Energizing the Silent Majority: Non-Resident Professional Military Education and Flexible Fellowships

The U.S. military is full of people with great ideas. Overwhelmingly, the debates raging around professional military education focus on maximizing the potential of those who attend resident programs, and completely overlook ways to tap into those who complete non-resident programs. Though many are selected to resident programs due to merit, there are many other variables that cause promising individuals to forego resident courses, including bad career timing, the needs of the service, or because they were selected for other competitive programs. Regardless of the reason, there is an abundance of talent elsewhere. These are not diamonds in the rough, but diamonds untapped. By implementing non-resident fellowships through their respective command and staff colleges and war colleges, the services can tailor research and professional development programs to suit their needs, exploit the talent and initiative of a greater majority of the officer population, and incentivize participation cheaply and easily. In this way, the services can energize their silent majority and capitalize on all the talent needed to set conditions for winning the next war, now.

No Residence? No Problem!

Joint professional military education credit is a requirement for certain promotions for officers in every service. Generally, resident courses comprise year-long assignments to command and staff colleges or war colleges for majors and lieutenant colonels (or their equivalents). As the services lack the time and resources to send every officer to a resident course, non-resident courses exist as an alternative means for completion. The Marine Corps, for example, offers non-resident command and staff college through the Marine Corps University’s College of Distance Education and Training. Though there are several significant and meaningful differences between each service’s resident and non-resident programs, policy makes both options equivalent for the purposes of receiving the credit needed to be considered for promotion.

By and large, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force can only send approximately 25% of their officers to resident programs, while the Army sends nearly 50% each year. Conversely, this means that 50% to 75% of the officer population must complete non-resident programs. Additionally, nearly all reserve officers must complete non-resident programs; the Marine Corps, for example, could select only seven reserve officers to attend their resident command and staff college for the 2018-19 academic year, leaving the other nearly one thousand reserve officers with only the non-resident program as an option. 

U.S. servicemembers enrolled at Marine Corps Command and Staff College listen to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2010. (Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley/DoD Photo)

Regarding the conversation on innovation in this area, this means most initiatives and recommendations under discussion apply to only a minority of the officer population. The Department of Defense writ large is missing out on the opportunity to tap into the majority of its talent pool for the purposes of bringing innovation to its officer education programs. The silent majority is being left silent by omission. It is imperative they be brought into the conversation, and that programs be put into place to maximize the unique skills, expertise, experience, and education they can bring to the table to breathe new life into professional military education and its outcomes.

More critically, a significant portion of this population does not attend resident military education programs because they are assigned to other high demand, low density programs for which they are competitively selected. These programs often provide advantageous skills to their respective services, skills that uniquely position selectees to solve challenges their services face. To name only a few, naval officers are routinely assigned to Naval Postgraduate School, where they spend two years earning technical degrees in fields as varied as information warfare systems and space systems operations; Air Force officers are regularly assigned to the Air Force Institute of Technology, which has offerings ranging from master’s degrees in Cyber Operations to doctorates in Computer Engineering; officers in all services supporting their Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs serve as faculty members at premier civilian higher education institutions across the United States, from the University of Michigan to Yale University; and, of course, officers are regularly assigned to their service academies as instructors in subjects in which they hold an appropriate master’s degree.

If resident students of command and staff colleges provide a well of intellectual acumen, non-resident students present an uncharted sea.

In short, those officers completing non-resident military education programs comprise a pool filled with high caliber individuals who were competitively selected to be directly embedded in institutions of higher education, as graduate students, faculty members, or both. Further, officers must often forego both resident professional military education and any direct relationship with institutions of higher education to serve in other complex positions that require significant investments in training and preparation, such as defense attaché officers, or to break into emerging occupational fields, such as unmanned systems or cyber operations. Finally, there are leaders with skills and talents honed on their own, spearheading additional initiatives out of sheer passion and personal drive. If resident students of command and staff colleges provide a well of intellectual acumen, non-resident students present an uncharted sea. The services’ war and command and staff colleges should establish flexible, tailorable programs that enable non-resident students to align their interests with the academic and research pursuits of the schools, incentivized by a combination of funding, resources, and academic credit; professional military education schools should establish programs for non-resident fellows.

Non-Resident Fellows

Establishing non-resident fellowships would allow the war and command and staff colleges to canvas the entirety of their officer population, along with their myriad areas of expertise, for participation in research initiatives and experimental studies that meet research objectives of the military services.  What is meant by a fellow in this context? The term has many applications across academia and industry, and can refer to a particular scholastic pursuit or to programs for professional development. The services already select officers for fellowships across this gamut: on the academic end of the spectrum, selectees may attend fellowships at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; as for industry, they may spend a year with Federal Express.

Defence Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos lectures at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of the Tufts University (Hellenic Republic/Minister of Defense)

But what do fellowships for geographically dispersed officers look like? Thankfully, such models already exist. The Modern War Institute at West Point, which studies contemporary conflict, is comprised largely of non-resident fellows, inclusive of active duty and reserve officers. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has several fellowships, inclusive of non-resident fellowships chaired by serving military officers. Each fellowship details the obligations and privileges of its fellows, which naturally correspond to the objectives and constraints of any individual fellowship. For non-resident professional military education fellows, each service’s war or command and staff college could serve as their sponsor and owner, utilizing the apparatuses that are already in place to facilitate non-resident education to enable completion of non-resident fellowship activity. In this way, these schools—the organizations best manned, resourced, and equipped to advance warfighting research on behalf of the military services—will have an affordable and flexible instrument by which they can attract and deploy the right personnel against the right research problem.

