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Professional Military Education Needs Reform.  Here’s Why and What to do

Professional military education.  PME.  For some the phrase is a meaningless buzzword.1  For others it is the life-blood of military thinking and debate.  The current debate around the utility of PME is split between two extreme camps.  On one hand, some argue that [US] military institutions no longer teach sufficient war fighting leading to operational failure.2  Others argue for more balance and point to the value of academic rigour and general awareness as the value of military education.3   Yet there is a middle ground between these positions.

This article presents the core argument that UK Defence needs to be a more intelligent customer and clearly define the purpose of PME and link it to professional outcomes.  This article firstly considers the purpose of PME, but does not present a clear definition.  It concludes that doctrinal assumptions about future conflict should act as the aiming marker for professional study.  It secondly demonstrates how and why the current system doesn’t meet this requirement.  It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that PME is overly focussed on popular bits of popular wars at the expense of examples which have more relevance to serving personnel today.  Lastly, this article proposes four general solutions on how to fix the problems identified.   This line of argument is a challenge to a system which seems lethargic in reform and unable to align education with professional purpose despite high profile voices calling for change.4

This article is focused on the UK and therefore presents what is arguably a narrow interpretation.  It uses ‘PME’ broadly to mean all career courses with educational elements; some of which will meet the criteria identified below, but this does not weaken the argument.  The arguments likely apply to informal UK PME at regimental level and other corporate courses organised by the Ministry of Defence.  Whilst the themes presented seem focused on officers, this is not true and the problem is deeper than the PME delivered by the UK Defence Academy.  It is in the spirit of robust debate that I offer this article.5  Some may consider this article undermining and an attack on well-intended people who work hard for Defence.  But this is not the case and I have spoken with many in putting this article together.  Some of whom will disagree.  My intent is only to make our organisation better.

What is the purpose of PME?

Critiques of military education have a long pedigree with significant debate as to its core purpose.  In 1991 Cathy Downes noted that one of its aims was to internalise appropriate attitudes, frames of references, and loyalties.6  Looking back further, in 1890 Field Marshal Sir William Robertson railed against a system which prioritised ‘the mere accumulation of knowledge’.7  More recent thinking claims that the professional element of PME must be rooted in the ‘intellectual, moral, and social instruction of a professional community’ suggesting that education should be bound within policy and doctrinal assumptions.8  As such, there is a confused understanding of the purpose of education and how it benefits the force.  The key difference between education and PME is that militaries have a body of knowledge to draw upon.  The British Army Doctrine Primer notes that militaries ‘pride ourselves in being a profession, which by definition has a body of knowledge which it studies’.9  Whilst all study is positive, military study must have a professional focus.  This creates a tension with pure ‘education’ which is the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

“The future requires that we be competent warfighters.  But we cannot be competent warfighters unless we are as intelligent and mentally tough as we are aggressive and physically rugged”

Conflict is competitive, and given the high stakes, PME is necessary to develop the profession of arms.  General David Petraeus concluded that ‘the future requires that we be competent warfighters.  But we cannot be competent warfighters unless we are as intelligent and mentally tough as we are aggressive and physically rugged’.10  There is certainly a line of thought that says the ‘current calibre of officer thought is inadequate to the demands of the time’ suggesting PME is not meeting this requirement.11  Whilst this doesn’t rule out the study of the old, there must be a constant process of checking assumptions against the current context and be grounded in the realities of the modern world.  Louis Halewood and David Morgan-Owen argue that a selective use of history in the ‘narrow pursuit of operational insights’ is a misleading tool leaving myths unchallenged.  They argue for a broader study to gain critical insights leading to greater ‘diversity of critical thought’.12  They are right.   Yet, the limiting factor for PME is time and military professionals cannot study everything in detail.  Excellent service personnel will devote time to personal study but the ‘system’ has cut time for education and raised the rank at which it is conducted.  Arguably directed education must be more focused than ‘pure’ history.  The most appropriate aiming point to use is the Defence planning assumptions presented in the Future Operating Environment.13  This is the base line analysis of the threats Defence thinks it will face and the operations onto which it will deploy.

 What is the problem?

