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The Chairman’s instruction on Officer Professional Military Education Policy, issued in May 2020, went largely unnoticed outside the relatively small community of military education practitioners and specialists.  But within this community, the guidance was a source of intense interest and commentary, in large part because it responded to the sharp critique of professional military education (PME) as “stagnant” and lacking in “ingenuity” leveled by the 2018 National Defense Strategy.  The 2020 guidance adopts a new framework based on “outcomes-based education” – a significant shift in how to conduct PME, but one whose full meaning and implications are still being worked out.  While there has been a stream of commentary on how best to adapt PME writ large, far less attention has been given to what the Chairman’s guidance says about high-level policy priorities that must now be integrated across the military education system. The inclusion of these priorities does not reflect any broader debate about the fundamental purpose of military education or how best to provide it. Instead, they are included because civilian and military authorities believe that functional fluency in these topics is essential to strategic leadership of the joint force.  In this article, we discuss one of these policy priorities – nuclear capabilities and concepts – and describe why and how highest-level policy deliberations have been translated into the Chairman’s guidance on officer professional military education.  We then suggest why and how this process can be replicated for other emerging challenges facing the joint force. As an example, we focus on the wider set of issues that fall under Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction. 


Professional military education came under fire in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, prompting a period of reflection about standards, rigor, and how best to prepare future joint force leaders for an era of great power competition, growing operational complexity, and rapid technological change.  Two key education policy documents followed. First, in May 2020, the Joint Chiefs issued their Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education and Talent Management, outlining their concept for a “strategic education” that would enable future generals and admirals to “conceive, design, and implement strategies and campaigns” to deter and defeat “adversaries who have studied our methods and prepared themselves to offset our longstanding military superiority.”

Shortly after, the Chairman released his instruction on officer PME policy, which codifies the approach and priorities for implementing the Vision. The instruction outlines learning areas, learning outcomes, and desired leader attributes that emphasize the strategic challenges of military leadership. Significantly, it also establishes nuclear capabilities and concepts as an Enduring Special Area of Emphasis for professional military education and references policy documents and supporting assessments that will assist schools in developing responsive curricula on this topic. This is a strong demand signal from policymakers on the need for systematic attention to nuclear issues in the process of developing future leaders and a recognition that military education must have a more rigorous and uniform approach to this task.

While schools work to translate fully the Chairman’s broader guidance into their programs – a process that will take a few years – early progress can be made to strengthen instruction on nuclear topics. Schools already have the means to do this based on work completed by the Joint Staff and made available to curriculum developers. This work, in which one of the co-authors had a lead role, developed an outcomes-based approach for nuclear issues, one that can be replicated for other priority issues. This approach builds on but extends existing instruction in service and joint schools by providing a common, force-wide set of learning outcomes. For a long period following the end of the Cold War, the need for such an approach did not seem to be a priority.  But over the last several years, leadership attention to nuclear and deterrence issues has grown substantially in response to Russian, Chinese and North Korean actions and capabilities.

Up the Nuclear Learning Curve

In 2016, then-Chairman Joseph Dunford designated “Strategic Deterrence in the 21st Century” as a periodic Special Area of Emphasis for military education, a designation that has been renewed each academic year since. This led directly to the creation of a strategic deterrence module in the CAPSTONE course for rising general and flag officers, received at this point by nearly 1,000 military leaders. Now, with the 2020 instruction, leadership has directed a deeper institutional commitment to these issues.  This evolution of nuclear education is "top-down" – driven by civilian and military leadership concerns and aimed at reaching all students, not only those making careers in the service and joint nuclear enterprise or those achieving the highest levels of command.

Concerns about nuclear deterrence can be seen in posture statements late in the Obama years and in the Trump-era policies that followed. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review described a deteriorating nuclear security environment, the growing complexity of deterrence, the coercive strategies of potential adversaries, and specific nuclear deterrence dilemmas requiring attention.  While the Nuclear Posture Review itself did not speak specifically to military education, then-Secretary Mattis’s implementation guidance directed the development of a plan "to enhance and institutionalize professional military education to improve the common understanding of nuclear capabilities and concepts across the force and improve the understanding of plans integration within the cadre of planners."

The requirement is both general and specialized: all students require at least a basic understanding of nuclear issues, and some require more. The reference to “the planning cadre” and “plans integration” responds to the Nuclear Posture Review guidance to take more direct account in conventional campaign plans and operations of adversary strategies that may rely on the threat of limited nuclear escalation to gain advantage in a regional conflict. The Chairman’s instruction is thus more than a generalized exhortation to improve nuclear education; it also reflects specific concerns about the strategic and operational environment the joint force may have to navigate when confronting likely adversaries. These are problems not just of warfighting but also of coercion, deterrence, and strategic messaging.  Some faculty and rising officers are increasingly attuned to these issues, the complexities they represent, and the urgent need to bring them to the classroom.  

Both these general and specific concerns informed the plan developed to strengthen nuclear education. This process was led by a team from the Joint Staff Directorate for Joint Force Development (J7) and the authors’ home organization, the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, at National Defense University. This team worked in coordination with key stakeholders in the Services and Combatant Commands, and the plan was further coordinated with service and joint schools.  In September 2018, the J7 forwarded the completed work to the co-directors of the Nuclear Posture Review implementation process in the Joint Staff and the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy.  

