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PME, Defence and the need for Reform

Professional Military Education makes more of a strategic contribution to UK Defence than is commonly realised. Due to an historic lack of direction at the highest levels, it has long been an under-exploited asset. Notwithstanding recent positive initiatives, in the context of the Integrated Review the time is ripe to make the choices needed for UK Defence to make the most of Professional Military Education (PME).


What I want to do here is highlight the five ways I see that PME can contribute to defence, and how this fits into strategy. The UK Defence Academy identifies three ways: by improving individual skills, knowledge and attributes; advancing Defence Engagement; and producing relevant research. But there are two more ways, namely by aiding retention and increasing integration.

However, I also want to make the point that PME cannot contribute optimally in all areas simultaneously and that attempts to do so would be problematic and potentially counter-productive. So, it is important to underscore the fact that there is a choice to be made about the direction and flavour of PME in the UK. With the Integrated Review underway, UK Defence has a real opportunity to more effectively utilise PME to further its strategic objectives.

An historic lack of direction

With the emergence of professional militaries came the birth of Professional Military Education (PME). I’ve often thought that the schools, academies, training institutions and staff colleges indicative of formal PME represent an integral part of what makes a professional military. This is hardly a contentious assertion. Yet, in comparison with allies and adversaries, PME in the UK has historically often been overlooked or downplayed, in the strategic sense at least. 

For example, budget cuts led to the removal of the senior oversight post in Main Building, meaning PME lacks a permanent advocacy presence in the heart of UK Defence. Such neglect had left its development and overarching direction somewhat lacking. More recently, PME has attracted significant interest at senior levels, and in light of this there have been a number of very positive initiatives instigated under Joint Force Development to reinvigorate thinking about the subject. Such discussion is overshadowed by a big question mark over what PME is for and should be for. I think that if you accept that PME is integral to the professionalism of the military, we need to tackle this lack of clarity. 

The point of PME #1: Knowledge and Skills

If you have ever attended a PME course, what you will likely have been told something like this:

“You are being sent on this course to develop mastery in the profession of arms and gain the intellectual edge required to achieve success on operations and leadership in government.”

And there is truth to this: traditionally, “military education is understood as a process in which skills are accumulated in order to achieve a certain end product – i.e. a military leader,” with a “focus on questions such as what kinds of skills, traits, or competencies a military leader should possess, especially in the light of the increased complexity of modern military missions.”  This is commonly understood to be the key concern of PME: if you educate military personnel in the relevant areas, their individual effectiveness is improved, and so the military’s overall effectiveness is improved. Tick VG and medals all around. 

This view is reflected in statements such as the following:

“PME needs to do about four things. First, PME has to instruct each individual in the tactics, techniques and procedures for their position, rank and organization […] Second, PME must build thinking skills in terms of critical, creative and systems thinking, complex problem solving and decision making […] Third, PME must develop in every leader character and competence as moral, ethical leaders as they prepare for future positions of increased responsibility throughout a career of service […] Fourth and last, PME must support development of transformational leaders.”

All of this is reflected in the intended learning outcomes and objectives of UK PME courses. Unsurprisingly, leadership, ethics, critical thinking and decision-making, and military knowledge and skills all figure highly, although the balance between them varies. But, there is also significant focus on politics, policy and strategy.

So what about strategic contribution?

Strategy is “a political-military, means-ends chain, a state’s theory about how it can best ‘cause’ security for itself.” In the UK, the political leadership has given us three overarching objectives (ends): to protect UK people; to project UK influence; and to promote UK prosperity. 

If UK military personnel are better equipped in terms of the skill sets, knowledge and attributes required of their profession, it follows that they will better discharge their professional duties. This in turn makes for a more effective military, which provides a better means to achieve the policy objective of protecting UK people, and in certain circumstances, projecting UK influence. One could even speculate that any education of the populace has an indirect positive effect on promoting UK prosperity. 