Michael Howard argues that we must view military history with a level of cynicism.  He identifies two key flaws.  First, historians need to remember that each event is unique.  Second, that we are not studying what happened, but what others say happened meaning we cannot clearly understand the situation at the time.14  In many ways, this matches Jim Storr’s argument about the study of ‘war’ over ‘warfare’.15  ‘War’ is the study of campaigns and their purpose.  ‘Warfare’ is the study of ‘how’ they are fought and is more focused on military knowledge than academics.  The modern debate is also shaded by the ‘forever wars’ of the post-9/11 era, which have led many to question the purpose of military operations.16  There is also a popular cynicism against officers who have failed to deliver Clausewitizian decisive victories.17  This presents a fad that can undermine the value of professional study with both students and academics conceptually fixed on current focus areas over deeper and more meaningful engagement.  The delivery of PME is not exempt from these trends.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, history must be used to challenge ‘myths’ and PME must not be allowed to become a generalist study of the past, but educate across the levels of warfare.18

the defence academy. The home of UK PME?
An exterior shot of the Defence Academy, Shrivenham, Wiltshire. Photo: MOD.

Another part of this problem is cultural.  Patrick Porter points out that historically ‘Western’ thinkers have looked down on other cultures and therefore failed to see value in studying them.  Porter argues that ‘conflicts with strange enemies’ such as Sioux warriors define the ‘West’ as being righteous and proper against the savages of the past.19  He points to a ‘folk memory’ of Western heroes meaning we devalue other military examples.  It is easy to provide evidence for his point; have you ever studied Genghis Khan or Saladin?20  The lack of study of actual opponents, such as Daesh, the Taliban, or Russia, to focus on other history also strongly suggests that PME syllabuses need reform to focus on operational success.  We seem surprised when these groups are successful on the battlefield.  Defence should not assume individual officers will devote time to studying their opponents and PME must fill this gap.

UK PME has a focus on Normandy and the conventional parts of the European theatre of the World Wars.  This is probably linked to the legacy of veteran senior officers in the post-Second World War era who defined Cold War PME from their own experiences.  Another part of the reason for this is geographic, with easy access to battlefields making its study convenient.  Yet there are numerous examples of conflict such as the Cuban intervention into Africa (expeditionary warfare at scale similar to UK Defence planning assumptions) or the Libyan – Chad wars (marked by corps and divisional level manoeuvre against more mobile opponents) which offer more directly relevant themes to study, suggesting Porter is right.  To make this point more bluntly, UK PME does not grant non-Western case studies the same prominence as Montgomery’s Eighth Army or the 1944 landing in Normandy.  PME is overly focused on WW2 and the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US.21  Within these bounds PME is also overly focused on conventional warfare over other elements making it narrower still.  Inside this, it often becomes generalist ‘history’ used without considering modern policy and doctrinal direction. In 2018 Jim Storr argued that the lack of an adequate understanding of the levels of war in military history has given ‘licence to charlatans’ who confused tactics with strategy and therefore understood very little.22  Variations of this have also been identified by junior officers considering their professional education.23  PME is also focused on ‘war’ which means military professionals discuss broad strategic themes and conduct ‘big hand small map’ studies when more detailed analytical study would be more relevant.  Other methods could include wargaming and simulation to merge the old and the new.   In one conversation preparing this article this trend was described as ‘second rate international relations delivered by first rate universities’.  Whilst useful context, and accepting that some strategic study is essential, the aim of PME is to aid success on operations and overlooking more relevant case studies is an intellectual risk to the mission.

These factors alone do not mean that UK PME is in crisis.  Montgomery was arguably one of the world’s greatest generals and Normandy could well be the epitome of multi domain warfare.  The key question to ask, however, is how these studies relate to the current and developing character of conflict and the assessed requirement for professional knowledge.24  This is not a question that academics can answer on their own and the direction of PME must be more clearly guided by Defence.  To give one example, the Integrated Operating Concept (IOpC), released in September 2020, outlines how UK Defence wishes to operate by 2025.25  IOpC is fundamentally different to how the common historical examples are examined in traditional PME.  This is no bad thing and it must be accepted that the character of conflict changes.  But, in accepting that, so must the character of PME.  Fusion doctrine, released in 2017, is an example of a policy or doctrine theme that could have been exploited through PME, but wasn’t.  Defence should not make the same mistake with IOpC and should push its supporting academics to meet the shifting basis of military thought.  The time lag from identifying this direction and delivering new PME must be shortened to enable Defence to better direct its requirement.  The academics who support the Armed Forces are impressive and onside; they are likely frustrated by the restrictive system.  In this regard, both Defence and military academics need to develop the purpose of PME and change content to have more focus on how Defence wishes to operate when delivering professional study.

