After what was effectively a bloody, three-year master’s course on operational level warfare, the Red Army, in June 1944, unleashed an offensive—Operation Bagration—that in mere weeks tore apart three of the four armies comprising Germany’s Army Group Center. In a stunning display of its recently acquired competence, the Red Army proved it had fully absorbed the intricacies of operational warfare. Fortunately, for the fate of Ukraine, at some point in the decades since Bagration, the Russians appear to have forgotten all they had learned.

Just as Operation Bagration forced the world to take notice of the Red Army’s operational skills, the level of Russia’s military incompetence put on display for the past several months has equally stunned the world. What has gone wrong? Undoubtedly, there are many answers to this question. But please allow me to offer one essential item that likely lies at the root of Russian military ineptitude—Russia’s professional military education ceased taking the study of war seriously. The supposed experts of the new forms of war—hybrid warfare, conducted in the gray zone by little green men, with heavy doses of cyber and information operations—have forgotten how to execute more traditional forms of war.

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Army’s senior-level professional military education focused almost entirely on the conduct of war, primarily at the operational level. To help in this task the Soviet General Staff commissioned a series of after-action reports purposely designed as teaching tools for a new generation of senior officers to underpin these studies. Included in these studies was one on Operation Bagration, which, along with the analysis of the post-Kursk assault on Ukraine and the final march to Berlin, became the models for deep-attack operations the Soviets planned to employ in overwhelming NATO.

Somewhere along the way, Russian professional military education lost its way. Today, the Military University in Moscow offers over two thousand subjects in thirteen areas, including arts and humanities, command, modern languages, economics, and law. The Combined Arms Academy of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, which has its roots in the famous Frunze Military Academy, does little better. Together with the Military Academy of the General Staff, it awards master’s degrees from eight different academic councils. Interestingly, the academy’s textbook for comprehending geopolitics is written by Alexander Dugin, Putin’s favorite global thinker. What is sorely missing from Russian professional military education is the serious study of operational warfare, the results of which are clearly on display in Ukraine.

This leads to a big question: Is US professional military education (PME) preparing the United States military to do better than the Russians? In many areas, the answer is an undoubted yes. At the lower levels, American battlefield tactical capability is assuredly far above what the Russians are demonstrating. Moreover, at the level where detailed planning for a complex, multiple-brigade attack would take place, American staff officers are indeed masters of the process. Told to move Force A from Point X to Point Y, professional US military staffs will rapidly decide on a preferred course of action, conduct planning, and then execute better and faster than any other military force.

The problem is, at the operational level of war, how do these planners know that going to Point Y is the correct answer? Here, at the higher levels of warfare, PME is failing—specifically at the war college level, but also in other PME schools that have some responsibility for teaching how to think about war. Except for scattered small pockets of specialized classes, the war colleges have deemphasized teaching the art and science of war in favor of delving deep into the realms of policy, grand strategy, sociocultural studies, and a host of other topics that are irrelevant to the actual conduct of war at the theater or multi-theater level. For example, in early March, the Joint Staff collected replies for an information paper titled “Joint Professional Military Education Transformation” detailing how much of their curriculums senior-level schools devoted to warfighting. One school boasted that it had removed its coursework on military history and theory in favor of a new core course focused on statecraft. Another school did not have a single learning objective focused on warfighting and was resistant to adding one.

This misalignment continues despite, in 2018, the National Defense Strategy declaring that PME had “stagnated.” Although PME institutions mostly ignored this plea for change, others did not. In May 2020, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognizing where the problem lay, issued guidance to fix it. In no uncertain terms, the Joint Chiefs told the war colleges to focus on “the art and science of warfighting” to produce “strategically minded, critically thinking, and creative joint warfighters skilled in the art of war and the practical and ethical application of lethal military power.” The Joint Chiefs clearly told the war colleges to give up on their overwhelming dedication to educating future policymakers and grand strategists. Instead, they were instructed to focus on educating “strategic-minded” joint warfighters and “applied strategists.” In short, the Joint Chiefs want operational maneuverists, well-versed in military strategy and who can comprehend the strategic context in which wars are fought. In their guidance, the Joint Chiefs also told PME schools how to accomplish their task:

PME schools must incorporate active and experiential learning to develop the practical and critical thinking skills our warfighters require. These methodologies include use of case studies grounded in history to help students develop judgment, analysis, and problem-solving skills, which can then be applied to contemporary challenges, including war, deterrence, and measures short of armed conflict. Curricula should leverage live, virtual, constructive, and gaming methodologies with wargames and exercises involving multiple sets and repetitions to develop deeper insight and ingenuity. We must resource and develop a library of case studies, colloquia, games, and exercises for use across the PME enterprise and incentivize collaboration and synergy between schools. To achieve deeper education on critical thinking, strategy, and warfighting, PME programs will have to ruthlessly reduce coverage of less important topics. (Emphasis added.)

Almost amazingly, these straightforward instructions have been largely ignored. Why?

First, change is hard—particularly when the institutions have no desire to change course. The pushback from PME professors to the Joint Chiefs’ vision was fast and furious. Some professors claimed the focus on historical case studies is the wrong approach. Others declared that PME did not need more wargaming while extolling the benefits of increasing regional immersion. Another thought that the war college student would profit by spending a semester reading great books. I would agree with this last assessment if the books selected were General Grant’s or Field Marshal Slim’s brilliant autobiographies, Thucydides’s masterwork on the Peloponnesian War, or David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon. Instead, the list of required books includes Plato’s The Republic, Toni Morrison’s Sula, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. These are worthwhile reads, but they should not be part of any war college program tasked to produce operational level warfighters and military strategists.

