You’re a field-grade officer in the US military, you’ve been up since 0400 and you’re ten thousand miles from home. Before the sun sets you’ve successfully completed your mission and brought your troops back safely. You miss your family, dreaming that tomorrow might bring a quick moment to call. And then, just as you are about to hit your bunk you remember: you’re enrolled in JPME-I (joint professional military education phrase one) and you still have mandatory online coursework waiting for you. With the threat of being passed over for promotion hanging over your head, you fire up the laptop, and hope that your ship’s Wi-Fi is working. As you click through the online posts via Blackboard or Canvas you can barely keep your eyes open. Your mind is divided between what happened that day, everything you’ve missed at home, the readings, the discussion posts, and the next mission. Are you thinking clearly? Can you concentrate on being an officer, a student, and a spouse or parent all at the same time? Will you be ready and rested to lead tomorrow? Are you learning anything, or are you simply burned-out and just checking the box?

This is the situation that many officers face as they enroll in JPME-I. Juggling a career, education, and family is difficult under the best of conditions, but in today’s strategic environment it is more challenging than ever. As the United States’ competitive edge diminishes, senior leaders are placing renewed emphasis on JPME to ensure unrivaled “intellectual overmatch against adversaries.” Considering the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East and heightened competition with China, joint operations are more important than ever. Nonresident JPME has failed to keep pace with the stakes that accompany these global challenges.

The Joint Chiefs recently challenged military leaders to “reassess our current JPME framework” in order “to ensure we are evolving JPME requirements of the 21st century.” With these challenges in mind, the current nonresident JPME-I approach is not conducive to learning because instruction is not provided in the type of “environment designed to promote a theoretical and practical in-depth understanding” that US law specifies as a defining feature of JPME. Instead, the virtual classroom consists of readings and mostly asynchronous forum discussions that fail to successfully replicate traditional in-class learning or provide joint acculturation. The methods of instruction must be reformed to allow students to complete JPME-I in a full-time capacity and with an in-person joint acculturation component. Reformed nonresident JPME would better serve the joint force, services, and individual field-grade officers by optimizing knowledge of joint matters, allowing officers to focus on their primary responsibilities and personal commitments, and ensuring officers arrive to joint duty assignments as JPME-I-complete.

JPME has changed numerous times over its history. Since the late nineteenth century, officers have attended various service schools for professional military education to create intellectual advantage. By the early twentieth century, senior service colleges like the Army and Naval War Colleges routinely educated officers from other services—forming the basis for JPME. But joint education remained stagnant until World War II, when the two-front global war led to the establishment of the Army-Navy Staff College in 1943 “to train selected officers for command and staff duty in unified or coordinated commands.” After much deliberation in the postwar years, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and service secretaries established three war colleges in 1946 that evolved into today’s National Defense University and its subordinate colleges. The most impactful reforms occurred in 1986 with the passing of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which emphasized joint and combined operations.

To ensure military officers were adequately educated on these joint matters, the Goldwater-Nichols Act formalized joint education by placing it into law. JPME is defined by federal law as “consist[ing] of the rigorous and thorough instruction and examination of officers of the armed forces in an environment designed to promote a theoretical and practical in-depth understanding of joint matters and, specifically, of the subject matter covered.” JPME was established to properly educate US military officers on joint matters and prepare their leaders for joint duty assignments. Nonresident JPME today misses the mark. It neither properly educates nor prepares military leaders for joint duty.

JPME has two levels: intermediate 1 and senior 2. Intermediate-level service schools offer JPME-I and ILE (intermediate-level education) through resident and nonresident means. However, most officers do not have the opportunity to enjoy a year of resident intermediate- or senior-level school. So, most field-grade officers earn JPME-I credit through nonresident means. In practice this means about ten hours per week of after-hours online distance learning. While each service has its own specific method, they all follow a common theme. Taking anywhere from ten months to three years, the courses must be completed on top of an officer’s primary professional duties—even during deployment. On paper such an additional workload sounds feasible; in practice this method of education hinders effectiveness, diminishes readiness, and provides for only the most minimal learning.

