There is a very interesting and thought-provoking essay by a blogger I follow carefully, Angry Staff Officer, which asks, “Is the Army’s Professional Military Education System Broken?” The short answer, in so far as Canada is concerned, is “Yes!” To make matters worse it has been “broken” since it was established in 1968.
The Angry Staff Officer explains that “Military education is incredibly important – it sets the professional apart from the warrior. It recognizes that there is an art and science to leadership that is worth spending time to read, digest, and discuss. It shapes and builds leaders, imbuing in them a sense of organizational pride and culture. It ensures that we have an overarching concept or theory of how we make war and the lessons for practicing it, which is what we call doctrine. And it takes that doctrine, applies it to ongoing operations, compares it to past operations, and develops sets of lessons learned to further improve the base doctrine. In essence, it is the embodiment of the profession with a set of core disciplines or values but which is always changing and adapting how those disciplines are put into action … [and] … All military education must stem from the fundamental understanding that war is a human endeavor, and as such cannot be prosecuted without understanding basic factors of humanity. It is through the constant study and exchange of ideas – in an environment where students may be free to think outside the box – that military education can go from being a theoretical exercise to an applied art. After all, all this study is useless if it is never digested and applied in real life … [but] … Education cannot be conducted in a vacuum; it consists of give and take between students and instructors. It does not consist of strict rules but rather of ways of thinking about problems – whether they be about maneuver, engineering, application of fires, or sustainment. Problem solving engages the student’s brain rather than letting it be a passive receptor of information. To put it simply, it shouldn’t be an information dump, or “drinking through a firehose,” but instead a measured, disciplined intellectual challenge.“
I agree with all that.
He goes on to distinguish between education and training by explaining that “Now in all of this, education shouldn’t be confused with training. Training is teaching soldiers how to do their jobs. It teaches the infantry to shoot, move, and communicate, the engineer to breach, build, and bridge, and civil affairs to…do whatever it is that civil affairs does, no one is really sure. Training is where memorization and rote practices come into play, because muscle memory is crucial in many aspects of our jobs. Training is vitally important, but it is not education.”
I agree with that, too, even if, as I will explain, I think he goes a bit too far.
In any modern military education and training system there is always a mix. Even recruit training, which is 95% “pure” training has a few bits of education wherein, for example, the laws of war and a bit of history and tradition are explained to soldiers … and they, even the most junior sailors and soldiers, are allowed, even encouraged to discuss and debate, a bit. Equally, I’m sure most engineers will agree that some of their education involved some “training” to build some mental “muscle memory.” So, while I do not dispute the Angry Staff Officer’s distinction I suggest that, in the real, work-a-day world of the Canadian Armed Forces there is always some mix of education and training.
But what’s wrong?
Our problem, in Canada, goes back to a fairly simple mistake that former Defence Minister Paul Hellyer and his minions made in the mid 1960s. First I must declare that a lot of what Mr Hellyer proposed was good ~ the unification of the armed forces, creating proper joint commands in which Navy, Army and Air Force units and formations served together, under one single commander, just as history taught they they would fight together in war, made excellent sense. Some of what he introduced ~ like the integration of the military into a single service and introducing common occupation and training systems ~ made less, little or no sense at all.
The logical trap into which Mr Hellyer and his team fell and the consequential problem which still infects the Canadian Armed Forces today is that they failed to grasp that similar ≠ identical. Consider, for example, a Navy helicopter pilot and an Army attack helicopter pilot ~ both must fly rotary wing aircraft at a basic level, in that they are almost certainly identical, but, after that, the differences between landing a very big helicopter on the heaving deck of a very small warship and flying a small helicopter at high speeds at near treetop level are very large and the two pilots are very, very dissimilar. Does it make sense to train them together at the primary flying school level? Yes! Does it make sense to mix them together into one pool of “pilots” on the grounds that they are very much the same? No! The same applies to cooks and radar technicians and pay clerks and, and, and … they are, very often, similar but rarely nearly enough identical to merit having them in a single “trade” or group. But, Mr Hellyer was, valiantly, trying to solve a funding crisis and savings in personnel and training were seen as the equivalent of the brass ring on the old fashioned carnival carousel. For almost fifty years Mr Hellyer’s deeply flawed notion of integration has been sacrosanct even as his very good ideas about unification were pushed aside by empire building careerists in the most senior ranks of the Canadian Forces and by lazy superiors, including disengaged ministers and bureaucrats.
We can start the fix by recognizing that some things do work: there should be, just as an example, one, single, integrated primary flying school, where all helicopter pilots learn to fly a basic rotary wing aircraft. But Navy, Army and RCAF pilots (and, yes, each service should have its own) should, then, be trained in their specific specialities by their own service instructors. Similar things should apply to many skills ~ integrate the education and training when the similarities outweigh the differences, but train, usually, in single service, specialist centres, when the differences are dominant. Some training ~ staff training, for example, to produce officers who can serve in joint HQs ~ must be integrated, however, if we ever want to have a proper unified force.
Will it cost more? Yes … superficially. But the savings for which Mr Hellyer so fervently hoped, in 1968, never really materialized; instead the training system used, as it was directed to do, minimum common standards to achieve economies and, thereby, financially “burdened” the other commands with special to function training: teaching Army cooks to drive trucks and use field (gas) stoves, for example, and teaching Navy supply people how to work in a ship. It is possible, even likely, in my opinion, that Canadian military education and training could be reformed at low cost. Some education and training can be contracted out or done, as is the case now, using a kind of public-private partnership (P3) arrangement. I will return to this later with a thought on the the Royal Military College, the Staff Colleges and so on.
And, again, a tip of the hat to the Angry Staff Officer for giving me this lead in …