There are two fallback arguments employed by almost every scholar who advocates teaching a course or class that has no business in a war college curriculum. The first is that it enhances the students’ ability to think creatively. This is the rationale for absurdities such as teaching English literature courses at a war college and for classes where the students spend hours painting and creating other art works to enhance their creative thinking. I do not consider myself a cultural philistine, and I stand second to none in my appreciation of the power of great art and literature to challenge the mind. But the war colleges have less than a year to educate students in war’s higher operational echelons and military strategy, a study that could easily take a lifetime. Thus, many would think it proper to enhance student creativity and critical thinking through a deep study of the classics of military history and of historical campaigns.

This, in fact, is what the Joint Chiefs ordered. But despite these clear instructions, a recent article by a professor associated with the Army War College advises “moving beyond its principal focus on ‘historical mindedness’—using history as a means of preparing officers for the complex security environment they face—and hiring highly qualified faculty from a range of academic disciplines including economics, political science, mathematical modeling, human geography, and psychology.”

Amazingly, despite contrary instructions from the Joint Chiefs, some PME institutions are resetting their course to do precisely this. For instance, the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), a school whose foundation had until recently been based on the deep study of history and operational level warfare, has announced a reorganization that is sending it in another direction. Despite clear instructions for all PME schools to increase their focus on military history and the employment of historical case studies, SAMS recently fired three historians of national reputation. In the same week, the school announced it was hiring: “Calling all social scientists! Cognitive or political science, complexity theory, #anthropology #economics #geography #IR #psychology #sociology & related fields.” This is the exact opposite of what the Joint Chiefs ordered when they told PME leadership to “ruthlessly” remove courses that did not enhance warfighting skills from their curriculums.

The war colleges have long been teaching a wide variety of things far removed from the art and science of war. As one war college professor told me, “My colleagues think war is icky.” For decades they have been following the lead of a former Army War College commandant, Major General Eugene Salet, who in 1967 declared, “Today’s military professional, while first and always a soldier, must also be a diplomat, an economist, a scientist, a historian, and a lawyer. The complexity of the military arts and sciences has expanded into many other disciplines and professions.” Ever since, the war colleges have been on a broadening campaign that has resulted in the hiring of dozens of professors specializing in international relations, political science, sociocultural studies, and more—anything, it seems, but the deep study of war. Instead, the war colleges were and remain driven to create strategists capable of comprehending and influencing issues at the policy level—despite the fact that an active military officer’s role in the policy arena is limited to offering his or her best military advice.

This hiring of professors with expertise other than war accelerated over the past twenty years, as PME schools turned into counterinsurgency academies, emphasizing all-of-government studies over the study of war. This hiring of so much expertise in topics other than war accounts for the second line of resistance. Since few of these professors have much to offer in a curriculum focused on military strategy and the conduct of operational warfare for strategic impact, their future employment rests upon maintaining the status quo.

But what has this status quo resulted in? The United States just lost two wars. How is it possible that the war colleges have educated more than twenty thousand “strategists” over the last two decades and have nothing to show for it but two strategic defeats at the hands of military forces we outclassed in every possible way? One would think this fact alone would engender some severe soul-searching, possibly leading to the trashing of entire curriculums and starting from scratch. Instead, the response from most US PME institutions—there are some exceptions—has been to double down on what is clearly not working.

Moreover, these are curriculums established before the United States had to contend with two great military superpowers and a raft of more minor regional powers who are continuously enhancing their military capabilities. Given the substantially changed strategic environment, clearly highlighted by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and China’s increasing belligerence, it is professional malpractice for the war colleges and other PME institutions to refuse to return their primary focus to the study of warfare.

That does not mean every class that is not clearly focused on military strategy and the conduct of operations must go. PME, as the Joint Chiefs ordered, still has a duty to ensure America’s warriors are “strategic-minded.”

But these needs are narrow. Take, for instance, economics. Students need to understand how economics works in the real world, such as how markets, debt, or rapid currency moves influence strategic decisions. But all of this can be presented in a block of five or six classes before moving on to other topics. The same is true for political science topics, which can all be covered in a half dozen classes.

Room must also be made for educating students on the new domains of warfare. But, that does not mean giving over vast resources and class time to create new tracks for each new domain or dimension of warfare. Take cyber, for instance. Senior leaders do not have to know how to code or set up networks. This is the work of trained specialists. Instead, they have to understand how to integrate cyber into an overall scheme of maneuver. This high-level focus ensures war college students learn what they have to know while requiring only a fraction of the time and resources needed to create specialized senior-level cyber warriors.

One last argument for the status quo that arises frequently is that students must understand the political dimensions of a conflict before they can even begin to formulate a military strategy. In fact, in a recent operational decision exercise I conducted at the Marine Corps War College, students were told to stop and, if possible, destroy an enemy force. Most of the participants claimed they needed to have a briefing on the political dimensions of the conflict before deciding on a scheme of maneuver. Why? General Dwight D. Eisenhower executed the invasion of Normandy and operations across northern Europe based upon the following order: “You will enter the continent of Europe and in conjunction with other Allied nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” He was not briefed on the the political dimensions of the conflict, nor were they crucial to his campaign plans. Following in the path laid out by Carl von Clausewitz, wartime policy objectives are still set by politicians, but how they are achieved on the battlefield is determined by military professionals well versed in the art and science of war.

In our new geopolitical environment, PME, and particularly the war colleges, cannot continue to ignore the clearly stated instructions of the Joint Chiefs. It is time to get back to first principles and and refocus PME on the study and conduct of war.

James Lacey, PhD, is the Horner Chair of War Studies at Marine Corps University. He is the author of The Washington War, Gods of War, and the forthcoming Rome: A Strategy for Empire.

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: Lindsay Church, US Naval War College