The core of the plan consists of recommended learning outcomes of two types: (i) for all students at the Intermediate, Senior and General/Flag Officer levels, and (ii) for the Planning Cadre – those officers preparing for assignments on planning staffs, which require more specialized instruction.  Importantly, for each learning outcome, there is a more granular set of learning objectives that is available to help curriculum developers ensure breadth and depth of instructional material and topical currency. Curriculum developers now know what is required and the basis for how they will be evaluated.  Additionally, the plan recommends creating a lexicon of nuclear concepts, policies, and capabilities to ensure force-wide baseline knowledge.

This framework outlines a progressive learning process that seeks to connect theory to practice, addressing historical experience; deterrence concepts; strategy and policy; capabilities; technical, operational and organizational factors; and partner and competitor approaches. It provides the basis for producing in students what we would call “nuclear fluency.”  We define this, for complex political-military issues, as the acquisition of both foundational knowledge as well as sufficient specialized knowledge to contribute to the formulation and execution of strategic level concepts. Fluency accumulates over time and requires continual maintenance.

This approach establishes a broad common standard for teaching nuclear issues in the professional military education system, leaving schools with discretion on how best to achieve prescribed outcomes in their mission-unique programs. This is premised on the idea that even while each service cultivates a specialist cadre of nuclear practitioners, it is also vital to prepare the larger force for the nuclear era in which the nation finds itself by equipping it with the “common understanding of nuclear concepts and capabilities” called for by Defense Department leaders. This is an era in which nuclear deterrence and the potential nuclear dimension of conflict are not some distant rung on an escalation ladder but something that shadows the full spectrum of competition and conflict and therefore is foundational to how the joint force prepares for regional war. 

Deliberate follow-through is required to ensure effective implementation. Proactively helping schools adapt their programs to meet the Chairman’s guidance on nuclear issues should be a priority. The means exist to do this – resources in the form of expertise and materials can and should be made available under the auspices of the Joint Staff. Key stakeholders must also champion this effort. Recent outreach from the Commander, U.S. Strategic Command to the military education community is a good example. Other senior military and civilian officials in the nuclear enterprise should follow suit; it makes a difference when leaders make their voices heard. 

Repeat as Necessary

We view this approach toward the nuclear question as a model that can be replicated for other functional challenges that are important to the success of the joint force but which do not yet receive in-depth attention in the military education system.  As weapons of mass destruction educators and policy practitioners, we know that the broader set of WMD issues demands greater attention and a more systematic approach in the classroom to ensure fluency. The DoD Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction emphasizes the role of education in preparing the joint force for nuclear, biological and chemical contingencies and enhancing the strategic awareness of senior leaders. The National Defense Strategy reinforces this in highlighting countering weapons of mass destruction in its core defense objectives, recognizing that such threats are a key feature of an operating environment characterized by disruptive technologies and increasingly diverse adversary coercive strategies. 

Given the Defense Department's institutional attention has conferred on the countering-weapons of mass destruction mission in strategy, policy, organization, doctrine, acquisition, and plans, it is important that professional military education be actively engaged in preparing future leaders for this set of challenges and tasks.  A degree of fluency in countering weapons of mass destruction is essential to support the knowledge and competencies required or implied by the learning outcomes and goals defined in the Chairman’s instruction.  

While some service and joint schools address these issues, the overall effort is uneven and not based on a common set of learning outcomes.  Now is the time to lay the groundwork for a more systematic approach that can become the basis for Chairman’s guidance on education.  A useful first step would be to re-establish countering weapons of mass destruction as professional military education Special Area of Emphasis and ensure that schools give this appropriate attention.  Additionally, a new or updated defense strategy for countering weapons of mass destruction should explicitly direct the development of an outcomes-based plan for strengthening military education in this area. Centers like ours have begun to define desired learning outcomes and objectives, develop a common lexicon, connect warfighters and educators, and recruit champions from among key stakeholders – to include Commander, Special Operations Command, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security.    


The 2020 updates to professional military education – the Joint Chiefs’ Vision statement and the Chairman’s instruction – respond to the concerns raised in the National Defense Strategy and also reflect the broader dialogue about how best to strengthen military education.  This dialogue centers around ideas related to rigor, education as a strategic asset in a competitive security environment, and how best to produce leaders who can think and act strategically and possess functional expertise vital to understanding and mastering an increasingly complex operating environment. 

As the military leadership has made clear, the professional military education system is expected to support the Department’s broader task of talent management. Services must align the best talent with educational opportunities and then direct that talent to the most important strategic assignments.  Military colleges must prepare these future leaders to be successful.  As the Joint Chiefs note, it is important that classroom performance is linked to selection and assignment processes. In this way, rigorous education and training in critical thinking are now more clearly prioritized as requirements for advancement and for identifying those best suited to serve in leadership roles.

The Chairman’s 2020 instruction provides the architecture for a strategic education that is broad-based but also recognizes the importance of fully integrating the highest policy priorities of the Department – issues and challenges that are essential not only to strategic-level policymaking but to the ability of the joint force to compete, deter, and win.  Future instructions undoubtedly will identify other functional topics with strategic implications deemed essential for joint force students to understand at some meaningful level of fluency. We have suggested one – countering weapons of mass destruction – and described a process to advance its integration into professional military education.   

Dr. Amy J. Nelson is a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.  She is Deputy Director of the Center’s Countering WMD Graduate Fellows Program and on the faculty of Missouri State University’s Strategic Studies Program.

Paul I. Bernstein is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction and a specialist in nuclear policy.  In 2018 he advised the Joint Staff in developing the plan to enhance nuclear education in response to the Nuclear Posture Review.

In April 2021, the authors helped launch the Weapons of Mass Destruction Educators Forum, which serves as a knowledge incubator for weapons of mass destruction education and its best practices across the Department of Defense.

The views expressed here are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of National Defense University or the Department of Defense.

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