Developing senior naval and military officers

Suppose, just suppose, that we get the “foundation” of our military ~ the junior leadership ~ right and that we have an officer corps that is both well trained and well educated and that has the right shared, unified, common social and military values, derived, in some part, by all having passed through a common, difficult and unforgettable “gate” to enter the profession of arms. What then? How to we turn that youg, junior leader ~ a sub-lieutenant in the RCN, a lieutenant in the Canadian Army or RCAF into a tactical, operational or even strategic level commander or senior staff officer?

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How do we  bridge the gap between the apprentice and the master craftsman?

The answer is a judicious mix of experience and training and further education.

y2vgm5Military education and training seems, to me, always swings, pendulum like, from too little of one and too much of the other to too much of the former and too little of the latter. I would argue, for example, that the Canadian Army of the late 1950s and 60s Bamboo_book_-_binding_-_UCRand even into the early 1970s was exceptionally well trained but was less than really well educated (either formally or in the “art of war”). Equally, I fear that, today, the US Army (with the Canadian Army following along, puppy like) is overly educated and inadequately trained ~ especially in the “art of war.”  And I’m not just talking about understanding the “classics,” I mean knowing about winning and losing battles, campaigns and wars from Hannibal to Horton and hannibal_66987715_df5c8d94-b5ae-4cd4-9cb7-36d15f932580understanding the difference between principles that endure for centuries, even millennia and military fads and fancies that come and go with the breeze. Sailors must understand why (and how) Hannibal lost and soldiers and air force officers must know why Nelson and Horton (and Canada’s Murray) won decisive battles.

Consider, for a moment, the fairly typical (I would say most desirable) career pattern for those officers who make it all the way to the top of the military heap: admirals, commodores and generals …

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… not everyone makes it all the way to age 55, much less to admiral or general; some, in fact, leave the military during the very first few days of training, but that is how careers looked for most current Canadian admirals and generals.

Where did they get training, further education and experience?

  1. Experience is the easiest one: it started just after “basic” professional training (being qualified to stand watch on a ship’s bridge, command a platoon or troop or fly an aircraft) ended and, to some degree it never ends … one always learns from experience, even the Chief of the Defence Staff.
  2. Training is also continuous ~ it starts with that “basic” level of officer training, which likely takes several months, maybe for than a year, after one has completed that “basic” core, military training and one’s formal education. Many (most) officers will undergo more and more, and increasingly specialized training throughout their careers ~ including command and staff courses.
  3. Some officers (many engineers, for example) will need further, formal education (Masters degrees) in order to advance in their careers. Most officers will need further military education to better understand the “art of war.”

One feature of most modern military training systems is a relentless focus of efficiency, especially on costs. Training objectives are, continuously, purged to ensure that only that training absolutely required for the next assignment is provided … because it’s expensive to train people, and time consuming, too. There is increased reliance on e.g. distance learning to save time and money, too. And that’s all good, we want the military to be cost effective, but, even more, we want it to be operationally effective … and that requires leaders who are experienced, trained and educated.

Anecdotally: way back when, when the earth was still cooling, I was given what one might term “elementary” level staff training while undergoing my “basic” officer training. The result was that when I was assigned to my very first, regimental level, junior staff post I did not need any further, formal training. My cousin, who flew fighters in the RCAF, on the other hand came up though a more “cost effective” system and before he could take up his first, junior (squadron level) staff job he needed to attend a short (a few weeks) course at the RCAF’s “staff school” in Toronto. We were nearly the same age and served in the same era (he joined in the late 1957, as I recall, I in 1960) and we were never sure who had the more efficient (cost effective) training.

In any event, from the 1950s until the 1990s an officer’s career, with training overlaid, might have looked more like this …

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… with three large “career” training blocks overlaid:

  • The first four or five years of basic military training and the education needed for an undergraduate degree;
  • A mid-career “student’s interlude” which likely featured some advanced military courses ~ the combat team commander’s course for Army officers, for example ~ and the staff college (one or two years, depending of the programme) and might also include a graduate degree for a minority of officers; and
  • Image_Frontenac44aFor a few a year (or more) at an advanced senior officers’ (navy captains and army/air colonels and commodores/brigadier generals) course like the Royal College of Defence Studies, the US Navy or Army War College or the (now defunct) National Defence College which was in Kingston, Ontario.

