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Introduction: Developing Strategic-Minded Junior Officers

To cite this article: Silverstone, Scott A., “Introduction: Developing Strategic-Minded Junior Officers,” Infinity Journal Special Edition, “International Relations in Professional Military Education,” winter 2016, pages 6-8.

The education of military officers is rarely treated as a strategic question. Yet within the classic “conceptual architecture of strategy” – the ways, means and ends that should define the main elements of state action[i] – the intellectual capabilities of the officer corps constitute a critical resource or means for executing strategy, a resource that is arguably no less important than the military hardware that governments invest in. In other words, officer education is a strategic issue because it determines whether leaders at all levels of the chain of command can actually convert the concepts that define strategic “ways” into the political ends that states seek. Given the complexity of the security problems that contemporary military forces are expected to solve, how we educate military officers to prepare them for these complex missions is of growing importance. The most conceptually sophisticated and logically coherent strategies devised by the most talented strategic planners will crumble if leaders on the ground do not understand how to put these strategies to work with the tools they have available. Once we recognize that military education is deeply embedded within the broader framework of strategic action, we can start asking important questions about the intellectual skills officers must possess and what they need to know to effectively link ways and ends in the pursuit of national goals.

The articles in this special issue of Infinity Journal take up this strategic question, but approach it from an angle that is largely neglected: the education of officer cadets at the pre-commissioning level of service. Professional Military Education (PME) is certainly a widely discussed and debated issue in research on defense capabilities and among government officials charged with developing and maintaining PME programs and institutions.[ii] Attention to PME is also evident at the international level; for example, the NATO alliance maintains a robust interest in the education of member states’ military officers and the professional education of officers in the large number of countries that participate in the Partnership for Peace program. PME is most often characterized as essential for interoperability among NATO allies and partner states working together in a range of military operations.[iii]

But even a cursory look at the work on PME by policy analysts and government officials will show that the discussion is almost exclusively focused on the education of mid-career and senior officers at national war colleges. In the NATO context, while the structure and content of PME remains a national prerogative for each member state, we have great visibility into how NATO countries educate their more senior officers and insight into varying national models, which facilitates the sharing of best practices and collaboration among multiple states in the development of leaders as strategic resources.

In contrast, the education of officers at the beginning of their careers is virtually ignored in the broader policy discussion and in research on PME. The authors of the articles in this special issue are in a particularly good position to reflect on the question of PME at the junior level and open a window on current practices; each serves on the faculty of a national military academy within a particular NATO member state, and together they represent a diverse set of countries and institutions, including Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, the United States, Latvia, and the United Kingdom. Moreover, as scholars and educators of international relations, they are particularly attuned to the deeper strategic-political conditions their students will face when serving in the field in their national armies and as part of coalition operations.

The articles in this issue are based on the premise that officer education at the pre-commissioning level has strategic significance on two levels: 1) it is the foundation for effective action at junior levels of command, particularly for land forces; and 2) it sets the intellectual conditions necessary for continued professional growth as these officers advance to the senior ranks and take up what are traditionally considered “strategic” leadership positions. The second of these two claims is probably non-controversial; the first claim, however, requires some justification.

If the job of a junior military officer, leading a platoon or a company, was merely to destroy set targets or physically subdue designated enemy forces, particularly as part of large unit operations, then there might be little need to worry about that officer’s intellectual preparation. Heavy top-down control over small unit actions would relieve junior officers from having to think beyond the tactical problem of applying brute force to achieve rather simple physical effects on adversary forces. But among the diverse missions conducted by small units over the past several decades, conventional high intensity conflict has been rare.[iv] Instead, junior officers have been tasked to lead in counterinsurgency operations, peace enforcement missions, and in “nation building.” Whether in Bosnia or Iraq, Afghanistan or Mali, military forces, as the strategic “means” deployed, were responsible for pursuing highly complex political and social endstates that defined the strategic effects being pursued. In turn, very young officers had to grapple with a complicated mixture of political, social, cultural, and economic variables affecting the behavior of adversaries, allies, and neutrals alike. And to be effective, they had to figure out how to manipulate these variables to produce the strategic goals set by higher policy (and to do so without simply resorting to the brute force at their disposal).

