Traditional American military culture diametrically opposes divergent thought. Despite assertions that the United States must compete in the “most complex and volatile” security environment in recent memory, the military largely handicaps its own mental approach to victory. Being able to actually compete and win requires the military to elevate critical thinking as a core competency of its profession – from top to bottom. This is especially important if we want to avoid the costs of war and instead, lead through influence and tools short of armed conflict.
The Army’s imminent closure of its University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) – the home of “Red Teaming University,” represents the ultimate irony in the Army’s efforts to maximize return on investment in a resource-constrained environment. The decision to repurpose the $2.5 million UFMCS budget – the price of about one M1 Abrams tank or a dozen AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, shows why the military ultimately requires a tectonic cultural shift to harness the power of divergent thought. Indeed, this is just one of many examples of a troubling trend that biases hardware over human capital.
The military is an institution predisposed towards reductionist, ethnocentric frames, coupled with leaders that often prefer “yes men.” It needs a balancing element to challenge biases, counter groupthink, and explore alternatives in support of U.S. interests. “Red teaming” served as a stopgap measure, offering the potential to improve organizational effectiveness and efficiency by integrating such capabilities. However, the military must go beyond an additional skill identifier, especially now that red teaming is terminated.
Complexity and Critical Thinking
Decision-makers confront a number of systemic demands on time and resources that contribute to failure in both complex enterprises and daily life. Dietrich Dorner characterizes these as complexity, intransparence, internal dynamics, and incomplete understanding. Systems are comprised of many inter-related variables. Direct access to relevant information is often unavailable. Internal dynamics develop independently of external control. And biases contribute to false assumptions about how the system operates.
Indeed, strategists have described the operating environment as “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” - or “VUCA,” for over a decade. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the United States is not shifting away from irregular warfare to great power competition – we are dealing with the full threat spectrum from violent extremist organizations to revisionist powers like China that require the use of the military in both traditional and irregular ways. If academics and practitioners have long since identified the overarching strategic challenges, what gaps remain in the military writ large? True and pervasive critical thinking.
To think critically is to assess the validity of underlying assumptions and determine the most logical solution to a problem given the specific context. Components of critical thinking include the ability to identify and challenge assumptions, possession of contextual awareness, the capacity to imagine and explore alternatives, and willingness to engage in reflective skepticism of universal truths. Implemented correctly, critical thinking allows for the evaluation of all claims, including those we hold institutionally sacred. So then, what is the problem? Traditional military culture.
A Culture of Tell and Biases in Expertise
Culture may be understood as mental programming. Geert Hofstede defines culture as the “collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.” As Americans, we suffer from a culture that “values task accomplishment more than relationship building,” and a “culture of tell” that discourages asking as a sign of weakness. Pragmatism, competition, individualism - all virtuous in many cases, inadvertently hinder success in a world defined by complexity, interdependence, and cultural diversity. The U.S. military, as a microcosm of America, only magnifies this dilemma.
Analogous to old-school baseball scouting, traditional military “experts” serve as a Greek chorus underscoring the eternal themes of the Western way of war – the themes that real thinkers must challenge to win in a complex, resource-constrained environment. Most significantly, military experts - possessing both extensive functional and domain knowledge, fall prey to biases that inhibit innovation. Gary Klein describes this phenomenon as “overconfidence,” or acceptance of “de minimus explanations” that discount inconvenient observations to reduce divergence from expected institutional norms. Expertise is irrelevant if the domain is dynamic and accurate feedback is elusive – conditions that plague today’s operating environment.
Concerned elements within the U.S. Army and Marine Corps attempt to grapple with the need to protect their organizations from shortsighted commanders and ignorant staff peers. However, these efforts are mostly relegated to handbooks, gazette articles, and doctrine notes that influence a small segment of the requisite audience, at best. Key to these efforts is “groupthink mitigation” measures that seek to improve decision quality by reducing social identity threats and increasing the decision acceptance by key stakeholders – namely the commander. This may result in positive outcomes in a favorable command climate, but red teaming is ultimately just a stopgap.
Towards a Culture of Thinking – Slow, Not Fast
Bigger picture, the U.S. military must effect a complete cultural shift. Beyond establishing mechanisms such as red teaming to short-circuit bureaucratic inertia, this requires instilling a culture that expects and incentivizes critical thinking from top to bottom. Such a culture must create a norm defined by embracing “cognitive strain” - emphasizing the mobilization of “System II” slow thinking grounded in deliberate, reflective judgment. This is the opposite of the “System I” fast thinking that prevails today – the product of instinct and emotion, which impede logic.
Institutionally, it is impossible to foster critical thinking if it only manifests as a superficial inject at mid-grade professional military education (PME). It must instead be an essential requirement instilled at the commissioning source and nurtured at every echelon. ADP 6-22, Army Leadership, subsumes critical thinking under the attribute of “intellect” and the competency of “develops.” This isn’t enough. Critical thinking must become a professional core competency, not a transient idea buried in a list of things that describe good leaders.
The recent Joint Chiefs of Staff vision and guidance statement for PME uses the word “critical” 10 times in reference to thinking. Indeed, it makes the bold claim that “our collective aim is the development of strategically minded joint warfighters, who think critically and can creatively apply military power.” However, the words “bias” or “assumption” don’t appear at all – in either the vision or actual Officer Professional Military Education Policy document. The Army People Strategy likewise only mentions critical thinking once in its 14 pages.
The fix must focus on both education and practice. At the commissioning source and at all levels of PME - it requires linking complex problem solving, self-reflection, and interdisciplinary studies to develop officers that recognize bias, tolerate ambiguity, and draw upon multiple academic disciplines and cultural frames. And it’s not about just sprinkling the same old operational design lessons. Such a fix would enable leaders to view problems in the broadest context, rather than under restrictive conditions.
In daily practice - it involves consistent diversity in team composition, cross-pollination between different organizations, and moving from broadening “opportunities” such as advanced civil schooling and cultural exchanges – to broadening requirements. The Army’s new talent management system has the potential to enable diversity and critical thinking, but it has a long way to go to actually put people first and ensure traditional career path expectations don’t penalize soldiers that stray outside of the box. The new Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy also opens the aperture to “prioritize investments in human capital as the primary competitive advantage over our adversaries.”
Question Everything to Compete and Win
Competing and winning in today’s complex and volatile security environment requires the military to elevate critical thinking as a core competency of its profession. The UFMCS and textbook groupthink mitigation measures, as valuable as they may be, only treat the symptoms of a deeper problem. The military must redefine its “moral circle” to incorporate critical thinking as a fundamental element of its in-group, not the out-group. Questioning assumptions is not the same as “a seagull swooping in and crapping on the plan,” as detractors like to say. It is the foundation of optimizing military effectiveness and efficiency to support U.S. interests across the continuum of competition.
Major Steve Ferenzi is an Army Strategist and graduate of the UFMCS Red Team Members Course.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.