How would such non-resident military fellowships work in practice? Again, models exist, predominantly within resident officer education schoolhouses. The Gray Scholars program connects students of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College with organizations studying various challenges that align with the interests of the Marine Corps. The Air War College Center for Strategy and Technology runs the Blue Horizons program, which leverages its students to study future strategic and military issues, blending officers from both command and staff college with war college attendees. In fielding non-resident fellowships, each service’s war and command and staff college would tailor implementation to fit their needs, but generally these schools would be the hub connecting the student and their expertise to an appropriate research project or external agency. Further, this will break students out of the mindset of pursuing professional military education as a career required check-in-the-box—rather, they are immediately and meaningfully applying the educational outcomes of these schools to real problems.

Finally, how would one incentivize military officers, who would likely assess such programs in terms of opportunity cost, to participate in these fellowships? The most readily available incentive is academic credit, which the accredited schools have the liberty to offer. Credit hours toward graduate certificates and master’s degrees could be offered in combinations that simultaneously meet each school’s research needs and satisfy the school’s requirements for the credit awarded. Another model for such hybrids exists in the Air Command and Staff College’s Online Master’s Program, which combines the Air Force’s professional military education with additional thesis producing research elective courses. Research electives can be of the student’s choosing if approved by faculty, or are selected by faculty, effectively turning the students into part of a collective research team. Graduates are awarded both the joint education credit required for promotion and a Master’s degree in Operational Art and Science, an ample incentive for a time-constrained military officer. A pair of illustrative vignettes can help demonstrate the variety of ways in which such fellowships might be implemented.


General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 1944-1947. (USMC Photo/Wikimedia)

Major Smith, U.S. Marine Corps, receives orders to the Naval Postgraduate School, where he will study information warfare systems. He also enrolls in the non-resident Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and is proactively offered the opportunity to serve as a Vandegrift Fellow. The Vandegrift Fellowship aims to ensure the organization wins the next war by training the right way, right now, and has identified persistent organizational challenges that could benefit from additional research and inquiry. One such challenge aims to study the issue of integrating information operations at the tactical level, starting with a fusion of these capabilities at the still misunderstood Marine Information Groups, which combine capabilities as varied as communications, intelligence, law enforcement, radio, and air-naval gunfire liaison units. Major Smith is assigned this problem area and is able to tailor his research efforts toward resolving this challenge. He completes a thesis that provides multiple recommendations for leveraging the seemingly contrasting capabilities of the Marine Information Groups to achieve dominance in the information environment during combat operations, fully incorporating the coursework from his information warfare systems program. Major Smith receives his master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School and the Marine Information Groups get potential solutions. Additionally, Major Smith is awarded both joint professional military education credit and a graduate certificate in applied information operations from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.

Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, speaks to attendees of the 2018 Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 22. (SSgt Kenneth W. Norman/U.S. Air Force Photo)

Major Doe, U. S. Air Force, is assigned to the 92d Cyberspace Operations Squadron, where she will be in charge of performing cyberspace vulnerability assessments. While enrolling in the non-resident Air Command and Staff College, she is apprised of the Kwast Fellowship, which challenges its fellows to find ways to outmaneuver potential adversaries in any number of emerging areas. Major Doe’s proposal to develop ways to push cyber protection capabilities down to the tactical edge is approved, and the funding awarded to her by the Kwast Fellowship enables her to test her methods at the National Cyber Range. After consolidating her findings via a command and staff college thesis, she is awarded joint professional military education credit, a master’s degree in operational art and science, and her findings are summarized in a feature article in either the Air and Space Power Journal, Strategic Studies Quarterly, or Joint Force Quarterly.

Energizing the Silent Majority

The latest discussions surrounding proposed changes to officer professional military education programs ably cover the many sides of this multifaceted issue. From claims that such education equips military officers to respond to uncertainty, to arguments that its academic rigor is grossly lacking, and everything in between, the ground of pros, cons, and middle ways is well trod.

Perhaps a better way to approach the discussion is to identify meaningful changes that can be internally implemented by professional military education organizations. Such recommendations are the most immediately relevant and useful to those with the authority to change these programs because they are the least laborious to implement. No changes to statute are required, and no significant funding must be allotted to get these innovations off the ground. By and large, the services can make these changes happen in and of themselves.

This low hanging fruit exists within the silent majority: the non-resident students of professional military education. By implementing non-resident fellowships, war and command and staff colleges can rapidly and affordably leverage the entire pool of the officer corps toward applying the knowledge gained in professional military education toward relevant problems, and revolutionize these schools by making their curricula applicable to warfighters and policymakers. In this way, the entire officer population can be used to set conditions to win the next war, today.

Brian Kerg is a serving Marine Corps officer, an Expeditionary Warfare School adjunct instructor, and a member of Ender’s Galley. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the United States Marine Corps, the United States Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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Header Image: Lt. Gen. Tod D. Wolters, deputy chief of staff for Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, addresses the graduating Air War College class of 2015, May 21, 2015. (Bud Hancock/U.S. Air Force Photo)