Even on operations, education is prioritised by military commands. Photo: MOD.

It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that PME is beholden to popular wars at the expense of those which have more relevance to serving personnel today.  This could be solved by aligning PME with Defence master question lists with scope for project teams to feed in themes which need studying.  If aligned with broader cross Government priorities, it would move PME from a focus on studying popular history and towards applied professional study.  This would have the second order effect of allowing Defence and the Civil Service to generate relevant knowledge reducing a dependence on outside expertise.26  This is not a comment on the quality of traditional education, far from it.  Rather, it is a critique of the content delivered.  A majority of academics supporting Defence are contractors who deliver the service Defence pays for.  Defence must question if it has changed PME syllabuses to meet the trends identified.  If they have not, Defence should demand new and different content remembering they are buying a service and it is a competitive market.  Universities certainly exploit their relationship with Defence to further their businesses, Defence should become a more intelligent customer.27

What is the solution?

First, there needs to be a greater merging of professional and academic knowledge such as studying history relevant to the IOpC.

Second, PME should be aligned to the Defence master question list.  It should also be integrated with Civil Service education to ensure cross pollination of ideas and coherence of purpose.  This can be a two way process with students proposing areas of study, and why, to further national knowledge.

Third, greater use of war gaming and simulation.  This uses historical examples but places practitioners into the environment they wish to study.  This intrinsically links historical and modern concepts allowing both to be explored.

Fourthly, accountability.  Both ways.  Defence should critically evaluate the content being delivered to ensure it is not buying generalist history lectures.  Academics also need to be more assertive with Defence and call out irrelevant study and point out other areas of study.


PME is not broken.  But it is also not fixed.  Drawing the themes of this article together suggests that PME should evolve to be more focused on contemporary operational problems using the Future Operating Environment assumptions as the aiming marker.  Part of this problem is cultural and part of it is geography.  Whilst the Second World War is not without its lessons, PME is fixed on it and this is an intellectual risk to the mission.  Nor does reforming PME need to be competitive or destructive.  In 2017 Admiral James Goldrick commented that ‘academia does itself no favours when it ‘addresses militaries with an air of intellectual superiority’.28  On the other hand, David Morgan-Owen and Aimée Fox have made a strong case for how they contribute more broadly to Defence’s moral component and help to expand its purpose.29  Military professionals and academics are not opponents in this debate and need to work together.  But there can only be one objective for PME: preparing people for operations.  Defence must critically evaluate what it needs to achieve success.  PME is not just the study of history and must be focused on developing relevant professional knowledge.  Passionate personnel will define their own study and education.  The military helps with this but directed PME needs more purpose.  None of this undermines the effort made by PME providers.  Rather, it suggests that our model for professional education is wrong and needs reform.

Steve Maguire

Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment.  He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters.  He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.


The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.


