In a way, we need not look any further than to our enemies in the war on terror to see what our future military leaders might look like.
Increasingly, like our enemies, our on-the-ground leadership will be bound together by shared ideals and objectives, but little else. Our leaders, in essence, will direct self-sufficient "cells" of soldiers as they pursue their independent tasks. Critical thinking will be, well, critical. Quick judgments to counter rapidly changing circumstances will be essential. Encounters with uncommon and unexpected threats -- from weapons of mass destruction, unexpected capabilities or surprise attacks from insurgents and terrorists -- will be unavoidable.
Yet, the training these officers now receive has changed little since the end of the Cold War, when enemies were known, battles were planned and capabilities were fully anticipated. We continue to train and promote officers on the basis of their ability to meet challenges they almost certainly never will encounter on a battlefield. For example, despite the fact that the U.S. military has conducted an average of one peacekeeping, peacemaking or post-conflict operation every two years since the end of the Cold War, military education and training programs offered scant preparation for the postwar challenges in Iraq.
As the Pentagon goes through its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of strategy, force structure, missions and resources, it seems to recognize that change is necessary. It does not seem to recognize how this change should materialize. Reform proposals call for everything from Arabic-language training to negotiating skills to increased engineering and scientific training.
But this misses the point. Even as we learn more about technology and monitoring our opponents, we must recognize that we will know progressively less about what to expect from them on a battlefield ... if indeed that term will still apply in future conflicts. The future is simply too unpredictable and the period of training too lengthy for this approach.
What officers will need in the future are the critical thinking skills that come from a graduate education program. Thinking skills -- not deep study in one particular discipline -- are the best preparation for dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, the linchpins of future warfare. Virtually any graduate program would suffice. In fact, the military should seek as broad a range of graduate experiences as possible as a hedge against unexpected operational and strategic requirements.
We used this approach between World War I and World War II. We let officers seek a diverse swath of educational and professional opportunities. When the United States finally entered World War II, it drew on this vast skill set to face the wide variety of challenges our opponents presented. We're now in a similar period of uncertainty, and we should respond similarly.
Forget tying senior education to promotion. Every officer needs these critical thinking skills. And sooner rather than later. Today, most leaders are 40 or older before they undertake graduate education. They need to go through these programs the same time civilians do -- in their late 20s, if possible. The earlier officers receive this education, the sooner they can use it to mentor others and prepare for self-study later in their careers. Don't limit this to science or engineering. The political and moral dimensions of war and after-conflict operations will be more a part of officers' work as time goes on, not less.
This will require a critical rethinking of how the military delivers education to officers. Services will have to consolidate schools and rely more on short-term courses and distance education. The sheer numbers of people involved would create substantial demand. Let military schools compete with civilian schools to attract these students. That will mean lower costs and wider offerings. Where or what these officers learn is less important than the type of skills they develop in graduate study.
Like much of our approach to defense, the way we educate our officers requires new thinking. It requires that we leave behind the comfortable status quo. It requires that we educate officers earlier and in more disciplines and that our military schools compete with civilian schools for those students. Our opponents aren't relying on the same tactics to prepare for the battlefield, and neither should we.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and co-author of " Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Liberty." Alane Kochems is a researcher in Heritage's homeland security project.
First appeared in Defense News