Smart Defense Requires Smarter Defense Education

Because the Euro crisis is not only disconnecting European security from world security but also turning many European armed forces into little more than armed pensions, something radical needs to be done to bridge the abyss between strategy and austerity through which our armed forces are now falling.

A couple of colleagues of mine, Andrew Mackay and Commander Dr Steve Tatham of the Royal Navy, offer one powerful suggestion in a book with the truly awful title “Behavioural Conflict – Why Understanding People and Their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict — which should have been called, “Why People Do Things and How to Beat Them…and All That!”

The implicit theme running through a book with a decidedly British flavor is that military and defense education as currently conceived simply does not prepare people for the challenges of tomorrow’s conflicts. The status quo is rarely challenged, nor are courses structured or led to encourage the free-thinking vital to future mission success.

My own view of Western military power has long been that it will need to become much more intelligent. Not simply in terms of the weapons it can fire, but how each and every member of the force thinks about his or her role in a mission, and about the people and places where they take place. Indeed, for me the only way for ever-shrinking European armed forces to be effective in a world in which the use of armed force is sadly becoming more not less likely is to exploit comparative advantage – educated human capital.

During my about to end time as Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, I enjoyed some modest success in creating the concept of officer-scholar. A few select officers were taken out of the traditional career chain to undertake doctoral research so that lessons-learned from military operations could be just that – learnt. Too often said ‘lessons’ end up propping up endless shelves in endless corridors in some classified ‘bibliotheque’ never to be seen again, especially if they say something interesting.

One of the many oft-uttered platitudes that tended to bring on nausea is that armed forces are learning organizations. No they are not. They are too often course-following, box-ticking, exam-passing organizations. Defense academies are thus merely the gate-keepers to promotion. Doing is the thing, not learning. And sadly too often too many defense educators conspire in this cozy conceit, preferring narrow, irrelevant research to the building of life-long learning relationships. A real opportunity is thus missed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our military people. Indeed, with even a smidgen of vision defense academies could be real hubs for the kind of distance and life-long learning partnerships which our armed forces will desperately need if they are to succeed in the complex environments into which they will be inevitably thrust.

The point about learning is that it teaches one how to question and that is the problem. Too often, be it staff colleges, defense academies, or even defense universities, the role of applied research – the very essence of questioning – is suppressed because it is perceived to challenge the orthodoxy of command authority. If our armed forces are going to have any chance of succeeding this century the entire concept and approach to defense education will need to change. Sadly, there is no appetite for that in either hard-pressed defense ministries or too often in staff colleges and defense academies. Defense academies have become so conservative as to make them pointless. A bunker mentality does not tend to promote free-thinking.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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