Professional Military Education in the United Kingdom: An Asset Ignored


In sharp contrast to the emphasis apparent within the defence establishments of some of its closest allies and partners, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) seems to be ignoring the value of professional military education (PME). There is no mention at all of the role of PME in the two most recent MoD publications covering, respectively, the UK’s strategic outlook and ongoing military modernisation process. This oversight is leaving the UK PME system not only with a lack of direction, but also, and perhaps more crucially, it is undermining an asset whose quality has always been seen by the UK’s armed forces as a significant force-multiplier.

There is, however, no such problem in, for instance, the United States. There, PME is being given due attention. This is clear from the unclassified Summary of the 2018National Defence Strategy of the United States (NDS). This provides a resume of the most important themes that are covered in the full, classified, document. Its core thrust is along the lines of si vis pacem, para bellum. That is, the US needs ‘to deter conflict through preparedness for war’ (p. 6). The threat of war with a near-peer adversary is inherent, notes the NDS, in the pervading international security environment. This is an environment characterised by uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. In order for the US military ‘to succeed in [this] emerging security environment’ the first demand, proffers the NDS, is not, as might be imagined, to field better technologies and more lethal hardware, rather it is for the US military to ‘out-think’ its adversaries (p. 5). Up front, this NDS is thus stressing that human agency has the most prominent role today when it comes to fighting and winning the Nation’s wars.

Of course, the role of modern military technologies is still highlighted in the NDS. Older systems, we are told, are being updated and radically new ones introduced. But ‘modernisation’, notes the NDS, ‘is not defined solely by hardware’. The need to modernise in technological terms has also to proceed in lock-step with modernisation in the cognitive realm. As the NDS points out, ‘cultivating a lethal, agile force requires more than just new technologies’; it also requires the ‘creativity and talent of the American warfighter’. This, it is emphasised, ‘is our greatest enduring strength’. And to bring this creativity and talent to full fruition the NDS also notes that within the US military, ‘we must…foster a culture of experimentation and calculated risk-taking’ (p. 7).

The NDS also calls for the input of human agency with its insistence that officers, in order to be able to ‘out-think’ opponents, should study the ways of warfare of likely near-peer adversaries. The ‘principal priorities’ in this sense are named as Russia and China (p. 4). ‘We must’, warns the NDS, ‘anticipate how [such] competitors and adversaries will…attempt to defeat us’. The ways of warfare of these opponents have to be studied. This is, in large part, down to the fact that warfighting today can no longer be just a generic enterprise; bespoke solutions have to be found that will prove effective against individual adversaries.

Overall, the principal message in the NDS is that officers in the US military have, in essence, to become better educated. They have not only to develop an understanding of the complex strategic environment and of likely adversaries, but they also have to develop better cognitive skills. They have to enhance processes such as ‘creating’, ‘risk-taking’, ‘cultivating’, ‘fostering’ and they need to display ‘ingenuity’ and ‘agility’. It is only through generating an amalgam of all these capacities and qualities that a US officer – of whatever rank – can be in a position to ‘out-think’ any likely future opponents. As the very first line in the conclusion to this summary of the NDS makes clear, in countering such opponents, ‘we must use creative approaches’. The logic is that of John Boyd:

Machines don’t fight war. People fight wars. It’s in the minds of men that war must be fought.

(John Boyd quoted by Henry Eason, “New Theory Shoots Down Old War ideas,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, 22 March, 1981)

Thus the US DoD, in its principle document providing current strategic direction, has emphasised that enhancing the lethality of its warfighting potential has to run hand-in-hand with improving the quality of its actual warfighters; with the former being very much reliant on the latter.

Education is, of course, key here. It is only through an educational process that the necessary human capabilities and qualities can be developed. And the importance of PME is duly recognised even in this short summary of the NDS.

Under a subtitle of ‘Professional Military Education’, the NDS highlights that the US military will have a PME system prepared for the exigencies of the current strategic environment. It is one that ‘will emphasise intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting, deepening our knowledge of history while embracing new technology and techniques to counter competitors’. The study of history is emphasised here, as it is in other US Defense publications, because it is seen as essential to the process of decision-making. That is, the best decisions are made, runs the logic (and one also shared by militaries as diverse as those of Russia and Australia), not just by those with the requisite experience but also by those with a knowledge-base garnered from study of precedent. The study of military history is therefore seen as vital in helping provide any officer with a personal database that assists in optimising decision-making. Such human databases are looked upon as vitally important as, in modern warfare, likely adversaries make increasing use of disruptive technologies. These will be limiting, degrading and falsifying the information that will normally be arriving via technical means to any commander – be they government leader or platoon commander.

The US PME system is thus having to react to the pressures being placed on it by the likes of the NDS. Trying to fit all of the new requirements into the traditional 10-month long staff college-level courses is proving difficult. Even topics until recently considered to be core – such as counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency – are being pared down considerably to create space for more pressing subject areas. The US PME system is being hard put to meet the demands being placed on it.

