How are we educating our military?
29 Aug 2012| and

Current CIA Director and retired US Army officer, General David Petraeus argues that the most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind. According to Petraeus, promising officers should be sent to first-class universities to undertake PhDs and to learn from and mix with future civilian leaders. Indeed, civilian academics in US military academies and staff colleges have publicly criticised the anti-academic attitudes and policies of their institutions.

But what exactly what kind of professional military education (PME) is required to develop the mind of career military officers? What sort of war should PME prepare officers for? Is preparing our forces for ‘war among the people’ the order of the day or should war between conventional forces remain the cornerstone of defence preparations? For a new ASPI report, we took a look at these questions and more, in the Australian context.

So, how well is the ADF doing in developing the knowledge and expertise required by members of the profession of arms? The question is all the more important as Australia seeks to adjust its policies to both a complex and shifting global power balance and a potentially turbulent regional environment. The ADF needs the know-how to conduct both high-tech operations with top end platforms and low-tech conflicts which require military personnel to deal with local societies and cultures face-to-face. And the austerity surrounding the defence budget isn’t going to make it any easier to fund investment in PME—by definition, its pay-off will be well down the track.

PME in Australia is in reasonably good shape, but there are further steps that could be taken. The Australian Defence College (ADC) is the key PME organisation which includes the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) for entrance level officer candidates, the Australian Command and Staff College (ACSC) for middle-ranking officers and the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies (CDSS) for senior officers. All three are tri-service and all three have important relationships with universities to provide input into their teaching.

ADFA has a long-established partnership with UNSW (since 1986) to provide bachelor degrees for officer candidates, while ACSC has just signed a 10-year contract with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU which includes masters degree offerings. CDSS has had a long relationship with Deakin University but is currently re-examining its academic input. The academic partners operate as service providers to the ADF.

While Australia has avoided the pitfalls created of putting independent civilian academics into a military hierarchy, more work could be done to close the civil-military gap. As well as bringing academics to the service personnel, as per Petraeus’ prescription, more ADF officers could be send to undertake research in a one- or two-year master’s degree at a civilian university. As well as their personal development, this will also equip some to teach at PME institutions themselves.

The demands of counterinsurgency and stability operations should also be reflected in officer training; PME could introduce the tools of the disciplines of behavioural science (psychology, sociology and anthropology) to provide officers with an understanding of how societies and cultures work—relevant both to operations in communities overseas and indeed to the ADF itself (whose own culture is undergoing close scrutiny at the present time). Other western military academies have long taught such disciplines. This could take the form of a compulsory one-semester behavioural science course as part of general education and a three-year program as an optional specialisation.

To help build a wider link between the ADF and the Australian community, it’s also important to promote military-related research at universities outside Canberra which at present enjoys a virtual monopoly in this field. Military-related behavioural science could be the focus of, say, three or four Defence-funded centres of excellence, perhaps located at universities near to major military bases.

The ADC also includes other ADF ‘centres of learning’ such as the Capability and Technology Management College and the Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics. It’s a good model that could be extended. The single services have their own think tanks, so why not the ADF as a whole? In addition to existing centres of learning, we could establish a centre for the study of contemporary warfare at the ADC.

Rethinking the delivery of PME isn’t restricted to full-time commissioned officers; ADF Reserves are playing an increasingly important role in ADF operations and senior non-commissioned officers are also taking on greater responsibilities and need to be catered for. PME should be more available to these groups.

At the moment the defence debate in Australia is largely carried by organisations outside of the ADF (including ASPI). That means that an important voice is missing, and we’d all benefit from contestability from ‘inside the tent’. One way for this to happen is for the Australian Defence Force Journal to be developed into a flagship journal for the profession of arms in Australia. As such it could provide a forum for serious debate about defence and the ADF by members of the profession as well as outside experts and demonstrate to the public the thoughtfulness that characterises many ADF officers.

The machinery is in place to ensure that the key elements of PME can be co-ordinated and that economies of scale, a critical mass of teaching and research staff and more integrated delivery of courses can be achieved.

The planned co-location of all ADC centres on a single site in Canberra should further help this process. But good leadership and adequate funding will be required to realise these goals.

The ADF ultimately depends on the intellect, expertise, ethical character and leadership qualities of its people. PME assists especially in developing expertise in the complex business of using force as an instrument of policy and in ensuring that members of the ADF have the intellectual ‘right stuff’.

Hugh Smith is an associate professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW, and Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI.