14 February 2022

Flipping The Line: Professional Military Education is About Confronting Reality

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Original blog can be found here:

By: Dr. Paul T. Mitchell

“Tommy Conway’s” recent post, When soldiers show a dangerous contempt for reality, makes the point that Canada’s military can do many things, “but it can’t fight a modern war.”  This deficiency is placed at the feet of “contemptuous” senior officers, but it is clear that the author’s real focus is on “civilian defence academics” who are responsible for selling them dubious intellectual goods in the first place.

To wit:

“The officer class’ shoddy thinking comes from decades of misguided pseudo-intellectual development. After the Somalia Affair in the 1990s, the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] turned to liberal arts education as a way to buy credibility. There was nothing wrong with the idea of intellectual broadening in theory — the officer corps obviously needed reform. But the reforms were rushed and packaged, so they replaced one set of intellectual deficiencies with another.

“The army’s junior staff college in Kingston gets less and less time with captains soon to be majors, and the instruction focuses more on teaching the ‘planning process’ and briefing techniques than they do on military tactics. The minor course offered at the tri-service staff college in Toronto, designed to make majors into lieutenant-colonels, devotes most of its curriculum to ‘institutional’ stuff like ‘cross-cultural environmental factors’ and ‘integrat[ing] the interests of external stakeholders in the planning of operations.’


I am one of those civilian defence academics. In 1998, I was the first academic hired to create what later became the Department of Defence Studies, currently a group of 13 full-time academics employed at the Canadian Forces College (and the largest such collection of academics exclusively devoted to the study of defence and security in any Canadian school, by the way).

I remember the first day of work at CFC. Academics had worked at the College throughout the 1970s and early 80s, but they had not been replaced as they retired.  So, my introduction was welcomed a little like the arrival of a virus. My superior, a senior naval captain, had only a few words for me: “Don’t forget who you work for” was his no-nonsense advice delivered in a “I’m not joking” tone of voice.

As an academic who specialized in war studies and defence issues, I had my own doubts about the Canadian academy given the short shrift those of us “missile heads” in the “peace dividend” years of the early 1990s had often received in our academic work. One scholar informed me that the only place my Ph.D. thesis on American naval strategy would get me employed was at a staff college or intelligence school. How right he was. I knew I had won the lottery when CFC hired me, and a little institutional anti-intellectualism wasn’t going to scare me.

But whereas Conway sees failure in this development, I see something very different.

All of Canada’s most significant allies, including Australia, Great Britain, and the United States, have adopted graduate degree credentials for senior officer education.  There, as well as in Canada, these degrees are audited by accreditation processes mandated by education quality control bodies, like the Council of Ontario Universities in our case. These processes do not mandate “what” is taught on these programmes, merely “how” degree-related material is delivered to students. Thus, Canada is in good company in its approach, and there is nothing “pseudo” about the intellectual goals we seek.

Further, it is clear that Conway does not really understand how officers are educated, nor what they are taught at different points of their career. In its nearly 80-year history, CFC has never taught “tactics.”

Tactical actions are the domain of lieutenants and captains. They are the leaders of platoons and companies, where this takes place. Senior captains, about to be promoted to major, attend the “Army Operations Course” at Fort Frontenac, familiarly referred to as “Foxhole U” where they learn the “Operational Planning Process” or “OPP.” Here, officers learn how to integrate various land capabilities together into land operations. This is how battalion and brigade operations come together and that is the job of majors.

At CFC, we get senior major/lieutenant commanders from all three services as students. Naval officers may have an intellectual or historical interest in army tactics, but learning them will be of no use in their professional work. Using the OPP, CFC teaches these students how to integrate navy, air and land capabilities together for “joint operations.” For our students, much of this involves learning about inter-service differences: “institutional stuff” Conway so derisively refers to in his piece.