As Colin Gray noted in an earlier issue of this journal, there is “interdependency among levels (policy, strategy, operations, tactics)” of state action. “Both scholars and practitioners have observed that although E[nds], W[ays], M[eans] is, and has to be, a hierarchy of authority, that characterization tends to obscure the degree of dependence of higher levels upon competence at lower… Strategic effect has to be built on tactical foundations.”[v] This point goes beyond the notion of the “Strategic Corporal” that General Charles Krulak popularized when he was the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps in the late 1990s. General Krulak emphasized that in the midst of crisis, the actions of the most junior leaders at the squad level could have strategic effects on mission accomplishment, particularly when things go wrong.[vi] While Gray correctly notes that the work of leaders at lower levels in the chain of command “require direction by higher – which is to say operational, strategic, and political – authority,” the authors of the articles here are concerned with the role of junior military officers as strategic actors who are often called on to consciously plan, direct, assess the effectiveness of, and adjust multidimensional operations that advance the political ends of their governments.

This brings us back to the question behind the articles in this special issue: how are we educating our young officer candidates to prepare them to confront the heavy intellectual challenges of strategic thought and action? As with any strategic resourcing question, decisions about officer education are set within a context of budgetary constraints, personnel cuts in the armed forces of many NATO members, differing national priorities, a shifting threat environment, and limited time to prepare officer cadets for the leadership roles they will assume. These issues are clearly evident in how the different authors address the question of officer education within their own institutions.

Despite the inevitable differences among their institutions and programs, two factors link the contributing authors. First, each of the contributors is preparing officers who will serve in the armies of NATO member states. The fact that many of their students have served, and will serve together in future alliance operations, means that they share a collective stake in developing the intellectual capabilities of officers across NATO and in understanding the implications of education for the interoperability of NATO forces.

The second factor linking these articles is that each contributor has special responsibility for educating future officers in the general field of international relations and will boldly support the importance of study in this field (along with the broader social sciences, history, ethics and law) for young leaders who must translate strategic ways into strategic ends in complex operational settings. One of the IJ Briefs on this journal’s website acknowledges the important relationship between strategy and international relations as an academic field of study and the fact that international relations theory is a valuable tool for explaining the behavior of states and non-state actors, which in turn can “help us make better policies and strategies.” It also argues correctly that while theory can help us shape the practice of international relations, practice and experience must inform our theories of human behavior.[vii] The contributors to this issue, as educators responsible for the development of future military officers, appreciate the essential link between theory and practice and the need to make the international relations education of these particular students relevant to the professional demands they will face after graduation.

The relevance of international relations and related fields for officer education emerges from the role that platoon leaders and company commanders fill as strategic actors. Admittedly, this is a contentious position, but to clarify the point, consider the three nodes that define any strategy’s basic components – the ways, means, and ends. These three nodes must logically cohere, and the relationship among them must rest on sound and generalizable claims about human behavior. In other words, it is the connective tissue among these three nodes that place the greatest intellectual demands on those who develop and execute strategy at any level in the chain of command. By connective tissue, we mean the theoretical or logical link between these nodes of strategy. The very idea of strategy hinges on predictive claims about cause and effect. What types of actions or conditions will likely produce what kinds of outcomes? And these predictions about cause and effect must be rooted in our ability to draw from (and critically evaluate) generalizations, or theories, about human behavior. It is here that the education of officers finds an outlet for supporting strategic thinking and action.

Within the architecture of strategy, cause and effect theorizing occurs at two levels. At the broadest level, we must understand the logical bridge that links strategic ways and the strategic ends we seek.[viii] Conceptually, why are certain types of actions likely to produce the ends desired? At the second level, we have theories of the operational art for executing these strategic ways in the real world. Specifically, how can we actually generate, organize and use diplomatic, informational, economic, and military means to produce desired political effects? It is impossible to comprehend, develop, or execute strategy without knowing the alternative theoretical or logical claims that strategy might be based on (see Figure 1 below).


