest version of this niche approach, new this year and therefore still somewhat embryonic, is the Advanced Studies in Naval Strategy (ASNS), which addresses the apparent deficit of effective maritime strategists as articulated by a recent Chief of Naval Operations initiative. The perceived need for the ASNS program is particularly telling as the Naval War College trumpets their core strategy and policy course as one of the best in the land.

A Stalled Revolution

Admiral Turner’s incorporation of seminar-based studies, challenging exams, heavy reading loads, more top-tier civilian professors, and general curriculum organization along three primary subject areas remains the foundation of the current educational framework. These “pillars,” however, are not enough for today’s complex security and constrained fiscal environments. The first opportunity for a course correction accompanied the advent of the Goldwater-Nichols Act and the associated mandates for joint education standards. While the standardization of JPME requirements across all the services was beneficial, in many ways the Naval War College has used these joint mandates as a crutch to justify resistance to any meaningful change. Another opportunity to fix curricula shortfalls came in 2007 when the Naval War College conducted what most refer to as the “bifurcation.” In reaction to external guidance—a telling indicator of the magnitude of resistance to change at the Naval War College—the intermediate and senior level courses were revised and separated into a tactical-operational-level focus for the intermediate course and an operational-strategic level focus for the senior course. What is perhaps most alarming is that Admiral Turner had already directed those different focus levels . . . and in the intervening years, the college had drifted back towards one curriculum. 6

In both cases, the existing course structure was deemed to be largely suitable as is, with any significant changes essentially only made to meet new external guidance and forestall criticism. Today, one of the biggest roadblocks to reform centers on a growing friction between an education centered on critical analysis versus practical instruction that targets educational—and training—outcomes that specifically prepare officers to excel in future assignments. These two philosophies, however, need not be mutually exclusive.

In his 1972 convocation speech, Admiral Turner emphasized, “If you attempt to make this place a prep school for your next assignment, you will have missed the purpose of being here. If we trained you for a particular type of duty, the value of the college would be short-lived. We want to educate you to be capable of doing well in a multitude of future duties.” 7 In many ways this mindset formed the basis for the Turner reforms. The admiral was certainly correct when he identified decision-making, critical thinking, and leadership as constants to the military profession. Essentially, he argued for a program based on a more traditional higher education model.

The increasingly complex world demonstrates that while the Turner reforms were a radical departure appropriate for that time, they should have been just the beginning. Put differently, while ramping up the “pure” education component of the curriculum fixed many of the issues Admiral Turner encountered, given today’s environment more practical application needs to be better blended into a Naval War College education to best meet Navy needs. The bottom line is that while the Turner Revolution was a much-needed step, it did not go far enough.

MAWS: The Best of Both Worlds

The Maritime Advanced Warfighting School (MAWS) is an example of how both these aims can be achieved. (For full disclosure, I was director of the school from 2009 through April 2014.) During a 13-month period of instruction, MAWS students spend a significant amount of time studying theory, historical case studies, and operational art, as well as strategy and leadership, to form a solid base of critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Students, though, are also immersed in the mechanics and practicalities of the operational planning process so they can excel in their near-term assignments, thereby providing tangible value to the Navy and the joint force. MAWS graduates are in very high demand because while their education is anchored in critical analysis and historical case studies, they also bring a meaningful and practical component to their follow-on assignments. Not only have they been taught how to think, but they also graduate as experts in the practical aspects of operational planning. This combination proves to be a highly valued and sought after capability. This outcome can and should be mirrored throughout the rest of the Naval War College’s course of study.

A contributing factor to the problem of relevancy is that although the Naval War College is widely recognized throughout the Navy, joint community, inter-agency, and academia as an educational organization of the highest caliber, oddly enough, the Navy typically does not send its best and brightest to Newport, either as students or instructors. Assignment to the Naval War College does not rise to a level of prominence compared to Navy enterprise, OPNAV, or even joint billets. Though there are exceptions, hot runners from all warfare specialties are most often advised that they do not have time in their career progression to “waste a year” in Newport . . . and so they don’t go.

Attendance at the Naval War College is considered a suboptimal way to achieve mandated JPME requirements—the preferred method is through distance education so that an officer can pass this wicket while still serving in a “real job.” This approach allows the most upwardly mobile officers to stay competitive for command and beyond by filling the seemingly more important big Navy and community billets. Though it is debatable whether there is an intrinsic Navy bias against higher education, it is clear that in-residence study at the Naval War College is essentially a neutral assignment at best, unlike the other services where resident education is highly sought after and competitive.

Even though the college is widely recognized as the shining star of advanced professional military institutes, successful graduation or even graduation with distinction does not significantly factor into a Navy officer’s promotion potential. This is a bizarre dichotomy, particularly in light of the historical role that those educated or who taught at the Naval War College played in the Navy’s success in World War II—Nimitz and Spruance to name two—which was the last time the U.S. Navy was called on to conduct maritime campaigns against a formidable enemy. There are many reasons for this anomaly, but it arguably results from the combination of the Navy’s seeming inability to take a long view toward officer progression coupled with a strong perception of limited tangible relevancy of a Naval War College education.

