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Modern defence no longer benefits from the year-long generalist Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC). Its content is now provided by a number of other agencies in a more targeted and efficient manner, yet many posts across the joint service career field are being skewed by the requirement to attend this year-long residential experience. Perversely, the vagaries of the grading system can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s career.
One of the greatest areas of growth in the UK’s Armed Forces in the last 30 years has been Professional Military Education (PME). Neatly described by Dr Mike Clarke in a previous Wavell Room article, PME is not the same as technical instruction but is education ‘dedicated to the intellectual, moral and social instruction of a very unique professional community with respect to its specific knowledge and skills, its practice of a particular science and/or art, and its associated ethical code.’ In the 1990s, as the UK defence footprint contracted both in terms of personnel and finances relative to GDP, it developed an increasingly joint and integrated way of doing business. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review envisaged a “joint approach to defence…where it makes sense to do so in the front-line, the command structure and the support area’.1
To generate the leaders suitable for this new age, the single services amalgamated their various senior staff courses into a new, 11-month long residential ACSC. This continues today at the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) in Shrivenham. Why the UK sustains PME for its military’s current and future leaders is neatly summed up by the Royal Navy’s previous Second Sea Lord, who stated its purpose is to maintain ‘the intellectual edge [that is] critical to our success as an agile force, able to operate in complex, international environments.2 Since then, joint training and delivery has permeated all areas of defence, from the provision and training of single IT systems covering administration and stores up to the Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC), for those destined for the top assignments in the Ministry of Defence (MOD).
In recent years the online Defence Learning Environment (DLE) has brought online training, pre-course testing and assessment to the desktops of all soldiers, sailors and air personnel, an option accelerated during COVID. As joint and blended delivery has persisted, it has also given space for a greater range of specialist training to exist, deepening resilience in organic defence knowledge and expertise. It is ironic therefore that the course that first led this change is now, in this author’s opinion, a legacy of an increasingly outdated approach to PME.
ACSC remains a one-size-fits-all residential experience that has adopted technology and practice only to sustain its own existence, not for what defence requires. Based on completing ACSC in the last 4 years and reflecting on its value in subsequent employment, this author proposes that the course is self-serving, and that its syllabus is already being delivered more efficiently and effectively by other organisations and means. Its persistence and high profile at the heart of the UK PME environment also stifles officers from exploiting their potential through the various other educational avenues available and allowing them to add greater value to the defence enterprise.
ACSC – the fulcrum in the PME machine
Delivery of PME (not PME itself) in the UK has been challenged before. Steve Maguire made a compelling case in this forum in 2021 about what needed to change, neatly summarising that ‘there can only be one objective for PME: preparing people for operations’. What he didn’t identify is that the fulcrum of PME in the UK Armed Forces is ACSC; all other courses are balanced around it, such as the single service Intermediate Command and Staff Courses (ICSC) as its prerequisite, or HCSC or the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) that follow on. ACSC is the framework from which all other PME is based on or around, so if you really want change, you have to start here.
What does ACSC deliver?
The self-declared aims of ACSC are coalesced around 4 main themes: the military character, understanding the world, operational planning, and managing defence. The quandary for ACSC now is that when the coalescence of these themes under one syllabus was once unique and a requirement to serve an increasingly joint environment, the desired ‘ends’ for defence have changed, as have the means. The pace of technological change along with the lack of specialisation, recognised by the adoption of career fields for commissioned officers, means more targeted training and thus choice is required. Other courses and training organisations have now been established that can provide a similar, and in some cases, superior level of qualification.3
The military character: [Training] delivered within a continuous wrap of command, leadership, and ethics.