The PME system in the UK, in contrast, appears outwardly to have no demands being placed on it at all. It is seemingly being ignored. UK Defence documents analogous to the NDS make no mention of the role of PME or even of what capabilities and qualities are required of UK military personnel today.

Since 2015, only two strategic documents of note have been published. These are the National Security and Capability Review (2018) and Mobilising, Modernising and Transforming Defence (2018).  The fact that neither discusses PME seems strange. The UK armed forces have always looked upon the education offered to their officers as providing a distinct positive that set them above their counterparts abroad. As a relatively small military traditionally lacking in high-tech systems, the fact that this military has been able to ‘punch above its weight’ for so long has largely been put down to the intellectual capacity of its corpus of officers. Thus the fact that such a capacity, and how it should best be developed today, is not even being mentioned has to be questioned.

These two UK documents, moreover, do not really provide any guidance for the UK PME system in terms of a true set of tangible priorities. To begin with, neither document appears, unlike the NDS, to be overly concerned with ‘warfighting’. There is, indeed, no mention of ‘war’ or ‘warfighting’ at all in either of them. It is not raised as a contingency. While there is a nod to new threats, these are not presented as those requiring any new thinking. The National Security and Capability Review (NSCR), for instance, merely says that ‘the world has become more uncertain, volatile and dangerous’ (p. 7). Mobilising, Modernising and Transforming Defence (MMTD) tells us that, ‘The international security context has become darker and more dangerous since 2015’ (p. 5). But where are these ‘dangers’ coming from? What is the threat vector? And we in the UK apparently need to ‘maintain our competitive advantage’ (MMTD, p. 13) But why we need to do this and against whom are questions left unanswered. The UK PME system needs to be told (as the NDS tells the US military) what the dangers are and where they are coming from. This is so that this system can put in place the necessary bespoke teaching and learning packages to ameliorate them.

The task of the MMTD is actually to set out the current state of the UK’s armed forces and how the ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ is proceeding. But nowhere in this document is the role of the human actor mentioned (and the same applies in the NSCR). In the US NDS it was front and centre. An image is presented in the MMTD of the processes of ‘mobilising, modernising and transforming’ happening on their own merely through some serendipitous procedure that does not involve any degree of human input. Phrases abound such as ‘technology-led modernisation’ – as if technology itself can ‘lead’ modernisation. But, as the NDS had pointed out, ‘modernisation is not defined solely by hardware’. As is well understood in the Pentagon, any transformation process can only succeed when the workforce itself drives it successfully. And, as is also understood in the US DoD, that workforce has to be educated to do it to its best advantage.

As in the US, though, there is also the recognition in the UK of the importance of decision-making as a major factor in future warfare (although ‘warfare’, as noted, is never mentioned!). In his foreword to the MMTD, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson notes that, ‘Staying ahead of our adversaries…will require smarter, better-informed decision-making’ (p. 5). Fine, but how is such ‘smarter, better informed decision making’ supposed to come about? What qualities have to developed in leaders to address this issue? We are not told. The NDS had pointed out this particular problem and had proffered solutions. In the UK, this is not happening.

To be fair, the MMTD does mention UK PME. But only, though, in the context of pointing out that the UK armed forces are a provider of ‘world-beating military education’ to overseas students! Just how this ‘world-beating education’ can help UK students as we enter this ‘dark and dangerous’ strategic environment is left unsaid. It should not be. The UK PME system is, indeed, ‘world-beating’; but if it is to remain so and help the UK’s armed forces to ‘stay ahead of our adversaries’ then it needs to have more direction. Only then can it develop in ways that UK defence strategy demands.

This piece has discussed the US approach to PME in some detail. It might, though, be apposite to end with a Russian take on the importance of PME. In a speech last month, the head of the Russian armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov, ended by stressing that PME had to be at the forefront in the creation of a truly effective Russian military. He paraphrased Immanuel Kant (of all people!), by saying that PME ‘must become like a servant who goes in front of her mistress with a torch and lights the way for her, and not one who walks behind her and carries the train of her dress’.

This post is part of a special feature on military learning co-hosted with the Wavell Room, a blog & forum for discussions about contemporary British military thought.

Image: Exterior shot of the Uk Defence Academy, via flickr

2 thoughts on “Professional Military Education in the United Kingdom: An Asset Ignored

  1. I wonder if an analysis of the PME that is provided could be done, in contrast to that delivered by allies. This piece focuses on what we say about our PME (or not), and not on the state of the education itself.
    While I may be fortunate in the chances and opportunities I have been afforded within the UK military education system, I would far rather the education was well-funded and expertly delivered and that we didn’t waste effort talking about it, than it being spoken about world wide and not delivered at all, like so many other capabilities that could be mentioned.


  2. The MoD needs to develop stronger links with Academe and establish a tangible military presence at senior level in.the leading universities

    Alan Hensher
    Captain RN retd


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