The global COVID-19 pandemic and response to it have triggered a wave of cascading effects. While much of the focus to date has been on the potential negative impacts on human health, the global economy, and military readiness, the challenges associated with such events offer opportunities to experiment with ideas that can shape the future of learning in the US military. Given the success of some of DoD’s premier educational institutions—to include the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)—in leveraging distance education to continue learning and support real-life planning efforts, despite the COVID-19 outbreak, each of the services should explore other options to exploit information technology to improve the joint education of future leaders. Specifically, DoD should take steps to create a distance-based joint exercise between the services’ advanced schools as a means of enhancing intermediate-level professional military education for field-grade officers.

As the joint force moves toward the joint All-Domain Operations concept, each of the services should actively strive to dissolve some of the barriers that exist in the current paradigm of field-grade officer training and education. In our experience, each of the services’ schools generally adhere to a parochial, “domain federated” approach to education. While each intermediate-level service school (the schools for majors) presents the curriculum mandated by the Joint Staff to meet the joint education accreditation requirements, the bulk of the courses emphasize operations within a service-specific domain. For example, the Army Command and General Staff College focuses on large-scale land combat operations, with the other domains—air, maritime, space, and cyberspace—considered in very general terms. Broadly speaking, the goal of these schools is to train officers with years of experience leading at the company and battalion level in tactical situations to begin looking at the larger picture. Further, these institutions are obligated to transform small-unit leaders into middle managers within their service. Therefore, the resulting federated approach, is natural, given the need to balance limited resources in delivering introductory levels of joint exposure with the requirement of producing service-oriented staff officers. A similar trend exists in each of the services’ advanced schools—which include the Army’s SAMS, the Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW), the Navy’s Maritime Advanced Warfighting School (MAWS), and the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). Thus, in aggregate, the preponderance of field-grade officers receive limited exposure to joint warfighting capabilities and the nuances entailed in operating in an all-domain fight.

These educational limitations can result in an under-appreciation, or in some cases, a distorted mental model of the capabilities and limitations within the joint force. While these flawed perceptions and assumptions are harmless in a schoolhouse environment, they can have dire consequences further down the road in terms of the expenditure of resources and the potential loss of America’s most precious treasure—her sons and daughters. To mitigate the risk of such losses, students must learn the appropriate ways and means to integrate into the processes and components of a joint task force. This does not mean to say that the intermediate-level schools should be “joint schools” educating officers for joint task force headquarters—that rightfully belongs to higher echelons of professional military education. It does mean, however, that the schools should embrace opportunities to present a more accurate perspective of the nature of joint warfighting. While there are a multitude of options to achieve this end, information technology offers the ability for the services to facilitate collaboration between organizations across the joint educational enterprise. After all, as Marine Corps commandant Gen. David H. Berger wrote in 2019, the time has come for “an information age model” of education and training.

The establishment of a distance-based interservice exercise between the advanced schools offers a low-cost option to enhance the joint education of field-grade officers. These schools offer a controlled environment to experiment at an appropriate scope and scale. A distance exercise would not only combine the intellectual capital at each of these schools, it would also provide an outstanding opportunity to cultivate operational artists who are better prepared for joint warfighting in an increasingly complex global operating environment. Although the schools are already trending toward greater levels of interschool collaboration, many opportunities exist to strengthen connections among the institutions and the students alike.

Over the past few years, the advanced schools have improved collaboration and enhanced joint educational opportunities. These efforts include a steadily growing number of Marine students at US Army SAMS—growing from four students in 2018 to nine for the 2021 academic year. Additionally, the Marine Corps now uses an interview process to preselect Marines for the current and inbound cohorts for the College of Naval Command and Staff to maximize participation based on available school seats at MAWS. Moreover, SAMS and SAW built a deliberate plan to conduct complementary planning at each school based on a shared scenario during their respective culminating exercises for the 2020 academic year. And while the DoD-wide travel halt disrupted the plan for a Marine cadre to travel from Fort Leavenworth to Quantico to participate in person, the integration plan was a significant step forward in providing an opportunity to develop student connections and build joint warfighting knowledge. The exercise would have also replicated some of the very realistic challenges of planning across vast distances at various levels—from the institutional echelon down to the individual—as participants worked to provide contributions to various operational planning teams spread across two time zones.

These types of obstacles replicate the challenges many future planners will face as they prepare to lead operational planning teams with key members of the team spread out across various regions. Not only will these types of exercises allow students to combine their respective experiences and build important network connections prior to returning to the operational forces, they can also provide students with an opportunity to learn and share best practices for planning in the twenty-first century. Fortunately, the joint force does not need to look too far to find opportunities to achieve the aforementioned synergistic exercise experience. Future iterations should leverage opportunities such as the Marine Air Ground Task Force Staff Training Program (MSTP) exercise scenario known as Pacific Challenge to achieve unity of effort in education across all of the advanced intermediate schools.