The increasing demand on staff skills has meant the respective ICSCs have evolved both their syllabus and method of delivery and now closely match the training delivered on ACSC. There have been mixed results. The recent changes to ICSC Maritime have generated a strong response, as it moved from a wholly residential experience to a mix of remote learning modules that have to be adjusted around job requirements, with a short and focused residential and assessment period towards the end. But the criticism appears focused on the lack of resources to deliver and time to participate (and quite rightly too), rather than the suggestion of using more targeted and blended training; suggesting we avoid this when our entire working environment relies on online technology in some form would be self-defeating; to paraphrase the mantra ‘train as you intend to fight’, ‘learn as you intend to work’.
The Royal Air Force’s Intermediate Officer Development Programme had adopted a blended learning approach prior to COVID. While ICSC Land continues to be predominantly residential, it offers in-depth operational estimate planning that means its graduates will arrive later on ACSC already well versed in this area and usually with subsequent experience in its application.
Regarding leadership and briefings, those arriving on ACSC even as OF3s will have held command of some form (full or professional) including sub-unit, squadrons or even warships up to frigate size – they will already be well-versed in leading personnel at the operational level. The only additional staff skills ACSC offers is scenario-based briefings to ministers within MOD but these, mostly of an OF4 being the sole advisor on a matter of significant national security, are unrealistic. In practice, such high-level briefings are usually framed around the senior officer, civil servant or politician’s preferences. The staffwork templates from MOD are the basics tools needed; something already provided through the DLE.
Academic: Understanding the world through a theoretical grounding in international relations and strategy.
What was a unique offer from ACSC is now embedded in the other three services through the expanded intermediate staff courses. All three Services have also set up their own in-house professional development courses at a postgraduate level, some linked to a tailored assignment and all offering remote and residential academic opportunities and modules, with a focus on addressing a specific issue within their own environment.4 The Army courses come with the opportunity for post-graduate Masters accreditation and all can be attended by civil servants and military alike. The British Army course has even sacrificed ACSC spaces from its training margin to find the numbers and time for its students to participate, ensuring its total liability is no greater than if they all attended Shrivenham – hardly a ringing endorsement of ACSC being the ‘flagship’ course for defence.
Operational Planning: Applying the military instrument in the Information Age as part of an integrated force above and below threshold across all domains.
The operational planning training in ACSC is long and complex. This is partly to explore new themes and ideas that are in vogue, such as ‘Cyber’, although the amount of time given is questionable.5 The other reason is to allow for international participation. While beneficial for establishing professional and personal relations, the duration and disparate locations do not deliver a realistic operational planning experience.
The single services deliver operational planning training at their own bespoke Warfare Centres, while the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in Northwood runs the Joint Operational Planning Course (JOPC). This is an intensive 2-week programme that educates UK and international officers from OF2 to OF4, the majority being OF3/4, and civilian equivalents from other UK government departments in joint planning. It sets out the operational estimate and where that sits between the tactical estimates (taught on each intermediate staff course) and the higher strategic planning (presented on HCSC). That it is located and delivered by the top-tier Joint HQ for those joining planning staff in UK operational HQs across defence means it remains relevant and output-focused. Even the instructor on this author’s ACSC admitted that operational planning on course was ‘based on JOPC’. This is the tail wagging the dog; the training should be designed to deliver operational specialists, not extended to simply support an international experience. That can be met through the numerous multinational and NATO-led exercises that take place annually between staff and units alike.
Managing Defence: Managing the defence enterprise by developing business skills.
The last semester of ACSC does split students up so they can specialise in areas such as ‘Managing Defence’ and ‘Capability and Acquisition’, but a few weeks of this instruction mixed amongst other studies is insufficient. Many academic institutions through the Defence Academy offer at least 17 sponsored or part-funded postgraduate opportunities. Capability and Acquisition training is available as accredited education through the DLE. There is also a Masters-level Defence Logistics Staff Course at the University of Lincoln. Management of Defence can be examined in depth through a MOD-sponsored MBA offered by Cranfield University. The list goes on. It may mean fewer students overall are studying these areas, but those that are will be doing so in more depth and with greater career relevance, especially if they are already working in that role. Less about quantity and more about quality.