A study conducted in 2020 by the dean of institutional research at Santa Monica College showed that civilian students enrolled in six-week courses had higher success rates and lower dropout rates than those enrolled in the same courses over the length of a standard sixteen-week academic semester. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Economics and Finance Education also discovered that students who took short, focused courses achieved higher grades and were more knowledgeable when compared to those who enrolled in traditional courses of longer duration. The ten-month to three-year model that the services employ fails to accept the reality of adult learning, and the busy working conditions of military officers.

With nonresident JPME-I running concurrent to primary duty responsibilities, work performance and quality of life both suffer. This is especially true for field-grade officers who endure extended work weeks at their assigned units. Attempting to absorb course material during after-hours study over a long duration is academically ineffective and impacts mission readiness. This distance-learning requirement can create career conflicts and mental fatigue, even for top-performing officers, and often leads to burnout. At worst, the education becomes nothing more than an indifferent check-the-box exercise.

A systematic review of burnout among US military personnel conducted in 2023 discovered that high burnout was associated with several factors common to the military occupation. Adding distance JPME-I on top of military duties exacerbates the stress of military life. Field-grade officers are generally in their mid to late thirties and married with children. In addition to those familial responsibilities, many officers are leading or supervising subordinates, running departments, and—for some services and communities—commanding warfighting units. There is an impact beyond the individual. Excessive workloads impact work performance, readiness, quality of life and, as a result, retention.

Perhaps more importantly, contrary to the goals of JPME, distance learning offers little time and few chances for any meaningful joint acculturation. The Officer Professional Military Education Policy defines joint acculturation as “the process of understanding and appreciating the separate Service cultures resulting in joint attitudes and perspectives, common beliefs, and trust that occurs when diverse groups come into continuous direct contact.” Joint acculturation is a primary aim of JPME. It is a key prerequisite for successful joint operations as it allows officers to familiarize themselves with the other services’ cultures and capabilities. Joint acculturation in an online setting is impossible, even in the hands of a skilled online instructor.

Officers involved in joint planning and operations must know what the other services can and—more importantly—cannot do. Successful joint execution cannot happen without this. Military officers experience joint acculturation by being exposed to other services. It can occur by socializing with officers from different services, by working on a joint staff, by participating in joint exercises or operations, or during JPME. However, for joint acculturation to be successful, there must be adequate exposure. Nonresident JPME-I, doesn’t sufficiently offer this opportunity—because it’s too limited, too impersonal, and too disconnected. Students and instructors mostly correspond in online posts at random times. Yes, with today’s web-based programs like Microsoft Teams, students have the ability to communicate more effectively—but it’s still after-hours and requires burdensome coordination. Realistically, who has time for or interest in deep conversations on service differences with classmates after-hours when you’re already exhausted?

For the sake of jointness, readiness, and retention, a more effective distance JPME-I course must be developed to allow officers to effectively learn course material and adequately prepare for joint duty. This can only be accomplished by creating a shortened distance-learning course that officers can complete as a primary duty. Officers would essentially get a six-week sabbatical to complete their assignments. To do this would require changing federal law to separate JPME-I from ILE, creating a shorter course that must not compete with demanding, service-specific responsibilities. But a new distance course isn’t enough. There must be a multiweek, in-person seminar solely on joint acculturation where officers meet and interact with each other on a daily basis.

With this new JPME distance hybrid course, field-grade officers like the one looking for Wi-Fi at the end of a long and demanding day would instead have six weeks of dedicated learning time (plus two weeks of acculturation) to not only read the assignments, but reflect on what they have read and apply it to the current and future fight. They would also now have the ability to discuss these ideas with their peers in person during formal and informal interactions. The check-the-box mentality of online JPME would be replaced and the knowledge from the courses would make for better officers, leaders, and joint warfighters.

JPME-I is about learning, and field-grade officers need to have the opportunity to be students. For the cost of only six weeks of an officer’s time, and two weeks of temporary duty at a JPME institution, the US military could maximize the value of joint education and finally hit the mark—while reducing burnout and maximizing readiness. Or the military could continue the status quo and risk its “intellectual overmatch” along with the United States’ competitive edge.

Commander Douglas M. “Dorothy” Morea was a naval aviator and a student at the Joint Advanced Warfighting School (JAWS) in Norfolk, Virginia.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Senior Airman Chevelle Gauntlett, US Air Force