The UK Defence Academy states that it “delivers three high-level objectives: UK joint Defence education; international Defence Engagement (DE) through education; and Defence education research. The political framework is that of a ‘Global Britain’ and ‘international by design’.” I’ve just covered one of those, but how about the other two? 

The point of PME #2: Defence Engagement

PME can certainly contribute to defence strategy through its use as a vehicle of international defence engagement. US commentators have noted that, as well as serving to “promote intercultural understanding [and] international security, [PME can] help the United States achieve its foreign policy goals.” In fact, “there are strong indicators to suggest that political leaders around the world are coming to recognize the strategic importance of PME as a tool of soft power, and indeed the world’s most powerful militaries are transforming their PME institutions into strategic assets.” The offer of a dose of PME at a respected institution represents a form of soft power (in terms of attraction), and the opportunity to influence the thinking and values of military professionals from other nations may be priceless. Equally, our adversaries have understood that PME can “promote a positive international image […] while simultaneously advancing military-to-military relations.” And of course, “[a]s a considerable number of international exchange officers at professional military education institutions progress to the highest ranks of their own armed forces, the potential long-term benefits are vast.”

But how does this contribute to defence strategy? UK PME institutions are seen internationally as prestigious and desirable. Hosting foreign military professionals on flagship courses such as commissioning courses or staff courses, engaging in exchange schemes and overseas trips, and delivering outreach programmes abroad all directly project UK influence. This can potentially help protect UK people and probably assist in promoting UK prosperity, particularly through arms deals but also indirectly through wider trade, if foreign graduates of UK institutions and programmes rise to the top in broader government or industry in their home states.

And I haven’t even mentioned industry Defence Engagement, by which I mean the participation of industry representatives on PME courses. Using the same logic as above, this opens up a separate channel for PME to contribute strategically to UK prosperity. 

The point of PME #3: Defence Research

What about the third contribution that the Defence Academy identifies?

Beyond just Defence education research, I think PME could contribute by producing “defence and security related research and […] defence knowledge transfer.” There are a number of problems here, such as whether students’ research papers are accessed; what the topics are and whether they fit into ‘customer requests’ (what Defence wants and needs to know); and whether the right individuals and units use them. 

Research by students at PME institutions could potentially give the military a means of achieving defence policy. In answering questions that are relevant for defence, it’s easy to see how harnessing the minds that deliver and/or undergo PME could lead to research output that would improve the military’s capability to protect UK people. As well as realising this through research projects, there is definitely scope for making endeavours like Planning Exercises feed into real-world contingency planning, rather than relying on fictitious scenarios. Depending on access to research and its quality, it may also project UK influence. 

As it stands, this is an under-exploited contribution. The UK Defence Academy contains lots of buildings in which many teams do relevant and useful research – most quite unconnected with the PME delivery side of things. So it’s fair for the Defence Academy to make the claim that it delivers on this objective – but it also highlights the under-exploited further potential contribution of PME to Defence strategy. 

The point of PME #4: Retention

Now, I want to suggest that PME can make two further (potential) contributions to Defence strategy. Wielded in the right way, it can aid the retention of skilled personnel and it can increased cohesion and integration across Defence. And in doing so, it can support Defence strategy.  

In short, the promise of time away from day-to-day duties (including looking after your own kids, not to mention personnel), free qualifications, and transferable skills represents an attractive package that can help to retain experienced and skilled personnel. Taken in combination with the point above about skills, knowledge and attributes, this increases the utility of the means available to the military for achieving the policy ends of protecting UK people and projecting UK influence. 

Of course, it is somewhat ironic that by retaining these individuals, their skill sets, knowledge, and attributes are kept out of the wider labour market, thereby perhaps having sub-optimal economic impact and thus undermining the aim of promoting UK prosperity. This also reduces, potentially, the impact of the education and improvements in skill sets and knowledge as observed above. 

