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Educating While Transforming: Defining Essential Professional Learning in a Complex Security Environment

by Randall Wakelam

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There is little doubt that since the end of the Cold War, the actual operational tempo of the Canadian Forces has increased dramatically, to the point where it has been suggested that the military is, if not de jure, then de facto, on an operational, i.e., a wartime footing. If the rest of the nation was similarly engaged in the maintenance of Canada’s national security, the demand upon resources seen in almost every facet of the Canadian Forces’ day-to-day existence might not be so significant, but that is not the case. As a result, the profession of arms finds itself called upon to make fundamental choices about how it conducts its business, and upon how it makes use of its scarce resources. These choices are as apparent in the area of Professional Military Education (PME) as in all other functions. At the Canadian Forces College, for example, there have been chronic shortfalls among military faculty over the last decade, and, more recently, there is a definite pressure from user organizations to reduce the time spent on professional development. Paradoxically, there are warnings from many of the most senior officers that the military cannot put all its energies and resources into the current campaign in Afghanistan. There will be other issues that will need our attention, and other operational demands that will strain our resources. How can the PME system, asked both to limit the extent of programs, and, implicitly at least, to provide a suite of learning programs that will ensure ability by the institution to respond to the demands of the future, make good on those conflicting demands? This opinion piece will argue that if we must focus upon providing the essence of professional excellence to meets today’s needs, as well as those of the future, then this essence must take the form of cognitive competency – that necessary set of thinking skills that will allow leaders to deal with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty.

The tension between sharper, shorter-focused programs and the need for general professional competency is readily apparent. The Advanced Military Studies Programme (AMSP) – a course of 14 weeks duration for senior lieutenant-colonels and junior colonels (and their naval equivalents), designed to prepare officers for employment as senior planners and commanders in operational level headquarters – has been deemed problematic, due to difficulties in finding course members. It has been deemed more effective to break the program into two parts – segments that will prepare a student for only one job or the other, but will limit her/his ability to see the interrelationships and interdependencies between staff and line functions within a single headquarters. Similarly, a requirement to provide newly promoted majors/lieutenant-commanders with an exposure to command and staff issues – commanding and leading as a senior officer, the concepts associated with the operational level of war in a joint context, and the processes associated with designing and planning campaigns and major operations at the operational level of war – has been reduced. It has gone from a robust, but by no means extravagant, 300-hour program where joint syndicates would be formed from officers of all three components, to a perhaps-too-short 70 hours of individual distance learning, coupled with something less than two weeks of residential work, to practise the operations planning process in a small group setting. The study of command and leadership has been removed from the program, and proposals to build in critical thinking have been eschewed. In the case of the army, this new activity will be accepted only if some equal amount of other professional development is discarded. The intent of the original proposal, one equating to about eight weeks of full-time study, was to give all mid-career officers a common foundation of leadership and professional warfighting concepts sufficient to see them through the balance of their service should they not be selected for further professional education. Arguably, this was not an excessive proposal, and yet, it was rejected.

That we might be driven to look for these forms of economies is apparent from a number of indicators, not the least of which is the army’s dire present circumstances. As recently as the end of February, the Chief of the Land Staff (CLS) commented to a Parliamentary committee that he was losing sleep over the inability of the army to generate even the raw numbers needed to make good on attrition, let alone the planned modest expansion.1 Other indicators are also present. Organizations are operating at reduced strength, and operating budgets are being squeezed – all to pay for the unprecedented level of operations in Afghanistan.

Perhaps we are indeed caught in a period of extremis. If so, it would not be the first time, and there might be some insight to be gained from reviewing what happened to professional education when the nation was faced by periods of intense operations in the past. The most obvious example of this is the Second World War. Up to 1939, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had been sending officers to attend British staff courses, as well as to the strategic level Imperial Defence College (IDC) in small but adequate numbers for the size and complexity of military operations in Canada. The army staff course, whether conducted in the UK or at Quetta, was of two years duration, while the Royal Air Force (RAF) and IDC offered one-year programs. These colleges suspended operations at the outbreak of hostilities and eventually were replaced with ‘war staff courses’ of much reduced length and scope.

When the RCAF instituted its own program in Toronto in 1943, the course of instruction, modeled after the RAF equivalent, was ten weeks long. This was deemed sufficient time for practitioners seconded to the faculty to teach their students the rudiments of planning air operations. The curriculum included a few contextual lectures on the defence hierarchy in Ottawa, and on alliance and enemy strategies, but the focus was anchored firmly upon then-current operational needs. In 1945, with the end of the war, air force leadership immediately began to expand the curriculum, and, by 1950, the program of studies had returned to the pre-war norm of 10 months. At the same time, the Canadian Army moved its own program back to the pre-war British model of two years of professional study. It was also recognized that Canada needed a joint operational-level college to study and to maintain the expertise in joint operations that had been gained at heavy cost during the war years. It was considered that strategic level studies could be conducted at the IDC. Ironically, the operational level program was transformed into a Canadian strategic program before the National Defence College opened its doors in 1949.