A Shifting Focus

In 1972, Admiral Turner reflected, “The problems we face are increasingly complex. More is demanded of us as officers than ever before. This college, in turn, must demand more of its students.” 8 Today’s environment necessitates that the Naval War College shift its focus away from its overly broad coverage of the core academic disciplines and implement a new approach with distinctive academic tracks. While there are many ways to achieve this, two relatively easy to execute options exist, with the first being to specialize in the existing educational tracks, and the second to further differentiate the intermediate and senior courses.

For the first option, officers should be carefully screened and selected to study one of three disciplines: Navy and joint planning and operations, strategy and policy, or national security affairs (with an emphasis on resourcing). Students would still take classes from all three disciplines to ensure a measure of broadening and to meet JPME requirements, but they would spend most of their time immersed in their academic focus area.

More specifically, under this new approach the National Security Affairs (NSA) Department, which is currently structured to cover the three sub-areas of policy analysis, security strategies, and leadership concepts, would be stripped of its leadership component and focus instead on policy/strategy analysis and resource management. The end result would be that students graduating from the NSA track form a cadre of officers particularly skilled at linking policy, strategy, and resourcing in order to more effectively navigate the Pentagon and various Washington bureaucracies so the best ideas and concepts can stand up in the storm of austere defense budgets. Ultimately, these officers will adeptly posture the Navy to meet the myriad of current and emerging security challenges.

Leadership concepts could be implemented as a stand-alone course common to all three of the core disciplines and perhaps led by the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership. Additionally, this increased emphasis on leadership would help enable and optimize the recently released CNO Leadership Development Strategy, arguably, one of the Navy’s top priorities.

To address the deficit of effective maritime strategists as articulated in the CNO’s recent Advanced Studies in Naval Strategy (ASNS) initiative, the Naval War College Strategy Department would expand to include practical applications in strategy development to include real-world strategic planning instruction and a practicum. This component would complement the department’s existing outstanding historical case study seminar and lecture approach to teaching strategy. The end result would be a cadre of naval strategists postured to excel in critical strategy billets in much the same manner as their MAWS counterparts contribute as high-end operational planners.

The planning and operations track would require the most re-engineering. The Joint Military Operations Department and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School should be re-configured to connect better with the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. This would ensure that the joint and Navy operational planner education would be reinforced by detailed study of current and future technical and tactical considerations validated through wargaming. The Center for Naval Warfare Studies would still host wargames external to the college and continue their focused research efforts. The difference, however, is that students would be more central to all these efforts and more would benefit from the various research initiatives.

The second option, applying appropriate curriculum modifications similar in scale to those above, would concentrate military planning and operations education at the intermediate level, while providing a foundational level of education in strategy and national security affairs, as these directly influence planning outcomes. Since planning is a core skill set for military officers, this concentrated focus would resonate throughout the remainder of their careers. In contrast, the senior course would then emphasize strategy development and national security policy and resource issues. Given their ability to influence decisions at higher levels because of their seniority, concentrating these topics at this point in officers’ careers would ensure that they have the tools they need at the right moment on their career trajectory, making a meaningful difference.

Yes, But …

Some might argue that the Naval War College is incapable of such significant reform since the congressionally mandated joint educational requirements and other educational pet rocks are too pervasive. Admiral Turner faced a similar scenario back in 1972 when he lamented, “Our War Colleges have succumbed to the temptation to add piecemeal to their curricula in a fruitless quest to cover everything of relevance.” 9 The JPME requirements, however, are not immovable objects nor were they ever meant to displace the most relevant service specific educational components. In fact, the JPME order specifically states, “JPME I and II will not be delivered as a stand-alone course, they must be delivered in conjunction with Service PME.” 10

The truth is that most of the JPME requirements can be met through the Navy’s various distant education vehicles or woven into the new curriculum, thereby allowing maneuvering room to focus on topics most relevant to Navy needs. For example, the Joint Staff College teaches JPME II in ten weeks, so fitting those requirements into a nine-month senior course curriculum should not be difficult.

Admittedly, there is a constant deluge of new initiatives attempting to shoehorn their way into the various curricula, such as operational energy, arctic awareness, and mission command to name a few. While these and a host of other initiatives might have merit, they need to be carefully measured against the existing components that would need to be removed to accommodate such additions so that the core curricula are not diluted. Another argument is this approach might actually move the Navy further away from the joint arena. However, just because the core academic tracks will have a distinct maritime flavor and meet specific Navy requirements, they need not, nor should not, exclude joint and inter-agency considerations.