There were, and still are, some advantages to the “student’s interlude” model in which officers take a year or even two or three out of their careers for advanced education and training.Since about the 1980s the fashion has been to equate advanced degrees, of almost any sort, with advanced military education. While there is always a need for better and better educated individuals, especially mid-ranked and senior officers, there is not, in my opinion, any acceptable civilian university substitute for the detailed, analytical study of military strategy and operations, especially of logistics and tactics that can (only) be taught in a proper staff college.

In my opinion, also, naval and military officers must understand technology and how to employ it as well was they understand tactics (and logistics and administration and policy issues, and, and, and …).

At all levels from naval lieutenant and army/air force captain officers must think about and understand joint operations. I am not unalterably opposed to single service staff colleges for advanced (captains and junior majors) training, provided that there are many RCAF pilots and navigators and a few army officers on the naval staff course, even more pilots on and a few naval officers on the army staff course and many naval and army officers on the air staff course. When you look at it that way it might make sense to have a 40± week joint staff course for navy lieutenants and lieutenant commanders and army and air force captains and junior majors which is adjacent to (followed or preceded) by single service technology courses ~ maybe 40± weeks for non-engineers and, perhaps less intensive (say 15 to 25 weeks) for engineering officers. At the higher level (senior navy commanders and junior navy captains and senior army and air force lieutenant colonels and junior colonels) there might be another “student’s interlude” while those officers are brought back for further education/training with a focus on staff duties at higher level HQs and in executive (director) level posts in national HQs.

Some will argue that 80± weeks (which amounts to two ‘academic’ (September to May) years) is both overtraining and too expensive. I disagree … in fact I think that a year+ away from work, in the “student’ mode is “refreshing” and re-energizes an officer even when the course work is incredibly hard, as it must be at a good staff college.

I believe that the Canadian Armed Forces officer corps is better (formally) educated than it has ever been, but I am convinced that the level of training, especially of mid-ranked officers, had declined since, say, about 1975. The unified armed forces wanted, sensibly, a unified (joint) staff college and it got one but it could not afford to have a unified staff college and retain the single service advanced courses, which included the 40+ week army staff course for captains. The joint staff college was for lieutenant commanders and majors and even a few junior commanders and lieutenant colonels which meant that the army faced a shortage of trained captains to fill regimental and brigade level HQs and that, added to a growing tendency amongst too many senior officers in higher level HQs to worry about the decisions being made in ships, units, bases and brigades, and pressures from doing things the American way, fuelled rank inflation in HQs.

If we want to reduce the bloated morbidly obese command and control (C²) fat-businessman-eating-burger_computersuperstructure in the Canadian Forces ~ and we, 3595472789_9c665bf66btaxpayers and political leaders, should demand that our military is “lean and mean” and modern, not overstaffed with overstuffed senior officers in redundant HQs  ~ then we need to start by lowering the ranks in the staff; and that means providing more and better staff training to junior officers, beginning with learning some elementary staff work during their initial training, before they go to their first ship, unit or squadron. That also means having advanced staff courses for navy lieutenants and army and RCAF captains ~ either in single service schools but with joint participation or in a joint staff college with both joint and single service study sessions.

It is time for the admirals and generals to reform the Canadian military ~ starting with reducing their own, senior staff, “footprint” and providing more and better training and education to lower ranked officers in order to prepare them to lead, in combat and in the bureaucratic battles that are fought in HQ conference rooms, at lower rank levels.

Conservative policy should be to increase the defence spending while, simultaneously, getting more bang foe the buck which should include reforming the command and control superstructure which will, I believe, necessitate reforming the structure and education and training of the officer corps.

3 thoughts on “Developing senior naval and military officers”

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