Then began an interesting period, one perhaps not all that different from what we are currently experiencing. Even as the Cold War took hold in the late 1940s, flaring into combat during the Korean War – this being the last time that Canadian service personnel were involved in combat operations until the current fighting in Afghanistan – staff education continued to expand. By 1962, for example, the RCAF had established an Air Force College consisting of a staff college, a staff school (teaching basic staff skills, including critical thinking) and even an extension program offering courses from political thought, through sociology, military theory, and logic, to effective writing.2 Intriguingly, from today’s perspective, the leaders of the day – all of them with wartime experience – clearly had elected to support a robust professional education system. Admittedly, not all the issues were the same as those faced today, but the military was still in a period of substantial stress, particularly during the Korean conflict.

Therefore, the question facing us appears to be whether we are in a 1939 context of constraining PME programs to their essentials, or in a 1949 paradigm that, based upon the experience of general war, was clearly oriented towards a comprehensive professional education. If we vote for the first model, the decisions described earlier, which limit programs in time and scope, appear reasonable. In this construct, busy officers working in equally busy organizations will be asked to take on ‘just enough’ PME to deal with their current employment, and perhaps the next billet. Alternatively, accepting the Cold War rationale for a comprehensive and challenging program might be more in keeping with the challenges of the 21st Century. This was the conclusion drawn by prominent Johns Hopkins scholar of military affairs Elliot Cohen recently. Commenting upon proposals from some inside the US Army to reduce professional education because operational experience more than made up for classroom learning, he said that that sort of thinking was depressingly stupid, as it implied that manoeuvring a battalion was equivalent to studying strategic level successes and failures in counter-insurgency (COIN). He pointed to many officers whose success in Iraq was linked to graduate level studies in history and political science, which prepared them for the complex intellectual demands of COIN.3

The US Marine Corps would appear to be aligned with Cohen’s thinking. The Corps unquestionably is fully engaged in operational tasks at this point in time. But while this is the case, the Marines have apparently elected a Cold War education paradigm, running a comprehensive range of programs through their Marine Corps University (MCU). For example, all officers, regardless of military occupation, must complete the demanding year-long Marine Expeditionary School before qualifying for promotion to major. Senior officers are then called upon to complete the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, whether in residence or by distributed learning (DL). The DL version is on its third incarnation since the late 1990s. What was once a ‘do-it-yourself box of books program’ now involves a 700-hour curriculum spread over two years. DL students either must take part in regionally based classes, or sign up for on-line seminar work. A handful of Marines are selected from each in-residence command and staff course to undergo another year of study at the School of Advanced Warfighting, while there is also a follow-on Marine Corps War College for strategic level education. This staff education is in addition to all the occupation-related training that each Marine must undertake. The message in all this is that the Marines do not appear inclined, despite the operational tempo they have endured and sustained for many years, to reduce professional education to the bare minimum necessary.

The explanation for this direction may be found in a recent study done by the Corps on the need for professional education. In 2006, a team of retired general officers, assisted by two academics – one a West Pointer, and the other a military historian and veteran of Vietnam, Williamson Murray – concluded that the Marine Corps must be able to operate in a new complex and ambiguous security environment. To succeed in these conditions the authors concluded that PME “...must[be] on an equal or higher plane with o ther priorities [even] physical conditioning.”4 While there is no intention to suggest that the Marines have got it right, one can see from the foregoing that they have elected a more robust system than that which the Canadian Forces is currently proposing. Staff at MCU underscored need for abilities in critical thinking and written and verbal communication as complements to the “independent thinking” that the study recommended.

This Marine Corps review is but one of many US studies that have confirmed the requirement to produce graduates able to deal with complexity. In a 1957 independent analysis, it was concluded that in addition to a mastery of warfighting issues, senior officers should have “an ability to grasp large complex situations [and] to adapt creatively to changing circumstances.”5 Subsequently, as the US was withdrawing from Vietnam, Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner, President of the US Naval War College, told students in 1972 that that college’s philosophy had changed. The curriculum was not intended to teach students about their next job but to give them abilities in “reasoning, logic and analysis” that would allow them to make decisions in any job.6 In essence, if one ‘connects the dots’ from 1956 to 2006, there has been a fairly constant recognition within the US military that learning how to do a current job is not good enough.