Figure 1. Two Levels of Theorizing for Strategic Action

Each of the articles in this issue explores the unique contributions of education in international relations (and the broader social sciences and history) to strategic thinking and action, and taken together, they open a window on the varying national programs represented here. The goal is not to provide a direct comparative study of these military academies, but to initiate inquiry into the education of young leaders within the professional military education systems of diverse NATO member states. Our premise is that what is taught, and how, are also strategic decisions, whether governments or their PME institutions explicitly recognize this or not. The articles show how much variation there is among NATO member military academies, including whether they support a specific service or provide joint education, whether all officer cadets are provided with an identical educational program or have choice among various degree programs, how they integrate academic education with military training, and the degree to which they focus on the professional needs of lieutenants versus educating for a long-term career.

The contribution from Silverstone and Ramsey makes a case for educating cadets at the United States Military Academy for strategic thinking and action, it demonstrates how this objective nests within the U.S. Army’s “Mission Command” initiative, and explains what the West Point curriculum, and the study of international relations, contribute to this larger goal. Nyemann and Staun explore how post-Cold War Danish “foreign policy activism” and expeditionary army operations have increased the importance of officer education in political science, international relations and law at the Royal Danish Military Academy. Rothman focuses on how the international security studies program at the Netherlands Defense Academy bridges the gap between theory and practice in international relations, which is essential not only to ensure that the cadets’ education is professionally relevant, but also to motivate their cadets to engage with and benefit from the coursework in their intellectual development. Roennfeldt presents a distinctive model used by the Norwegian Military Academy that integrates the study of history, political science, international relations, international law and ethics with operationally-focused studies of tactics and leadership. Last, Dizboni and Breede, drawing from the educational strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada, introduce the concept of “the learning subaltern,” who sets out on a career-long quest for professionally relevant knowledge. This emergent approach to strategic education accommodates a wide range of ideas about strategy and international relations, which is suitable to the uncertainty of the post-Cold War, post-9/11, and possibly post-hegemonic eras. Rostoks examines the unique position of the Latvian National Defence Academy, which is working to move beyond the legacy of Soviet rule, the absence of Western social sciences until independence in 1991, and a heavy focus on tactics in Latvian PME, to determine the proper role for the study of political science and international relations for its future military officers. Jacobs discusses the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK which, unlike most European and North American Military Academies, offers a one-year commissioning course for officer cadets where blended learning is key. The article emphasizes the unique way IR-related academic subjects are integrated with military training and assesses the apparent trend towards an enhanced appreciation and emphasis on the academic aspects of officer education. 

While we will not agree on each of the important questions raised, through this inquiry, which is long overdue, we hope to improve our ability to evaluate, collectively, whether we are actually developing military leaders – these essential strategic resources – who can carry out the complex strategic missions that their political leaders take on.


[i] “What is Strategy,” IJ Briefs, Infinity Journal (April 3, 2013), available at
[ii] For an example from the United States, see Kevin P. Kelly and Joan Johnson-Freese, “Getting to the Goal in Professional Military Education,” Orbis vol. 58, no. 1 (Winter 2014): pp. 119-131; and Joan Johnson-Freese, Educating America’s Military (New York: Routledge, 2013).
[iii] For recent commentary on NATO’s education initiatives, see Julian Lindley-French, “Connected Forces Through Connected Education: Harnessing NATO’s and Partner Nations Strategic Educational Resources,” Eisenhower Paper No. 2 (Rome: NATO Defense College), July 2014. NATO offers a significant library of reports and articles on education and training, available at
[iv] The Brahimi report, released in 2000, concluded that out of 111 wars between 1988 and 2000, only 7 were conventional wars between states. Available at
[v] Colin S. Gray, “Strategy, Politics, and the Stream of Time,” Infinity Journal vol. 3, no. 4 (winter 2014), pp. 4-9.
[vi] General Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” Marine Magazine (January 1999). Available at
[vii] “Bringing the Fundamentals of Strategy to IR,” IJ Briefs, available at
[viii] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).