Military Education Institutions as Think Tanks


One of the things about military educational institutions that has always intrigued me has been their latent potential to support development of future concepts and organisational designs.   For this reason, military organisations should not see their professional educational institutions as pure learning for individuals.  High calibre military and civilian personnel are selected to attend courses like Staff College and War College.  Given their talent, the large network of a diverse range of students, and their access to high quality academic advisors, is there not a greater role for these student bodies in thinking through institutional responses to the strategic challenges that are disrupting national security establishments?

It could be argued that a proportion of student output during formal education experiences should be directed at institutional problems.  This leverages concentrated talent while supplementing institutional capacity to undertake activities to modernise their forces.  This output might comprise of student papers on Service and Joint challenges, war games and working groups on specific problems or the development of more detailed reports by groups of students.  

A historical example of ‘best practice’ in this approach is the well-studied contribution of the United States Naval War College wargames prior to the Second World War. The Naval War College retains to this day its expertise in wargaming, and contributes to U.S. Navy modernisation initiatives.  The U.S. Army War College also runs a very useful wargaming site.  These initiatives however are not widely replicated. Therefore, how else might our educational institutions, while educating futures leaders, also leverage the talent of students and staff to support the development of new ideas and structures for military institutions?

At the Australian Defence College, we have chosen to establish electives that allow students to engage in activities beyond the set curriculum to contribute to force modernisation.  Our first experiment in this was the 2018 Perry Group. Formed from a select group of military and civilian students on the Command and Staff course, the Perry Group used a framework of science fiction to explore future challenges and develop alternative concepts and organisations. The output of the Perry Group was then shared with force design and force integration organisations with the Australian Defence Headquarters.

This year, the Perry Group will be expanded in numbers and will undertake additional activities.  It will retain its science fiction framework for thinking about the future, but it will also tackle additional problems based on input from future force designers.  Additionally, we will form a similar group from the senior course at our Australian War College, the Defence Strategic Studies course. The new group, to be called the Sagan Group, will be focussed on higher level strategy and policy challenges.  And for those who wish to know the provenance of the groups’ names, see here for more.

We are still very much in an experimental mode with both of these groups.  Their success will hinge on the capacity of students to offer creative solutions to central force design authorities. However, there is no shortage of talent in the student body at the Australian Defence College, and many of its global peer institutions.  The main focus of our year long residential programs is to provide for learning and reflection for students, to broaden their outlook and to expose them to new ideas and concepts. But, there is an opportunity to leverage some of this time and effort to assist those charged with designing an effective future force. Just as the U.S. Navy officers of the interwar period understood this imperative, so too might we now seize the opportunity to do the same.

I would love to hear what you think.  Let me know on my Twitter feed at @WarInTheFuture

Have a great day.


Picture credit: John Harris,