Pacific Challenge is a planning exercise run by MSTP to train field-grade officers in the employment of the Marine Corps Planning Process (MCPP) at institutions such as the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College. MSTP also uses the exercise to expose other services to MCPP and the inherent capabilities and limitations of employing a Marine Air Ground Task Force. For instance, in March 2020, an MSTP cadre guided SAMS students through the Pacific Challenge planning exercise, providing in-depth scenario support material, continuous exercise control from instructors and support staff, and senior leader mentorship from four retired Marine general officers. While MSTP is not directly involved in managing the version used by the Navy’s MAWS, the school uses the Pacific Challenge scenario to introduce students to the Naval Planning Process as members of a Combined Maritime Force Component Commander (CFMCC) staff. Thus, given the widespread use of the exercise and its robust supporting products, the services ought to explore how it can be used as a venue to enhance cooperation between the advanced schools while providing students with a premier opportunity to build networks across the joint force.

An integrated approach could allow each of the services’ advanced schools to participate as specific components of the notional combined-joint task force headquarters. This could be accomplished by allowing SAMS students to plan as a Joint Force Land Component (JFLC) or a corps; MAWS students to plan as a Joint Force Maritime Component (JFMC) or numbered fleet headquarters; and SAW students to  participate as Fleet Marine Forces, balancing operations afloat under the JFMC Commander and operations ashore under the JFLC Commander. Additionally, students at the Air Force’s SAASS, could round out the components as the Joint Forces Air Component. This new approach to twenty-first-century education would yield multiple dividends for the joint force.

To ensure that joint capabilities and processes are accurately presented, exercise control cells and exchange students—for example, Marines students at SAMS and MAWS—could serve as liaison officers. As in real joint task forces, liaisons can foster understanding and enable the realistic application of sister service forces and capabilities. In doing so, students have opportunities to simultaneously fulfill roles as both a student and a coach while also getting a tune-up prior to returning to their respective services.

The conduct of an exercise that bridges the services’ advanced schools also provides a vital opportunity to learn to plan at a distance. While most would agree that in-person communication is best, the simple fact is that field-grade officers need to learn how to rapidly assemble and employ teams that are capable of creating viable plans without the luxury of pulling all the stakeholders into a room. The pace and distance of modern operations means that video-teleconferencing, collaborative portals, and emails form a major part of intra- and interservice cooperation and planning, whether leaders like it or not. Conducting a complicated exercise via remote connections between multiple, notional component headquarters is an excellent chance to hone distance planning skills. It also provides vital experience in troubleshooting suboptimal communication channels while facilitating commander decision making regarding the employment of resources and the acceptance of risk across time and space.

Additionally, the employment of international officer students in unique exercise roles offers an opportunity to inject additional realism by enabling them to plan for partner-nation contributions. This would provide more realistic feedback regarding the hurdles of interoperability and the capabilities and limitations that their nations may bring to a coalition, whether that be in the form of a scenario that includes a United Nations intervention or a conflict that entails collective action undertaken by NATO. For example, at the Naval War College, this would not only enhance the coalition planning required in the exercise but give MAWS students the opportunity to work collaboratively with its international student body while overcoming the realities of workspace constraints. While in some instances international officer collaboration may be reduced to consultation based on academic curriculum constraints, even limited participation yields valuable opportunities—not least of which is to ensure validity of developed coalition plans. The exercise could be further exploited by allowing students to experiment with novel joint-force employment concepts—to include joint combined-arms operations, expeditionary advanced base operations, distributed maritime operations, and multi-domain operations to name a few—while also providing an opportunity for key student leaders to participate in experiences such as a combined rehearsal of concept the brings together students in a culminating exercise event.

While the described exercise would offer an excellent learning opportunity for the joint force, it still would entail a fair number of obstacles that warrant mention. These include an increased need for early coordination between organizations. It would also need a robust exercise control cell to manage exercise products, answer information requests, and synchronize the exercise between the schools. The cell would also need to produce deliberate plans for information management and connectivity. Finally, conducting such an exercise would require each school to outlay resources to support the venture and adjust their respective curricula to accommodate the opportunity. For example, current execution of this planning exercise for MAWS sits astride the transition from participation in the Naval Command and Staff core curriculum to fulltime MAWS, so as to fully inculcate students into the planning process. It is, therefore, a fair assumption that each school would require changes to its education plans to facilitate participation.

These challenges are not insignificant, yet the return on investment would make a substantial difference in the development and maturation of the next generation of leaders as operational artists. Given the charge in the National Military Strategy to prepare the force for joint combined-arms operations of the future, such an exercise appears to be an excellent chance to better prepare planners for a future of globally integrated, all-domain operations. Distance exercising offers an opportunity for each of the services to nudge closer to a twenty-first-century education model that fosters cooperation and collaboration within the joint educational enterprise. It will also contribute much to honing the “intellectual edge” of our nation’s field-grade warfighters for tomorrow’s challenges. After all, the opportunity costs associated with maintaining a federated, service-centered approach to professional military education and training is far too high in an era of great-power competition.


Lt. Col. E. Aaron “Nooner” Brady is a US Air Force officer, A-10 pilot, and student at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

Maj. Matthew Schultz is a US Marine Corps logistics officer and student at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

Maj. Zach Embers is a US Marine Corps logistics officer and student at the US Navy Maritime Advanced Warfighting School.

Maj. Timothy Riemann is a US Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicle officer and student at the US Marine Corps University’s School of Advanced Warfighting.

Maj. Kelly Buckner is a US Army civil affairs officer and student at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

Maj. Andrew Ginther is a US Army information operations officer and student at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies.


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


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa, US Air Force