Air Comand & Staff College (ACSC) Critique

September 26, 2011 — 2 Comments
In this post I will present a critique of the Air Command and Staff College correspondence program, which I completed this summer.  Why devote so much time to an ACSC critique?  Because if ACSC genuinely reflects what Air Force leadership thinks next-generation leaders need to know, then the program is a good barometer for the intellectual culture of the Air Force in general.  My intent is to offer useful critiques that can drive positive change, or at least provoke thoughtful conversation.

I see ACSC as a contract with responsibilities on both sides.  New field grade officers have a responsibility to prepare themselves for higher-level military leadership.  They are entrusted with the lives of subordinates, resources, and American national security, so must be knowledgable and competent to lead.  These officers thus have a responsibility to take PME seriously, study hard, and learn the material they’re assigned. 

On the other hand, the Air Force is asking its new field grade officers to read, learn, and internalize more than 3,000 pages of small print.  This is no small time investment.  Many of these officers are already overworked, face crushing TDY rates, are working on master’s degrees, and are trying to take care of their families.  So when the Air Force asks these officers to tackle 3,000 pages of reading, seven tests, and three exercises/war games, the Air Force has a responsibility to make sure that time investment is worth it.  For that much time and energy, ACSC had better be good.

Was it worth it?  I’ll share my own conclusions below.

BACKGROUND

I was apprehensive about beginning ACSC, mainly because I was so unimpressed with the Squadron Officer School (SOS) curriculum as a young captain.  When I did SOS via correspondence in 2006, Iraq was burning; the de facto civil war had been raging for more than a year, and the insurgency was at its worst.  Nonetheless, the SOS curriculum did not even mention counterinsurgency; it mostly just taught the “lessons learned” of airpower in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, when airmen were allegedly handicapped by clueless political leaders and Army officers who didn’t understand airpower’s true capability.  This narrative of airpower climaxed with John Warden’s “five rings” and DESERT STORM, that magnificent war when airpower was finally utilized properly.  The more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were barely mentioned.  SOS in-residence was even worse.  This was in mid-2007, when COIN was all the talk in the Army and Marines.  The Air Force still hadn’t caught on, and I don’t recall having a single discussion about COIN at SOS.  The current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq merited only 1.5 hours of instruction, combined.  One of our two required papers was about how to keep a troubled officer’s club in business.  Little critical thinking was required: we were given sentence-by-sentence outlines for how to write our papers.

I was furious at the time.  My SOS experience contributed to my crisis of confidence in Air Force leadership, and left me with an abiding distrust of PME.  An apologetic SOS instructor assured me that the academic quality would improve when I reached ACSC.  We’ll see, I thought.

TEACHING STRATEGY?

So was my instructor right?  Does the Air Force teach strategy and encourage critical thinking among its new majors?  Yes and no.  In general, I found the academic quality of ACSC to be higher than SOS.  Many readings were quite good.  I actually enjoyed the first four volumes, which covered leadership, national security, strategy and war, and air/space/cyberspace power.  However, the focus on critical strategic thinking degenerates over the course of the program.  The last three volumes (more than 1,000 pages) are little more than indoctrination in the way that the Joint Force currently does business.  They ignore the debates whirling around some key pillars of these doctrines (such as effects-based operations).  The capstone exercise, which is supposed to reinforce everything that the officer has learned in ACSC, is an awful war game that pretty much undermines everything the curriculum just taught.  More on that below.

To put it differently, the curriculum initially provides officers with tools for strategic thinking, but largely fails to apply these tools.  Early on, we learn that strategy is the matching of ways, ends and means; we learn that Americans are, by and large, lousy at strategy; we learn that instead of doing strategy, Americans often hope that tactical and operational victories will add up to a favorable strategic outcome.  These readings on strategy are good.  But the curriculum never really takes the next logical step, which is to apply these tools by rigorously analyzing the strategic decision-making for the wars we are in.  Once the curriculum switches over to teaching “the operational art of war”, the strategic level mostly disappears.  So does critical inquiry.

For example, the curriculum devotes hundreds of pages to planning effects-based operations (EBO).  It all sounds well and good upon first reading it; but if EBO really is all it’s cracked up to be, then why are we so dramatically failing to achieve strategic victories?  If we are conducting operational net assessments and mapping out nodes and links, and then creating effects within the enemy’s “system of systems”, why isn’t the enemy paralyzed?  Why does he survive, adapt, and in some cases grow stronger?  Why is al-Qa’ida spreading franchises throughout the world, why is Pakistan able to undermine any possible progress on the ground in Afghanistan, and why did the U.S. labor for years in Iraq only to create a Shia power that is inclining towards Iran?  Something is clearly wrong at the strategic level, and no amount of tactical or operational excellence can remedy that.