The US has not had the monopoly on this reasoning. In 1969, the Canadian Report of the Officer Development Board, chaired by Major-General Roger Rowley, identified a complex world scene not unlike that with which we are dealing today. Rowley had been tasked by the Chief of Defence Staff to define what the newly integrated and unified Canadian officer corps would look like, and what professional competencies it would need. Rowley’s key elements of the military profession are as recognizable today as they were then: ethos, military expertise, and intellectual capacity.7 Rowley’s was the last major ‘look’ at the officer corps until the late 1990s, when, in the wake of the Somalia Inquiry, a study, initially under the guidance of Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, returned to many of the same questions. Officership 2020 argued that, in addition to warfighting and other capabilities, officers needed to be able to “think critically, [and] embrace and manage change....”8 That review led, in turn, to a number of studies, culminating in a 2006 report by the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute entitled, “The Professional Development Framework: Generating Effectiveness in Canadian Forces Leadership.” This report once again underlines the fact that the profession of arms must be able to deal with all manner of complexity in preparing for and conducting operations in support of the nation. Success is based, among other things, upon “cognitive capacities.”9

Hence, we seem to be faced with a somewhat intractable dilemma. On the one hand, we have a pressing current need to shorten our professional education and to focus upon the problems of the day, while the conclusions of past and current studies argue that professional education needs to prepare officers and leaders for far more than current operational challenges. Even if we set up our education to focus on current concepts and doctrine, the weakness of this is that ideas, concepts, and doctrine change. We have only to realize that the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is relatively ‘old-think’ today, even though it was ‘cutting edge stuff’ less than a decade ago. It has been replaced by such notions as Effects Based Operations and Network Centric Warfare, which may fade away just as rapidly. If we are, as a profession, to be capable of dealing with concepts like these, with Three Block Wars, 3D+C, JIMP, asymmetrical warfare, and counter insurgency – either in turn or all at once – then surely we must have the cognitive ability to absorb, process, and decode these overlapping and often conflicting ideas. What is more, we must then be able to convey our thinking on these matters in a suitably cogent fashion, so that others can understand what it is we are trying to say, and then act upon our conclusions and recommendations. Were we to assemble these capacities in the form of an equation, they might resemble the following formula.

professional knowledge x critical thinking x
effective communication = effectiveness

In this equation, professional knowledge is no less important than cognitive capacities, but it is certainly no more critical to the product. Regardless, we still tend to equate effectiveness with the graduate’s ability to quote and, hopefully, to understand current doctrine by chapter and verse. Yet, ironically, we have no hesitation in giving Canadians who complete staff education in other nations equivalent standing even though they cannot possibly have mastered national doctrine while on the other side of the world. Perhaps we have recognized implicitly that these programs are as important for their development of cognitive capacity as they are for the knowledge that students acquire from them.

If this is the case, then what might be the message for a professional education system constrained by a high operational tempo? Perhaps the ‘take away’ is that we need to be ruthless in limiting the volume of knowledge that can be deemed truly essential for current and immediate future demands on the profession. However, we must simultaneously ensure that whatever that material is, it is presented to the students in such a fashion that they must exercise and develop their cognitive competencies, so that they can deal both with contemporary challenges and with those that are, as yet, unanticipated. In other words, they must develop an ability to deal with complex, ambiguous, and messy problems. If not, then our professional military education system will have failed them, and they may, in turn, fail both the profession and the nation.

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Colonel Wakelam, a tactical helicopter pilot who is currently Director of Curriculum at the Canadian Forces College, has held various leadership and teaching appointments in the Canadian Defence Academy and the Canadian Forces College. He holds a PhD in military history from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.


  1. John Ward, “General Insomnia : army boss says military woes keep him awake at night,” in Hamilton Spectator, 7 March 2007.
  2. Randall Wakelam, “Le collège d’état-major de l’ARC , 1943-1965: formation d’état-major et éducation libérale” in Yves Tremblay, Roch Legault, Jean Lamarre (eds), L’éducation et les militaires canadiens. (Montréal: Athéna Éditions, 2004), pp. 165-175.
  3. Eliot A Cohen, “Neither Fools nor Cowards,” in The Wall Street Journal, 13 May 2005, p. A 13.
  4. General Charles E Wilhelm et al., U.S. Marine Corps Officer Professional Military Education 2006 Study and Findings, (Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University, 2006), p. 3.
  5. John Masland and Laurence Radway, Soldiers and Scholars: Military education and National Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 32-34.
  6. Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner, “Convocation Address,” in Naval War College Review, Winter 1998, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 78-79.
  7. Canada, Department of National Defence, Report of the Officer Development Board, Vol. 1 (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1969), pp. 19-21, p. 27.
  8. Canada, Department of National Defence, Canadian Officership in the 21st Century (Officership 2020) (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2001), p. 1-23-1-29.
  9. Robert W. Walker, The Professional Development Framework: Generating Effectiveness in Canadian Forces Leadership, CFLI TR 2006-01 (Kingston: Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, 2006), p. 33.


DND photo AR2007-Z018-03 by Corporal Simon Duchesne

Master Corporal Anouk Beauvais from the Force Protection Company Kanadahar, speaks with the two Afghans about a Mosque renovation project in the Panjwayi district.