  1. See eg Vice Admiral Sir Jonathon Woodcock, https://twitter.com/sir_jonathan/status/1354029002491633664?s=20
  2. Thomas Bruscino & Mitchell Klingenberg, Putting the “War” Back in War Colleges, https://www.city-journal.org/putting-the-war-back-in-war-colleges?, accessed 4 September 2021
  3. Louis Halewood and David Morgan-Owen, “Captains of War”, RUSI Journal, (2021) https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2021.1876526 accessed 4 Feb 2021
  4. See eg. Dr David Morgan-Owen, “Approaching a Fork in the Road: Professional Education and Military Learning”, War on the Rocks July 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/07/approaching-a-fork-in-the-road-professional-education-and-military-learning/ accessed 27 Jan 2021
  5. See remarks by Stephen Lovegrove, MOD Permanent Secretary, 8 Sept 2016, https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2016/09/08/learning-from-chilcot/ accessed 27 Jan 2021
  6. Cathy Downes, Special Trust and Confidence, London: Frank Cass, 1991
  7. Cited in Dr David Morgan-Owen, “Approaching a Fork in the Road: Professional Education and Military Learning”, War on the Rocks July 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/07/approaching-a-fork-in-the-road-professional-education-and-military-learning/ accessed 27 Jan 2021
  8. Dr Mike Clark, “What is PME Anyway?”, Wavell Room, 4 August 2020, http://wavellroom.com/2020/08/04/what-is-pme-anyway/ accessed 26 Jan 2021
  9. British Army, “Doctrine Primer”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/33693/20110519ADP_Army_Doctrine_Primerpdf.pdf accessed 26 Jan 2021
  10. General David Petraeus, “Beyond the Cloister”, The American Interest, 1 Jul 2007, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2007/07/01/beyond-the-cloister/ accessed 27 Jan 2021
  11. Reed Bonadonna, How To Think Like An Officer, Stackpole Books, 2020 pp2-3
  12. Louis Halewood and David Morgan-Owen, “Captains of War”, RUSI Journal, (2021) https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2021.1876526 accessed 4 Feb 2021
  13. DCDC, “Future Operating Environment 2035”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/646821/20151203-FOE_35_final_v29_web.pdf accessed 26 Jan 2021
  14. Michael Howard, “The Uses and Abuses of Military History”, RUSI, Vol. 107, No. 625, 1962, pp. 4-10.
  15. Described in Jim Storr, The Human Face of War, Continuum, 2009
  16. Candace Rondeaux, “Are America’s Forever Wars Finally Ending?”, World Politics Review, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28170/are-america-s-forever-wars-finally-ending, accessed 26 Jan 2021.
  17. Rory Stewart, “Time to end the war in Afghanistan”, TED Global, https://www.ted.com/talks/rory_stewart_time_to_end_the_war_in_afghanistan/transcript?language=en accessed 26 Jan 2021
  18. Louis Halewood and David Morgan-Owen, “Captains of War”, RUSI Journal, (2021) https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2021.1876526 accessed 4 Feb 2021
  19. Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism, London, C. Hurst & Co, 2009 p.3
  20. There is some variation in study for example Army Military Analysis Module A focuses the Iran-Iraq war through the lens of Clausewitz.  But this represents a tiny proportion of Defence wide directed education.
  21. One RAF Officer commented “I’ve lost count of the times I’ve studied Churchill or the Battle of Britain… we’ve definitely got to move with the times”, @scottyeders https://twitter.com/scottyeders/status/1354151950825250816?s=20 Other anecdotal evidence can be found in this discussion https://twitter.com/SRDMaguire/status/1354146722956587009?s=20 See also. ICSC(L) course 17A Sept 2020 to Mar 2021 which received multiple lectures on this topic but limited lectures on other conflicts.
  22. Jim Storr, The Hall of Mirrors, Warwick: Helion & Company Limited, 2018, pgxi
  23. See eg “Freddie”, “Does PME Matter?”, Wavell Room, 16 May 2019, http://wavellroom.com/2019/05/16/does-pme-matter/ or Steve Maguire, “Too Fat Too Think”, Wavell Room, 9 Oct 2019, http://wavellroom.com/2019/10/09/too-fat-to-think-disruptive-thought-military/ accessed 28 Jan 2021
  24. DCDC, “Future Operating Environment 2035”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/646821/20151203-FOE_35_final_v29_web.pdf accessed 26 Jan 2021
  25. MOD, “Integrated Operating Concept”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/922969/20200930_-_Introducing_the_Integrated_Operating_Concept.pdf accessed 26 Jan 2021
  26. For good case studies of the ‘cross pollination’ of ideas see Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas, London: John Murray, 2019
  27. See eg KCL press release following the extension of its contract with the Defence Academy https://www.kcl.ac.uk/archive/news/kings/newsrecords/2011/10october/newmodcontract
  28. Cited in Squadron Leader Andy Netherwood, “Fools and Cowards”, Defence in Depth, 14 Feb 2019, https://defenceindepth.co/2019/02/14/fools-and-cowards/, accessed 27 Jan 2021
  29. Dr Aimée Fox and Dr David Morgan Owen, “Whose Voice Matters?”, Wavell Room, 21 June 2018, http://wavellroom.com/2018/06/21/whose-voice-matters-the-british-army-in-2018/, accessed 27 Jan 2021

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