Unfortunately, ACSC students will not face any of these questions in their studies.  They will have no idea that EBO might have serious deficiencies, or that authorities as high as JFCOM commander Gen Mattis have launched scathing critiques on what they see as EBO’s unwarranted assumptions.  Instead, they will be equipped to go fight the next war by faithfully using and applying the same theories and models that our military relied on in Afghanistan and Iraq.  That should raise serious questions.

DATED CURRICULUM

The curriculum also feels dated.  It reads like a list of “hot topics” from 2007, when the Army and Marines were resurrecting population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine and applying it in Iraq.  You’ll find readings on the importance of language and culture, COIN, Islamic extremism, the Sunni-Sh’ite rift, and strategic guidance for the war on terror.

What won’t you find?  All the challenges that I expect our newly minted majors will face in the remainder of their careers: a highly unstable Pakistan, an ascendant China, the Koreas, criminal insurgency in Mexico, cyberwarfare, and the huge ramifications of debt and budget cuts on the Department of Defense.

PME can’t cover all that in detail, but the Air Force should be equipping its majors with some idea of what lies ahead.  Including this material in PME would also signal that Air Force leadership recognizes and understands threats on the horizon.  The message I took from ACSC was quite the opposite; the Air Force is reactive, and is still trying to catch PME up to events in Iraq four years ago.

I was especially surprised by the omission of cyberwarfare, given how much the Air Force wants to take ownership of this mission.  ACSC students read hundreds of pages about the history of both aerial warfare and Air Force space operations, but no history of cyberwar.  If we really want to prepare for the future, the topic deserves its own volume because there is so much to cover: terminology, types of attacks and vulnerabilities, examples of cyberwarfare, complicated legal questions about retaliating for cyber-attacks, the difficulties of attribution, the nexus of cybercrime and cyberwar, the relationships between non-state hackers, state-supported hackers, and state-employed hackers, recent Chinese espionage, etc.

The curriculum also contains various readings that have been superseded by newer versions.  My first “What on earth?” moment came midway through the second volume when I reached the National Security Strategy–from 2006.  I understand that it takes time to revamp curriculum, but the 2010 NSS had been out for over a year.  I felt mildly insulted and skipped the reading.  The National Military Strategy was also outdated; the 2011 version had been released four months earlier.  Next came the U.S. strategy for Iraq–from 2005.  This document was written before the Samarra Mosque bombing, before the de facto civil war, and before the Anbar Awakening and the Surge.  I really felt insulted now.  Later, in a unit on the national security decision-making process, I found articles about the structure of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.  Never mind that President Obama had set up his own NSC back in February 13, 2009, with his very first Policy Directive.

Readings like these would hold value if we were studying them historically–if we were deliberately looking back in time to see how the George W. Bush administration did business, or how policy had changed over the years.  But the readings weren’t couched in that kind of analysis.  I sense that they were included back when they were contemporary, but had gradually become dated.

TESTING

Testing is a joke, and undermines Air Force leaders who claim they want officers who can think critically.  It is evident that at least some ACSC instructors care about instilling critical thinking skills; they included thought-provoking articles on strategy, and even included articles on how to think critically.  But then the program turns around and evaluates those officers with multiple-choice tests, which are just hard enough to require doing the readings, but not much harder than that.  Many questions rely on memorization and regurgitating main points from readings.  Nowhere are ACSC students asked to think critically, argue complex issues, or apply what they’ve learned.  Two of the three “application” exercises are little more than step-by-step walkthroughs of planning processes codified in joint doctrine.  Perhaps these have some value for their own sake, but let’s not kid ourselves: these activities are not encouraging or evaluating critical thinking skills.

THE WARGAME

An officer has spent weeks or months learning that strategy is not just about destroying targets, but using various tools to create effects that lead to a desired strategic end state.  So how do we reinforce all those concepts in a shiny new Major’s mind?  We give you a war game where you allocate strike sorties, round after round, until you have reduced the strength of various enemy targets from 100% to 0%.  Oh, there are AWACS and tankers and other enablers, which you dutifully have to launch each round; but that only takes a minute or two, and then you spend the rest of the round building strike packages.  The conflict is entirely conventional, the sides have no meaningful ethnicity or culture, there are no political variables… there really aren’t any variables, except the percentage of destruction on each target.  As a war game, it’s one of the worst I’ve ever played; as a professional tool for reinforcing what an officer has learned in ACSC about strategy and operational art, it’s deplorable.

The game reinforces the worst tendencies of a U.S. military officer: to view war as a series of tactical actions that obey mathematical formulas and produce predictable results, devoid of political or social context.  The game sends the subtle message that none of that stuff about strategy or non-military instruments of power or human terrain really matters; when it comes down to it, war is really just about blowing stuff up.  Do that enough, and you win.

