The Pentagon wants to send more officers to earn graduate degrees at top-notch civilian universities, a key piece of soon-to-be released personnel reforms that could fundamentally alter the career tracks of senior military leaders.
Defense officials familiar with the plan said the aim is to both improve and diversify the officer corps' education and also provide future military leaders with more experience studying or working in the civilian sector and developing nontraditional skills.
The shift toward civilian schools is driven in part by concerns that the military's own educational institutions like those under the National Defense University in Washington and the service-run war colleges no longer are capable of delivering the comprehensive training that tomorrow's force will need to succeed.
"We're moving to a time when a battalion or brigade commander assigned to Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa might have a master's degree in public policy," said one defense official familiar with the plan.
"There is a recognition that the world is changing. The security environment is changing. And breadth of knowledge is becoming increasingly as important as depth of knowledge," the official said.
The education proposals will be a key component of Defense Secretary Ash Carter's effort to overhaul the military personnel system. The Pentagon is wrapping up its "Force of the Future" review and plans to publicly unveil a slate of recommended changes in September.
The proposals will influence decisions about next year's Pentagon budget and may seek Capitol Hill's approval to change some federal laws governing military personnel management. Dozens of proposals are in a final draft phase, and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson plans to deliver them to Carter by the end of August.
A buzzword found across the slate of proposals is "permeability," the notion that troops should be able to more easily move in and out of the active-duty force and forge a career path that mixes operational assignments with time spent in the civilian sector in graduate school, on family leave, or on assignments working with private industry or corporate fellowships.
Beyond funding more graduate programs, the Pentagon's proposal aims to also break down some of the cultural and political barriers that make many of today's officers reluctant to temporarily leave the active-duty force. For years, many officers have felt such nontraditional assignments were a liability before promotion boards designed to reward those who hew to a more conventional career track.
"One of the biggest pieces of this is the acculturation. You can create more opportunity, but how do you get the real high performers — the future chief of staff of the Army or the future chief of naval operations — how do you get them to do it?" the defense official said.
The emerging slate of reforms will include new benchmarks designed to encourage officers to go to civilian graduate schools and other "broadening assignments" that involve spending time beyond the insular military community.
Specifically, the Pentagon may phase in a requirement for officers seeking to move up into the general and flag ranks. A certain percentage of each annual cohort moving into the O-7, one-star paygrade would have to show a career track with time spent in the civilian world.
"So by 2027, the idea is that 30 percent of your colonels selected for general would have some sort of broadening assignment, something that takes them off the treadmill and puts them into some sort of intellectually or life-experience broadening situation" in the civilian sector, the defense official said.
That could reverse a trend in some services that has significantly reduced officer enrollment in civilian schools. For example, Army data shows that the percentage of brigadier generals holding graduate degrees from civilian universities has dropped steadily from nearly 60 percent in the 1990s to less than 40 percent today.
An Army spokesman said the apparent shift, in part, reflects the fact that the Army and Air War Colleges have expanded their academic programs during that time period to include, for the first time, graduate programs.
Some new evidence suggests that the quality of the officer corps has been declining. A July study out of the Brookings Institution, a well-respected Washington think tank, found that Marine Corps second lieutenants have performed progressively worse on a standardized test administered at officer training school over the last 35 years; the average new officer's score on the General Classification Test dropped from 131 to 122 between 1980 and 2014. A perfect score on the test, which measures intelligence and aptitude, is 160.
Many military experts have criticized the Defense Department's network of professional military education institutions. Especially at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assignments at some schools were considered cushy posts that gave troops time to focus on family and networking at the expense of academic development.
"The heart of the problem is that too many of our officers lack a rigorous college education," Richard Kohn, a military history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in an interview. "The better graduate programs are more rigorous than the war colleges and the staff colleges."
"Officers should be going to the top universities where they are forced to do research and to think and write critically and precisely and rigorously," Kohn said. "So that as they rise in rank and responsibility, they can recognize quality research and direct that kind of work in their subordinates and present to their civilian leadership the same kind of high-quality rigorous thinking and good writing."
Enlisted troops not left out
The Pentagon's proposal also aims to boost education in the enlisted force. The services are planning to set aside some money in their budgets to send high-performing enlisted members to earn undergraduate degrees from civilian schools.
Those troops would move into a reserve unit during their school years before returning to active duty to take on leadership roles as senior noncommissioned officers.
Traditionally, enlisted troops who earned undergraduate degrees and returned to service entered the commissioned officer corps. But Pentagon leaders believe enlisted members need more education to be effective in a force where both technology and missions are growing increasingly complex.
"The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is that you've got young E-6s and E-7s making very important decisions, not only tactically but operationally," the defense official said. "These are the types of folks we want with the experience of attending an undergraduate university."
Enlisted troops are entitled to a taxpayer-funded college program after separation through the generous GI Bill program. Pentagon officials hope that institutionalizing a career track that includes an undergraduate degree for enlisted troops will help the service to retain them and make them more likely to return to service after school.
Closing the 'Civ-Mil Gap'
Other reforms in the works inside the Pentagon would encourage officers to pursue graduate education. Proposals include scaling back or ending "up-or-out" rules that force officers to compete for promotions within their "year-groups." Many officers are reluctant to seek out nontraditional assignments because they fear their peers who pursue more strictly operational career tracks will receive priority consideration from promotion boards.
The joint-service requirements imposed under the Goldwater Nichols Act also may be under scrutiny because critics say they make the system too rigid and force troops into "check the box" assignments that offer limited professional development.
Collectively, the personnel reforms being finalized by the Pentagon aim to give troops more exposure to the civilian world and possibly shrink the cultural divide between the military and civilian worlds.
"Military officers need to be in touch with American society," Kohn said.
"It is important not just to expose graduate students in the colleges and universities to military officers, but to expose military officers to the civilian world. The development in the last 15 to 20 years of awarding a master's degree for attendance at staff and war college has diminished the number of people getting a first-rate education on the outside. It has, in my judgment, isolated the officer corps unnecessarily and to the officers corps' disadvantage," Kohn said.
"It makes for an isolated officer corps that is more alienated from the people they are serving."