Is the United States Army ready to succeed on the battlefields of tomorrow? Given the breakdown of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this question is not just being debated in the halls of the Pentagon. The American public is also watching Russia’s military performance and wondering how its own military might perform in future conflicts.
When comparing the U.S. Army to the Russian military or other peer competitors, many experts have pointed to the United States’ advanced technology, its logistical expertise, and its worldwide network of allies and partners as important advantages. While all true, such analyses miss the most important factor: the “thinking” officer. Beyond any other advantage the U.S. Army possesses, the American public can be assured that Army officers can and will outthink their adversaries, ensuring the United States’ victory on the modern battlefield.
At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, we have long understood that success in warfare requires a professional military whose soldiers-scholars are bold and adaptive thinkers grounded in analytical decision-making. It is exactly these types of leaders that Russia clearly lacks. The extraordinary number of Russian generals killed in the conflict demonstrates the dearth of capable and empowered junior officers who would normally be commanding on the front lines. The absence of such officers has made Russian operations inflexible and slow. As war continues to be transformed by the proliferation of technology, constant competition in new domains like space and cyberspace, and ongoing debates on ethical and legal combat obligations, West Point cannot, and will not, fail in its mission to educate and train thinking officers.
West Point deliberately creates these types of thinkers through a broad liberal arts education. Our academic program requires cadets to explore a wide breadth of subjects through a robust interdisciplinary core curriculum. Taught in small classes by world-class civilian and military faculty, these courses expose cadets to an array of knowledge in an environment where debate is encouraged, ideas are challenged, and honest feedback is expected. In so doing, cadets become mentally resilient, understand ethical decision-making, and increase their capacity for critical thinking. With an emphasis on independent scholarly endeavors, cadets learn to spot and solve complex problems all while gaining the skills necessary to communicate solutions.
In the uncertain contemporary combat environment, West Point must push its cadets beyond their comfort level. Simply put, the academic program cannot afford to intellectually coddle cadets. Cadets, as future officers soon to be making life and death decisions under the stress of combat, must critically evaluate competing perspectives through well-reasoned analysis. Thus, the academic program provides a forum to discuss hard or uncomfortable topics as cadets develop essential discernment skills necessary for success in war by first being challenged in the classroom.
West Point, above all else, teaches cadets how to think, not what to think. In this way, it produces junior officers who are thoughtful, candid, and innovative, with the latter attribute a defining characteristic of successful combat leaders. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote, “[O]ne of the greatest strengths of American soldiers throughout time has been the willingness and ability to think for themselves and to act independently when necessary.” It is this thinking officer who clearly separates the U.S. military from its competitors, whose different political systems, command structures, and training mean junior leaders are not empowered to seize the initiative.
At the end of World War II, the victors came together in San Francisco to draft the United Nations Charter. The Charter’s preamble evinced a desire to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” As seen in eastern Europe today, this noble effort to eradicate warfare, the most horrific of human conditions, has unfortunately failed to succeed. Yet it is the very humanity of the U.S. Army’s soldiers — their resilience, ingenuity, and initiative — that remains an advantage for the United States.
Although no amount of deliberate planning can prepare an officer for the inevitable fog of war, intellectually dominant officers can destroy their enemies amidst the chaos. When technology inevitably fails, communication ceases, and confusion reigns, the “thinking” West Pointer is at his or her best. This is the reason the United States Army will win on the battlefields of tomorrow.
Army Brig. Gen. Shane R. Reeves is currently serving as the dean of the academic board at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.
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