ACSC sent me mixed messages.  According to the academics who put together the first volumes of the curriculum, war is Clausewitzian; it is a messy, chaotic, human endeavor in which political ends are primary.  All instruments of national power must be coordinated to achieve those ends, and no amount of destruction can substitute for coherent strategy.  The doctrinal readings step away from this view of war, treating it as something that can be analyzed and quantified with almost mathematical precision.  However, when it comes time to get our hands dirty playing at war, ACSC makes its biggest departure yet: war is apparently about identifying and destroying enough abstract, non-thinking targets to win a decisive victory.

This leads me to wonder: does the Air Force really believe and internalize the Clausewitzian view of war that it is teaching?  Have these views really permeated operational culture, or are they discarded when it’s time to strap on a jet?  If an ACSC-sanctioned war game can’t get past shallow and non-strategic models of war, what view prevails out there in the operational Air Force?

LACK OF COMMUNITY

As it stands now, ACSC consists of 7 lengthy books, which officers study in isolation.  This strikes me as rather old-fashioned in today’s world.  I don’t want to increase the workload on ACSC students, but is it possible that all these individual correspondence students can put their heads together in a virtual community?

Some ideas: Create online forums and chat rooms that facilitate some level of discussion among both students and instructors.  Also, move past PDFs and printed books.  Instead, develop PC or tablet apps that let users mark up their readings, exchange comments, or participate in discussions on specific readings or topics.  To accelerate the pace of curriculum revision, supplement the formal curriculum book with current, relevant readings online.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Here are some specific recommendations based on these critiques:

1. Replace multiple-choice tests with essay questions, which will encourage critical thought and mastery of the material.  This will also accelerate the curriculum revision process, because curriculum revision will not be bound up with maintaining standardized multiple-choice tests.

2. Curriculum needs to adapt much faster.  eBook and print-on-demand technologies mean that it should be easy to push out fast, frequent updates.  Concerns about standardization should go out the window.  If the Air Force is learning and adapting fast enough, practically every ACSC class should have a new curriculum.

3. Restructure the curriculum to include modules on current wars and emerging threats.  The section on current wars should be up-to-date with the most important developments.  It should also analyze the strategic decision-making process behind these wars, using some of the tools presented earlier.  The emerging threats section should keep pace with world developments.  The national security community is already engaged in robust discussions about many of these threats, particularly criminal insurgency in Mexico and China’s recent assertiveness and pursuit of anti-access weapons.

4. Wherever possible, include dissenting opinions.  The curriculum does this at times, but at other times these dissenting opinions are missing.  For example, much of the national security community has been in full-blown backlash against population-centric COIN for more than a year.  At least a couple of these readings should be included.  I’ve also already cited the example of EBO.

5. The war game should be eliminated or replaced with something that encourages Air Force officers to understand the Air Force’s role within a larger strategic context.  I have written about one possible war game here.

6. If the Air Force is serious about cyber, it needs to make more room in the curriculum for it.  One possible starting place is Jeffrey Carr’s book Inside Cyber Warfare, which lays out some of the most important topics that should be included.

7. Replace some of the exercises with a research project.  ACSC doesn’t have time to teach every officer about every conflict or military topic, but it can ask every officer to learn something about one particular conflict or military topic.

8. Look for ways to move past mere self-study into something more dynamic and collaborative

CONCLUSIONS

In summary, I found ACSC better than SOS but still something of a disappointment.  Perhaps I went into it with the wrong expectations.  There is a fundamental debate about what PME should be: does PME exist to train the next generation of top strategic thinkers, or does it exist to train the hundreds of dependable colonels who will go execute the mission?  I went into ACSC hoping for the former; it quickly became apparent that ACSC was more focused on the latter.  This is still a worthy goal, and perhaps the goal for which a limited program like PME is best suited.  However, I still believe those dependable colonels would be better-served if PME taught them to critically evaluate the doctrine they are asked to execute.  I also believe those officers need to study emerging threats, not just yesterday’s threats.  ACSC was better than SOS, but it has plenty of room to become even stronger.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

2 responses to Air Comand & Staff College (ACSC) Critique

  1. This is a great post, thanks for writing it. I am about to start up the Marine Corps’ version of this PME; I look forward to seeing how it compares to ACSC as you have described it. I expect that it will suffer from many if not most of the same flaws that you detailed here, though it seems like there is at least some small degree of collaboration that takes place in it, as that you are required to respond to a fellow student’s work on a weekly basis.

    • Larry 25 April 2014
      Mark, I was impressed with your writing abilities and think everyone should try to improve themselves and our society. I am much older than yourself and hopefully we gain more wisdom over the years. I am sure the Air Force’s vision for this course is justified with the amount of knowledge they expect their officers to retain. However, I compliment you and encourage you to improve this course since you feel so strongly about this situation. Have you done so? What actions have you taken so far?

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