The preference for ‘jointness’ at the expense of specialisation is losing currency as the current pace of technological and operational change quickens and deeper specialist knowledge is required. The ICSC to ACSC to HCSC/RCDS education chain ‘enables those who complete it to consider themselves strategy specialist leaders in the majority of command roles…[but it] does not allow OF3-6s within Defence’s specialist hubs to be any more than a generalist leader, unless a specialist education programme is created which enables longer postings in any one role.’
In addition to the four themes listed before, it is possible that there is a benefit to learning alongside those who arrive with a wealth of experience from different cultures and theatres that goes beyond the usual exchange officers who are from other, usually like-minded, nations. However, the altruistic nature of this participation should not be overemphasised – the governments of foreign students will pay in some form for their people to attend, so as an income-generation scheme or option to potential partner nations, this is another influence on the programme for ACSC over the benefits to joint training and delivery.
So of the ‘unique’ selling points of ACSC listed above, only the exposure to international relations has some merit, which itself comes with caveats. But as well as these, there are two other critical issues.
The problems of grading and shading
The first is the course grading system. Summative assessments are collated from academic submissions, scenario briefings and some formal testing. Students are then placed in order of merit upon completion, with high praise going to those in the ‘top third’ and no mention of the remainder. Although not explicit in any career management documentation, the British Army places great emphasis on this placement, and those who fall amongst the remaining 66.7% are unlikely to be considered for future high-profile positions. This, despite the fact that, against the Training Performance Standard, a student may have exceeded the requirement but simply not been in the top cohort, even if they gain a coveted course ‘Distinction.’6
The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force place less weight on this final position unless they are looking for candidates for high-profile joint roles. So, we are in a ridiculous position that for the majority of successful UK ACSC students, their career chances could be hampered. This is absurd. It is perfectly appropriate for any course to have an order of merit and recognise those who come top or excel in specific areas, but to limit the future career opportunities of two-thirds of students who will be successful by the standards of the course itself is self-defeating – why bother attending if other PME options do not carry this risk?
Formative assessment and the Dark Arts
The awarding of a final grade is further compounded when you realise 20-30% (it seems to move every few years) of the final mark is awarded at the discretion of the Divisional Staff. This comes to the second point; this ‘good egg’ grade is effectively a personality assessment, anecdotally based on how much a person has promoted themselves on course but without a defined criteria of what is being judged. It is a distraction from the purpose of PME, to educate it audience, especially as it drives certain behaviours that influence the final outcome as set out in my first point. Some are worthy, such as organising a charity bicycle ride. Others are more dubious, including enforced socials, themed sports days or even delivering lectures through the medium of song.
While all periods of study need downtime, the artificiality of such activity sucks resources from the PME experience in the pursuit of grades and not enjoyment for the sake of itself. More critically, more reserved students, or simply those with external commitments diverting them from dedicating personal time to course socials or non-core activities, find themselves losing out to those fortunate enough to have the capacity to take part in extracurricular activities. It is another unique feature of a purely residential course that is not adding value to defence or the PME experience and is unlikely to exist in remote and blended learning. More crudely, it can be a popularity score, nothing more.
The way ahead
In an ever-decreasing workforce, the insistence on the ACSC post-staff course qualification is more of a hindrance to filling roles. By coveting generalists for senior positions we raise an officer’s overall situational awareness to give the illusion of greater employability, but at the risk of them being assigned into challenging positions needing deep understanding and where a little knowledge is instead a dangerous thing. The UK military appraisal system has evolved to try and address this, now requiring officers to select preferred career fields and then assessing them against their performance in these areas up to the highest level. Noting this changing requirement to identify and grow more senior specialists, targeted training is a better investment in resources and career prospects for both defence and the individual then persisting in a year-long generalist course.7
With the improvement in the respective ICSCs, operational training being delivered at PJHQ, the Defence Academy and single services offering specialist and academic education and the expansion of joint training in all other areas, there is no need for a radical new course – we just need to remove ACSC from the PME chain of succession between ICSC and HCSC/RCDS and recognise what else is available that delivers the necessary outputs more efficiently. For those destined for high office, HCSC remains the head-mark.