The point of PME #5: Integration

The fifth contribution that PME can make to defence strategy is through its potential positive effect on integration across Defence, and even across government departments. There are three key ways in which PME can help, namely as a “generator of institutional knowledge and thinking,” “a socialising agent,” and an “enhancer of interoperability.” As a producer of shared organisation knowledge and ways of thinking, PME is probably peerless. 

It is fair to say that “[t]he practitioner and security oriented curriculum, and inter-service and civilian mix of seminar students, is not available elsewhere.” Beyond this, attendance is “also a bonding experience, tightening the connections among the […] officers, […] government civilians and foreign military officers who attend.” This effect should not be underestimated. I would wager that anyone who has spent time on a residential joint PME course will testify to this.

As well as engendering shared corporate knowledge and thinking (admittedly risking groupthink), and facilitating close personal and professional networks, PME can also enhance interoperability.  Some contend that the “foundation and primary purpose should be to develop, foster and enhance the joint culture.”

On a darker note some have argued that “military academies may create, inculcate, and strengthen cohesive views that could conflict with incumbent policies, and that these schools establish networks among military officers that may facilitate coordination necessary for plotting a putsch.” Leaving aside the rather unsettling question of who in your cohort might be the next dictator (hint: if you can’t think of anyone, it’s probably you), the fact remains that the integrating effect is a significant strategic contribution of PME to Defence. 

In effect, PME can contribute to the achievement of national security strategic objectives in that a more cohesive and linked-up force, underpinned by personal and professional relationships and shared understandings and ways of thinking, is more likely to be effective, particularly in pursuing the objectives of protecting people and projecting influence. 

So to briefly recap: PME can contribute to defence strategy (the means and ways available to the military to achieve defence objectives or policy ends) in five discrete areas: improving individual skills, knowledge and attributes; advancing Defence Engagement; producing research; aiding retention; and increasing integration. Each of these can be argued to contribute to one or more of the three national security objectives of the UK National Security Strategy, namely to protect UK people, project UK influence and promote UK prosperity. 

You can’t please all the people all the time

While I think it is clear that PME can contribute extensively to defence strategy, it cannot contribute optimally in areas simultaneously. Attempts to contribute optimally in many ways would be problematic; the time and resource demands would be great, and it would be impossible to advance certain areas of contribution without negatively affecting others. 

For example, developing integration may not sync well with improving skills, knowledge and attributes. Full and demanding courses might deliver better-trained personnel who have not had time to network and build relationships. Improving skills, knowledge and attributes may clash with defence engagement; hosting and integrating foreign personnel may undermine the quality of education, given the need to mitigate educational and linguistic differences.

Considering that each contribution to defence strategy and the achievement of high-level defence objectives will not be of equal importance, over-emphasising one area might inadvertently weaken the ability to achieve others. Already noted above was the potential clash between the retention effect of PME and the high-level objective of promoting UK prosperity, for example. 

The key thing here is to better understand these clashes. An enormous difficulty lies in measuring the impact of these potential areas of contribution, and in balancing between them in terms of the design of the PME model, and there is already much research underway at the Defence Academy to tackle this. This should go some way to understanding the trade-offs that need to be made. 

The auguries for significant and far-reaching reform bode well; there are many encouraging omens at present, particularly the clear resolve of Joint Force Development, notwithstanding the continued lack of senior and permanent PME presence in Main Building. But in the final analysis, what is needed here is a decision to be made at the highest levels about the future focus of PME in the UK and the intent behind it. This must get to grips with issues such as modularisation, digitisation, and the role of Artificial Intelligence. The decision should be evidence-informed, but ultimately it must be politically led. With the launch of the Integrated Review, the opportunity to make the most of PME is there for the taking. 

Dr Mike Clark

Dr Michael D. Clark is a civil servant with the UK Ministry of Defence. He is currently researching Professional Military Education through the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the UK Defence Academy. Michael has previously advised the Afghan National Army on higher education management, strategic planning and academic leadership. He has also held posts at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the University of Cambridge, and the American University of Beirut. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s only and do not reflect the positions of the Ministry of Defence or the Defence Academy.

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