It is also clear that the author over-estimates the value of purely war-related curriculum for officers within Canada’s military. Many of CFC’s students do not go on to command operational units. Many officers have assignments in either maintaining or delivering new combat capabilities. This is also “institutional stuff.”  However, rest assured, institutional matters form, at best, only a third of what we cover on the Joint Combined Staff Programme: war-fighting oriented curriculum is a significant part of our core curriculum and is one of the elective streams in which students can choose to specialize.

To return to Conway’s principal point on the lack of a “war-fighting” capability in the contemporary CAF, this is actually incontestable. Participation in a major conventional war involving the present great powers would require a military on the scale of what Canada fielded during the Second World War. However, it is not clear to me that any military is properly prepared for the scale of destruction that would follow this type of conflict, much like the British Expeditionary Force was much too small for the carnage on the Western Front in 1914. If this is the concern of the author, then placing blame for this state of affairs at the feet of senior military officers is entirely misplaced.

CAF capability reflects a broad historical agreement amongst Canadians about the priority of defence spending relative to the other concerns. Critical infrastructure, health care, social security, and even Indigenous reconciliation all have much higher priority. The failure to replace the CF-18 with a new fighter has everything to do with the eye-watering price tag that comes with modern air combat. Every single CAF combat capability faces similar domestic criticism as to its actual necessity. This pecuniary focus emerges directly from the fact that almost every Canadian sleeps soundly in the assumption that our geographic isolation protects us from the world’s most troublesome problems, surrounded as we are on three sides by large oceans.  Further, we are able to free ride on the fact that a friendly superpower underwrites any residual shortfall Canada may have. Three oceans and a superpower give most Canadians the sense that they live within a “gated community” and thus do not need to worry about their own defence.

The government acquiesces in this attitude by spending just enough on defence so as not to invite “help” from the U.S. in our own security. Until this changes, no government will fund a military capable of doing more than what the CAF already delivers. In seven years of power, a presumably pro-military party like the Conservatives were unable to deliver a fighter replacement, even during their majority between 2011 and 2015.

A final point on the value a “civilian” academic brings to military professional education. In 1998, many CFC staff members, and not a few students as well, sagely informed me that there was nothing I could teach them about how do to their jobs. In fact, I couldn’t have agreed more. That’s what CFC’s “Directing Staff” are for: command-experienced lieutenant colonels who teach in partnership with the academics in the classroom.

Civilian academics have never commanded in the face of danger and have never overseen organizations with thousands of personnel or billions in their budget.  Thankfully, our role is not to tell officers how to do their job. Nor is it our job to make academics out of our students, despite the papers they write in pursuit of their studies at CFC.

However, the challenges military officers confront in contemporary missions go well beyond traditional professional knowledge. They are confronted by novel technology, new actors on the battlefield, and missions with few precedents (the recent deployment in support of long-term-care facilities during the pandemic springs to mind). The CAF has traditionally drawn many of its recruits from communities of rural white males from east coast and prairie communities, all of which are shrinking in number demographically. This will need to change in the future.

Here is where militarily inexperienced civilian professors can make a professional difference. Our mission is to help senior military officers reflect on how they think about their professional actions: is this the best way to achieve our mission? Are there other alternatives? In other words, to think outside of their professional boxes by introducing new forms of knowledge. Last, it is to develop articulate and critically expressive officers who can argue persuasively: to speak truth to power convincingly and diplomatically. Rather than transforming military officers into academic researchers, we seek to create researching military professionals able to think through the novel challenges the 21st century presents.

In sum, while I can agree that Canada’s military is facing steep challenges in terms of its strategic direction, force posture, and leadership, it is wrong to attribute any of this to a pernicious set of untrustworthy academics undermining the traditional professional knowledge of our military, as Conway suggests. Canada faces “graduate-level” challenges from actors like China and Russia as they challenge our values and interests just below the threshold of warfare. The worrisome drift of political polarization in the U.S. also raises “graduate-level” security challenges given our reliance on them. All of this requires “graduate-level” professional military education. I am proud to serve my country in contributing to such a mission, whatever Tommy Conway thinks.

Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, Ontario.

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