Where ACSC has been left behind is that the single service approaches to PME now come with a tangible benefit of output to their own environment, be it through dissertations, study or critical analysis. This may not be considered very ‘joint’ but it is consistent; the same cannot be said for the research papers produced on ACSC. That is not to dismiss academic curiosity itself, and for which military personnel can pursue by other means if they wish, but it is difficult to justify a consistent and beneficial approach to core training if some students are exploring relevant subjects, such as the application of Artificial Intelligence in future warfighting, while others are making re-evaluations of long-gone historical conflicts.8
The one key experience that will not be replicated is the self-congratulatory kudos attached to simply being able to say ‘I attended ACSC.’ This has led to a snobbery in the services against not only those who have not attended, but those that have and are amongst the majority who are outside that top-third. In a more knowledgeable, employable, and egalitarian workforce with a greater diversity of specialisations to call upon though, its loss would not be a bad thing.
ACSC, by its own description, ‘is a flagship course’.9But every flagship is eventually decommissioned. The course set the standard in the late 1990s for joint training, however, its output is now mirrored in other, better-tailored programmes. Yet because of its heritage it exerts a disproportionate influence not just on staff officer training but PME as a whole, while remaining resistant to much-needed change for what UK Defence needs to educate a more deployed, specialised and resource-sensitive workforce. Its perverse assessment process means the lower 66% of those attending will be hampered in their future career path simply for taking part – a clear disincentive when other options with no such penalties exist.
As a minimum, recognition of existing bespoke, targeted courses aligned to career fields and without a post-course arbitrary pecking order would best serve the military as well as the individual. Ultimately, PME in the UK needs to focus again on what defence needs from it – ACSC, with its self-serving approach, is no longer the vehicle to deliver this.
Gert Frobe is a commissioned officer with 20 years experience in single service, joint and international assignments. He has completed ICSC, ACSC and an external Masters degree.
- Strategic Defence Review (1998), Appendix Essay 8, “Joint Operations,” p191. Available at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20121026065214/www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/65F3D7AC-4340-4119-93A2-20825848E50E/0/sdr1998_complete.pdf (Accessed 23 Sep 22).
- Hine, Nick (2021), “The Bridge – the new online resource for naval education.” Royal Navy Galaxy Message 10-2021.
- “Advanced Command and Staff Course.” Available at: https://www.da.mod.uk/study-with-us/colleges-and-schools/joint-services-command-and-staff-college (Accessed 23 Sep 22).
- Although the programme details are not classified, access to the joining instructions remains within the Defence intranet. For those who can, see Army Command Standing Order 3238, “The Army Advanced Development Programme”; 2022DIN07-086 “Chief of the Air Staff Fellowships”; and 2017DIN07-126, “Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre – Internal Fellows Recruitment.”
- K, Adam (2022) “Calling time on Cyber War.” Available at https://wavellroom.com/2022/06/10/calling-time-on-cyber-war/ (Accessed 19 Sep 22).
- ACSC 23 (2019-2020) students had to work from home from March 2020 onwards due to COVID restrictions and much of the course had to be cancelled – performance was almost entirely based on academic result. The final grades saw significant inflation overall compared to previous years.
- At his welcome address to this author’s ACSC, the JCSC Commandant said that based on past evidence most of the course attendees would not promote further – which further challenges why so many are loaded onto an expensive generalist course.
- The MOD offers funding grants through the Standard and Enhanced Learning Credits for a range of courses personnel can undertake for continuous development both professional and personal that is outside the direct provision of the Defence Academy.
- “Advance Command and Staff Course”. Available at: https://www.da.mod.uk/courses/advanced-command-and-staff-course. (Accessed 9 Sep 22).