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Military Professional Education System

Career military officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) of the Armed Forces of the United States are the beneficiaries of sequential, regularly scheduled periods of professional education. Military leaders return full-time to the "schoolhouse" every three to five years during a twenty-plus year career. Each of these in-residence educational experiences lasts from two months to a year or longer. When coupled with advanced civil schooling, self-study, and on-the-job learning, these courses provide the officer or NCO with the theoretical and practical knowledge needed for duties of increasing complexity and scope as she or he advances in rank. For the sake of brevity, the U.S. Army's Officer Professional Military Education (OPME) and Noncommissioned Officers Education System (NCOES) will be used here as examples.

Professional military education focuses on leadership, management theory and practices, military history and operational doctrine, national defense policy, planning and decision-making, legal responsibilities, and professional ethics. Academic evaluations are primarily performance-oriented, with criteria and learning conditions prescribed for each task. Frequent informal feedback and periodic indepth performance evaluations are provided. Emphasis is on enhancing the ability to function effectively as a leader and team member, and in staff positions of combined arms and joint service organizations.

For the majority of commissioned officers, professional education begins with the precommissioning phase, which is completed at one of the service academies (U.S. Military Academy, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, or Coast Guard Academy) or through a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at a participating college or university. Officer Candidate Schools provide opportunities for selected enlisted members of the various services to complete the requirements for commissioning. These educational programs prepare young men and women to assume the responsibilities of junior officers (second lieutenants in the Army, Air Force, and Marines and ensigns in the Navy and Coast Guard) in active-duty (full-time), Reserve, or National Guard units.

For enlisted members of the Armed Services, professional education begins with basic training, or boot camp, followed by advanced technical training in one of the many occupational and vocational fields required by increasingly complex and technologically advanced organizations. Members receive a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) designation upon successful completion of this training. The military-skill training component of precommissioning programs has much in common with basic training. Following an initial tour of duty, selected Army enlisted members attend the NCOES Basic Course, which focuses on small-unit leadership.

The second phase of OPME focuses on the technical and tactical duties of junior officers specific to each branch and service. Army lieutenants attend the Officers Basic Course for their initial branch assignment, such as the Armor Officers Basic Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Marine Corps officers attend their infantry-oriented basic course at Quantico, Virginia, and then may attend a specialty course such as the Army's Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Naval ensigns selected for Surface Warfare or Submarine Service attend basic courses in their specialty. Officers selected for flight training attend flight school. Some officers attend special qualification courses such as the U.S. Army Ranger School, material maintenance programs, nuclear propulsion, or language school prior to their first unit assignments. Officers Basic Courses provide the functional equivalent of enlisted MOS certification and the tactical leadership training provided during the Basic NCO Course.

After completing three to five years of service with troop units, Army officers attend a two-phased Captains Career Course. Phase one is a branch-specific advanced course that prepares attendees for command of companies, batteries, or troops (military units ranging in size from 60 to 200 soldiers), and for technical and staff responsibilities at battalion and brigade levels. Experiential, case-based interactive learning with extensive use of simulation devices and practical field applications predominate the instructional methodologies.

Immediately following completion of phase one, Army officers attend phase two, the six-week Staff Process Course at the Combined Arms and Services Staff School (CAS3). CAS3 employs small-group instruction techniques designed to improve an officer's ability to analyze and solve problems, communicate orally and in writing, interact effectively as a key member of a military staff, and to apply operational doctrine and procedures in the field. Each staff group is composed of twelve students from combat, combat support, combat service support, and specialty branches in order to encourage interdisciplinary thinking and combined arms doctrine. Naval officers attend similar courses to prepare them for duty as divisional officers on board ships and submarines, and for staff positions. In preparation for assuming duties as platoon sergeants, staff specialists, and first sergeants, noncommissioned officers attend the installation-based Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Course (ANCOC).

Selected Army officers receive education in nonbranch-related functional areas–such as Systems Automation, Army Acquisition Corps, and Foreign Area Specialties at residential military schools–through the Advanced Civil Schooling program, which includes the Technological Enhancement Program, or through Training With Industry. Most midcareer officers complete advanced academic degrees through government-funded programs on duty time or personally financed off-duty study, while many noncommissioned officers complete associate and bachelor's degrees while off duty. Today, the American military is unique among the armies of the world in its high percentage of officers with master's degrees and Ph.D.s.

The fourth stage of OPME is the Command and General Staff College (CGSC). Attendance at resident CGSC is selective and prepares officers for command at battalion and brigade levels and for senior staff positions. Nonresident/distance learning CGSC courses are also offered for active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard officers.

Selected officers attend a sister service CGSC level course (i.e., Air Command and Staff College) or an allied national institution such as the British Staff College. Emphasis is placed on planning and direction of joint (multiservice) and combined (multinational) operations, in accordance with the congressionally mandated Phase I of the Joint Professional Military Education Program (DOD Reorganization Act of 1986). Selected officers attend the Joint Forces Staff College as Phase II of this program. A small group of officers is chosen to participate in a second year of intensive study at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, focusing on military history and the art of war, computerized war games, research, and doctrinal writing.

Army officers selected for command at battalion and higher levels attend pre-command courses in preparation for these demanding assignments. The Noncommissioned Officer Education System equivalent of CGSC and pre-command courses is the Sergeants Major Academy. This final stage of NCOES prepares highly qualified senior NCOs for service as Command Sergeants Major and as senior staff assistants.

Attendance at one of the Senior Service Colleges is the final stage of OPME. Emphasis is on strategic planning, policy, national security decision-making, and joint and combined military operations. Some officers pursue Senior Service College Fellowship studies at leading universities such as Harvard and Georgetown, at the NATO Defense College, and at interdepartmental courses such as the Advanced Operational Studies program, the Defense Systems Management College, or the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


BONN, KEITH E. 1999. Army Officer's Guide, 48th edition. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole.

CARROLL, JOHN M., and BAXTER, COLIN F., eds. 1993. The American Military Tradition: From Colonial Time to the Present. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.

GORMAN, PAUL F. 1994. The Secret of Future Victories. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press.

PERRET, GEOFFREY. 1989. A Country Made by War. New York: Random House.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY. 1995. Pamphlet 600-3 Commissioned Officer Development and Career Management. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Army.


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