Education Leads to Transformation
Countries Investing in Professional Military Education Believe the Payoff Is Well Worth the Cost
Nations that have invested in professional military education have little doubt about its worth.
“The payoff we see on the back end is phenomenal,” Maj. Gen. Tracy King said about the U.S. Marine Corps’ effort to expand education to noncommissioned officers. “It’s paying off in spades.”
Proponents say professional military education, or PME, helps a fighting force embody the highest values of a nation. It promotes cohesion, teaches a broad strategic vision and gives students an understanding of what it means to serve. If basic training and technical courses teach a Soldier “what to think,” PME teaches the Soldier “how to think.”
It’s also in demand. The ambitious and tech-savvy cadre of young officers and enlisted men and women in today’s armed forces say access to education is what drives them to join the military and compels them to stay for a full career. It gives them access to the leadership skills, critical thinking and warfighting concepts they need to lead troops on the battlefield. It also fills their resumes with marketable skills for their post-military career.
Barriers remain, however. There is a lack of domestic capacity in Africa, meaning many students are forced to forgo training or compete for limited opportunities abroad. Favoritism, bias, and an unwillingness to embrace new doctrine and technology can leave students frustrated and unprepared.
African PME institutions must adapt or perish, experts say.
“There are multiple challenges facing military higher learning institutions, including politicizing the recruitment of students; retaining and maintaining quality staff; upgrading curricula to ensure that, apart from core military subjects, there is a broader introduction to the societies within which they are located; and improving and explaining civil-military relations as a dynamic, ever-changing process,” Dr. Kwesi Aning, director of the faculty of academic affairs and research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, told University World News.
There also are competing visions for the future of African militaries. Some propose a model that links the military closely with the ruling political party. Others propose a military model in which profiteering and involvement in private business is common by uniformed Soldiers. These models mostly have led to failure and corruption. The most successful models, as have been seen in countries like Botswana, Ghana and Senegal, demand that the military remain apolitical and follow strict standards for professionalism. In order for countries to map their own future, they must create higher-education institutions that reflect these values.
“The long-term solution for many African militaries is for them to develop their own PME institutions steeped in the rich culture and history of their country and armed forces,” Lt. Col. Jahara Matisek, chief of research and development at the Strategy and Warfare Center of the U.S. Air Force Academy, told University World News.
Education to Meet Demands Of Young Security Professionals
Access to higher education is a motivating force driving many young recruits to join the military. A 2019 survey of African security professionals by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) found that 41% of young service members entered the military with at least a bachelor’s degree. That is 11 percentage points higher than older service members.
These educated young recruits want to continue learning and are driven to attain higher degrees. “Young recruits today appear to have more skills and employment options, yet are willingly choosing to join the security sector as a means of service and a career,” the survey authors said.
The drive to continue their education is closely tied to a drive to serve, with 65% of the youngest security professionals citing the value of “service to country” as a motivating factor for joining. This idealism was highest among the youngest cohort of African security professionals.
Service members are hungry for a diversity of educational and training opportunities. About 97% of respondents had a positive view of international training. In individual interviews with ACSS, security professionals cited:
- The opportunity to broaden intellectual experiences and networks, including access to the latest knowledge and trends.
- The chance to build lasting relationships and exposure to new ideas, values, critical thinking and evolving trends.
- Exposure to senior leaders who demonstrate strong moral leadership and vision.
- Gaining a deeper understanding of members of the officer corps from different backgrounds.
- Sharing standards, vision, norms and values with international partners.
- Building regional and global perspectives on security challenges and alternative means for addressing these challenges.
- Gaining exposure to new technologies.
It’s up to Africa’s security sector leaders to meet the expectations of these young Soldiers by offering greater access to PME. Careerlong education can help harness their energy and innovation to find solutions to the security challenges of the future.
Taking a ‘Staff Ride’ Into History
One approach that some military colleges have taken is called a “staff ride,” in which a historic battle or campaign is meticulously studied. But instead of being just a history lesson, students are instructed to think critically about what they have learned and to draw their own conclusions.
In a 2021 study on the South African National War College’s staff ride program, University of Pretoria researchers James Jacobs and Johan Wassermann said that a staff ride includes:
A prior detailed study of related historical evidence.
A field visit to the campaign or battle site to put the historical evidence studied into a geospatial context.
Application of the lessons learned about the military campaign or battle in a practical manner.
The goal of the staff ride, the authors reported, is to give the military students a “deep learning experience” in which they think for themselves, develop their own understanding of complex issues and “make it a habit to think critically.”
After studying the South African college’s staff ride program, the authors concluded that not all students are created equally, and some never successfully transition from classroom learning to actual deep learning. But, they said, the overall program was a success.
“The staff ride as learning process represents a major leap in learning in contrast to the traditional method of learning by sitting in classrooms and listening for hours to endless lectures,” the authors wrote. “The essence of deep learning is to question continuously the truthfulness of existing knowledge.”
Teaching War — as Well as Peace
The Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College’s master of science degree course in Defence and International Politics is typical of the eclectic curriculum and diverse student body at modern military institutions.
The Ghana Armed Forces (GAF) established the college in 1963 to train GAF officers and allied African officers in command and staff responsibilities.
The master’s program is open to participants worldwide. Targeted participants go beyond the active and retired military and include diplomats, public servants, members of parliament, the judiciary, and members of security and intelligence agencies.
Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree from a recognized college or university and must have a basic understanding and comprehension of English. Although the course is open to men and women, in recent years women have been encouraged to apply.
Required courses include theories and concepts of defense and security; research methods in defense and international politics; diplomacy; African politics and the political economy; and international law, human rights and conflicts in Africa. Elective courses include peace operations, terrorism and counterterrorism, regionalism and integration, early warning systems, and post-conflict reconstruction and development in Africa.