Some might claim that these changes equate to more “training” and the Naval War College focus is on education, with the understandable concern that education better prepares personnel for the unknown, while training prepares them for simply the known. Yet, the OPMEP order that drives JPME recognizes that:

Training and education are not mutually exclusive. Virtually all military schools and professional development programs include elements of both education and training in their academic programs. Achieving success across the joint learning continuum relies on close coordination of training and education to develop synergies as personnel develop individually over time, acquiring and performing progressively higher skills and responsibilities as their careers advance. 11

Turning to more academic considerations, since the Naval War College awards master’s degrees, there are those who might argue that incorporating material considered to be training might put the college’s degree accreditation at risk. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, however, allows for programs with a practical focus and even states in its Standards for Accreditation that:

Professional or practice-oriented programs at the doctoral or master’s degree levels are designed to prepare students for professional practice involving the application or transmission of existing knowledge or the development of new applications of knowledge within their field. . . . Programs include the sequential development of professional skills that will result in competent practitioners. 12

Navigating the Transformation

On the surface this new approach may come across as a radical departure from the existing education provided by the Naval War College. However, the college has already adopted the basic components of this concept. For example, the joint military operations (JMO) curriculum provides the basis for the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School, which produces the Navy’s “Jedi” operational level planners. JMO also teaches the core elements of the “JPN AQD,” which formally recognizes planning proficiency required to excel in maritime operation centers and on combatant command staffs. Additionally, the CNO’s new ASNS initiative leverages many of the components resident in the college’s strategy course, but delivers the material with more depth and focus. The College of Operational and Strategic Leadership largely developed the CNO’s Navy Leadership Strategy and the various “Halsey” groups resident in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies provide cutting edge analysis of emerging technical and tactical developments for virtually all critical warfare areas. The problem is these disparate efforts are not adequately synchronized to deliver student centered educational outcomes that benefit both the students and the Navy.Enacting these changes is not solely in the realm of the Naval War College, and must also include the Navy as a whole.

To further optimize this approach, the Navy should become more selective in whom it sends to Newport—as both students and instructors. A meaningful selection process will ensure the institution targets the right officers for the more rigorous and specialized course load so they may attain significant levels of leadership while shaping policy, strategy, and operations along the way. A smaller cadre of upwardly mobile officers will warrant such an investment but only if they will be detailed to positions where they will make real contributions directly related to their Naval War College education. In addition, a more select and smaller Naval War College population will relieve pressure on an already overly complex detailing process.

Though not designed specifically as a cost-saving measure, this concept could potentially eliminate redundancies inherent to overlapping courses currently in place at the Naval War College that target similar educational and training outcomes. Even though offerings like the maritime staff operators course, executive leaders operational course, and the new maritime operational planning course provide exceptional value to the warfighting commanders, they could perhaps be moved to Fleet concentration areas where they can provide the training to a wider audience and at a potentially reduced cost.

Ultimately, this concept better balances the often nebulous advanced-education objectives that are inherently based on critical analysis against meaningful and practical skills relevant in areas where the Navy is historically deficient. Finally, it allows the Naval War College to better apply its resources in what is sure to be an austere budget climate for the conceivable future. The Navy has one of the greatest institutions, filled with dedicated world-class civilian and military professionals, at its disposal to help meet the myriad challenges our nation faces. But this transformation will require a significant paradigm shift for Navy leadership. It is time the Naval War College is put to better use by taking the next step in educating tomorrow’s leaders.

1. John Arquilla, “What Just Happened at the Naval Postgraduate School?” http://nation.time.com/2012/12/07/what-just-happened-at-the-naval-postgraduate-school/#ixzz2iSym9Gys ; Thomas G. Mahnken, “Sailing Through the ‘Fog of Peace,” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings , vol. 138, no. 2 (February 2012), 52–7.

2. C. D. Hayes, “Developing the Navy’s Operational Leaders: A Critical Look,” Naval War College Review , vol. 61, no. 3, Summer 2008, 89.

3. VADM Stansfield Turner, “Challenge! A New Approach To A Professional Education At The Naval War College,” Naval War College Review , Volume XXV, no. 2/sequence no. 240, November–December 1972, 4.

4. Ibid., 2.

5. Ibid., 3.

6. Ibid., 5–6.

7. Ibid., 6.

8. Ibid., 2.

9. Ibid., 3.

10. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Officer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP)”, CJSCI 1800.01D (w/Change 1), dated 15 July 2009.

11. Ibid, A-2.

12. VADM Stansfield Turner, New England Association of School and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, “Standards for Accreditation, Standard 4, The Academic Program,” dated 1 July 2011, http://cihe.neasc.org/standard-policies/standards-accreditation/standards-effective-july-1-2011#standard_four .

Captain Molenda was the Director of the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School at the Naval War College and is a Navy LAMPS helicopter pilot currently serving as the deputy operations officer at COMPACTFLT.


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