The Best Defense

Hey, the QDR left out PME! How come?

By Nicholas Murray
Best Defense guest columnist

"The only thing that we can actually guarantee is that in the future we're going to have to have very well-developed leaders that can lead in very ambiguous situations and very challenging situations and can really pull a team together to do very difficult things with maybe not a lot of time to think about it or a lot of guidance ahead of time." -- Lt. Gen. David Perkins, speaking to a group of students at the Maneuver Captains Career Course at Fort Benning, June 25, 2013

Lt. Gen. Perkins is spot on. To create the leaders he is talking about logically requires a first-class military education system. Yet the new QDR hardly mentions it. In times of declining budgets one of the key things armed forces have done historically to enable continued success or to reform after failure, has been to focus on the education of their future leaders. This has proven time and again to be a cost-effective combat multiplier for armed forces. Indeed, the role of education is prominent in the previous two QDRs (2010 and 2006), yet it is mentioned only in passing in the current version.

Given all of the arguments of the last few years over the state of military education, it should continue to feature prominently. Yet this is not the case. The current QDR does recognize the need to develop service leaders when it states: "Above all, we will need to invest more in finding and developing leaders of consequence at every level, men and women of both competence and character." Clearly, then, the failure to discuss the role of education in the preparation of service personnel to meet an uncertain future is an oversight (whether deliberate or not). If it was deliberate, it implies that education is not considered important to the future preparation of the services. Alternatively, it was a curious error.

So, what should the services do about this? After all, many senior service leaders have identified high quality education as a crucial component in the development of the type of critical-thinking adaptive leaders the services will almost certainly need. To that end, a thorough review is needed of the quality and output of the services' education systems, along with an analysis of where military education fits in with the country's national security strategy over the longer term.

To facilitate the process, this author has four main suggestions:
1) Clearly identify and describe the purpose of military education writ large.
2) Create an overarching education policy for the services as a whole, one that leaves room for the needs of the individual services.
3) Identify what programs are in place right now, or are being implemented, to address the criticisms of military education regarding its quality and the development of adaptive strategic-minded critical-thinkers.
4) Have military education monitored by an external committee who report directly to the OSD (P&R).

Once the above has been accomplished, the services will have a better grip on what needs to be done to educate its servicemen and -women to meet requirements (whatever they might be), why it needs to do them, as well as how well it is actually doing.  

Dr. Nicholas Murray is an associate professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. He is the current Educator of the Year for History at CGSC, and recently received the Department of the Army's Commander's Award for Civilian Service. His book The Rocky Road to the Great War (Potomac Books) came out last year. He recently published "The Role of Professional Military Education in Mission Command" in Joint Forces Quarterly. This article represents his own views and unless otherwise stated does not necessarily represent those of the CGSC, the U.S. Army, or the Defense Department.


The Best Defense

The future of war (no. 20) scares me -- and underscores the importance of resiliency

By Puong Fei Yeh
Best Defense future of war contest entrant

The future of war scares me.

It scares me the most when I think about the world we live in -- the long-standing threat of nuclear weapons and proliferation, the rise of unmanned combat platforms, cyber weapons, and not-yet-invented or imagined ways to conduct war. Some of the earlier posts in this blog have touched on the inviolate laws of war, and therefore what we can expect war to look like in the future, but if there is one law that gives me pause it is the power law of war.

I'm not referring to the capacity of countries or groups to wage war, but rather Lewis Fry Richardson's insight in 1948 that wars exhibit a power law relationship.

Richardson discovered that the magnitude of wars as measured in how many people die is inversely proportional to the frequency with which those wars occur along a smooth curve. At one extreme end of the scale are the First and Second World Wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and at the other end of the spectrum are greater numbers of conflicts in which the number of causalities range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Conflicts like the Vietnam War (1965), Iran-Iraq War (1980), and the Taiping Rebellion (1850) lie in the upper range of the curve. Since Richardson's discovery, scholars have duplicated his results using larger datasets and subsets of conflict-related data, including fatalities attributed to terrorism. Power law explains a diverse range of natural and human phenomenon, from the magnitudes and frequency of earthquakes to the population of cities.

Are we (or our kids) due for a high magnitude event? One of the most frustrating things about Richardson's discovery is the complete lack of predicative power. Simply put, power law is nice, but as many others have pointed out, so what? Knowing in the aggregate that a lot of people die in a few wars and not as many in many more wars doesn't help us plan for the future. Although that's true, I believe Richardson's insight is useful in providing some perspective and humility about the future, both near- and long-term. First, wars will continue: People, in large numbers, will continue to die. Second, the unthinkable -- the risk of another world war or even a more localized, regional war -- should not be unimaginable. Power law suggests events of intense severity will occur more often than random chance. Unfortunately, we lack of a good sense of where we lie on the curve.

So whether we think the next big one is an all-out war between China and the United States, a global cyberwar, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or a terrorist organization detonating a nuke in one of the world's top 10 cities, managing the risk that stems from any of these wars occurring is just as important as reducing the risk that these deadly conflicts will start. Borrowing from Nassim Taleb's theme of antifragile and other works on resiliency, what series of steps can we begin to take to mold our system today -- political, military, economic, and social institutions -- to withstand devastating shocks? Ideally, you'd like to take a series of short-term steps towards solving what is hopefully a long-term problem, because if you don't, you're screwed when the high-magnitude event arrives.

If I'm going to make a bet on the future of war, I will bet on the country that is most adaptive and most resilient as the one to survive and prevail through the next series of shocks.

Puong Fei Yeh is an analyst at the Department of Defense, specializing in WMD and arms proliferation. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Defense or the U.S. government.

Tom note: You're smart, you can do things. When you get back from taking Michael to the airport, why not jot down your own views of the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest remains open for at least another few weeks. Try to keep it short -- no more than 750 words, if possible. And please, no footnotes or recycled war college papers.