PME is not a luxury and certainly not a reward for previous accomplishment or service; but rather, a necessary investment by the service to facilitate readiness across the force. We must cease viewing PME as something less strenuous and less challenging than other tours of service and seek to make it as competitive and rewarding as possible . . . We must expect a greater return on investment . . . That [PME] experience must result in greater identification of the most and least talented individuals.1
– General David Berger, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps
As Commandant, General Berger intends to transform Marine Corps talent management, professional military education (PME), and duty assignment practices to meet today’s challenges. General Berger’s direction is clear: “We will not accept mediocrity within the force.” Current service talent management practice “is based primarily on time and experience, not talent or performance or potential future performance.”2
To carry out the Commandant’s intent, competitive officer-qualifying examinations should become a prerequisite for both resident officer PME and command. The imperative to make such a change rests on two assumptions. First, the Marine Corps’ obligations are to the nation, the institution, and the Marines and sailors in the ranks—not to individual officers. Second, the Marine Corps desires the best and most fully qualified leaders for positions of great responsibility both in command and on high-level staffs. If the Marine Corps is to be a genuine meritocracy, it should inform resident PME and command selection boards with straightforward, objective, and standardized indicators of each officer’s relative professional knowledge.
Numerous precedents exist of competitive examinations in a meritocratic military profession. Entrance to the Prussian (and later, German) Kriegsakademie, which institutionalized modern military professionalism, was attained by passing a standardized competitive examination.3 The French military continues qualifying examinations today. After a compulsory period of preparation and study, French Army majors are given a standardized exam on both joint force and service doctrine. Results are combined with the most recent years’ performance appraisals and a statement-of-purpose essay listing the officer’s goals for the remainder of his or her career. A French officer’s demonstrated doctrinal knowledge, evaluated performance, and stated desires are all considered in selection to the career-defining war college—Ecole de Guerre.4
Other U.S. services require competitive examinations for resident schools and promotion eligibility. Applicants to the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies are selected by a board following a competitive entrance examination.5 Navy-wide enlisted advancement examinations provide an objective indicator of professional knowledge and merit relative to peers. Yet the Marine Corps requires no objective demonstration of professional knowledge as a prerequisite for either resident officer PME or command slating.
Why Test Officers?
There are four major reasons to competitively test officers for resident education and stewardship of Marine Corps commands. First and foremost, competitive exams will introduce another measure of Darwinian pressure into officer career progression. The combat that justifies a Marine Corps is the most competitive and consequential of all human experiences—should the service not also embrace professional competition to ensure the best and fully qualified go to key staff positions and command?
Second, the entire Marine Corps will benefit from increased doctrinal and tactical proficiency as officers prepare for qualification exams. A rising tide will lift all boats as officers develop a deeper understanding of doctrine, tactics, applicable legal knowledge, and other topics most relevant to success in command and on senior staffs. As with the shift to dead-hang pull ups, Marine officers will all get stronger as they adapt to an elevated expectation.
Third, competitive exams will improve the Corps’ ability to select the best for resident schools and command. Current selection boards are forced to make these decisions using primarily subjective, and perhaps ambiguous, fitness reports. The only objective data currently available to selection boards are an entry-level AFQT score, height, weight, marksmanship qualifications, and physical fitness test scores. Boards need better objective information on the relative professional competence of each officer under consideration.
Finally, resident PME will be more productive when entering students have already studied extensively for qualification exams. Students will have demonstrated superior understanding through exam performance, and courses will be able to start from a higher baseline of knowledge, beginning where the qualification examination leaves off.
In discussions with peers, four consistent objections to officer qualification exams are commonly raised. The first and most common is a concern for ensuring “fairness.” Those making this objection argue that competition would deny resident PME and command to well-intentioned, but less qualified officers. However, it rests on the premise that less proficient officers are owed prestigious opportunities and responsibilities. Yet as previously mentioned, the Marine Corps is obligated first to provide the nation with the best combat forces, and then to provide Marines and sailors with the most qualified and competent leaders. No officer is “owed” resident PME or command; every officer should compete to earn these opportunities.
The second objection is that it would be too difficult to design a “fair” exam. This may seem a reasonable concern until one considers that the entire concept of formal PME is premised on being able to evaluate applied professional knowledge. Resident PME curricula are assessed by valid examinations that measure student performance against service or joint standards of professional knowledge. A prerequisite qualifying exam would be just as valid, and the doctrinal content of such exams would apply equally to command and resident PME screening.
The third objection is the most formidable—that qualification exams would advantage combat arms and aviation communities and disadvantage those with less relevant doctrinal exposure in the normal performance of duties. The Marine Corps as a whole could suffer if competition ceded a disproportionate number of resident school seats or command opportunities to officers from combat arms and aviation. This is a valid concern, but it can be easily mitigated by apportioning resident PME seats by military occupational specialty (MOS) groups and by continuing the practice of tethering certain commands to specific MOSs. With those controls, limited seats would still be competitively assigned through a process informed by qualifying exam scores.
Finally, some are concerned that authoritative, objective exams may be given too much weight in the selection process. The Marine Corps could find itself selecting good test takers over more charismatic and decisive leaders who happen to be bad test takers. This is an exaggerated concern, as formal exam results should never overrule the judgment of a selection board president and board members. Rather, an officer’s demonstrated mastery of relevant professional knowledge should be added to better inform selection boards in making consequential decisions.
The Commandant clearly expects assignment opportunity to be competitively based on talent, performance, and future potential. The information currently before selection boards is insufficient to judge professional knowledge and competence to meet his expectation. Objective standardized qualifying exam scores will add meaningful comparative data to subjective, retrospective fitness reports. In choosing the men and women who will lead in battle, placing the emphasis on anything other than officer professional competence is morally indefensible. Marines deserve an officer advancement system based more purely on merit. The Commandant has demanded officer advancement based on demonstrated merit; the Marines and sailors deserve it.
- GEN David Berger, USMC, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 16.
- Berger, 6, 7.
- Colonel T. N. Dupuy, USA (Ret.), A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807–1945 (Fairfax, VA: Hero Books, 1984), 47–48.
- French Air Force, “Instructions and terms for completing the entrance exam for the Ecole de Guerre, 26 April 2019,” provided to the author by a French Air Force colonel.
- Army Times, “Applications Open for School of Advanced Military Studies,” 10 August 2014