Strategic Thinkers Program


The SecDef Strategic Thinking Program (STP) is an academically rigorous graduate-level course in preparation for leadership roles demanding long-range strategic and critical thinking skills. The STP will support the National Defense Strategy (NDS), by establishing a cadre of strategic thinkers who will be educated to think critically in the design and conduct of strategy and operations in the broader context of national policy objectives so as to assist civilian leaders in understanding the art and science of war when seeking to move forward the National Defense Strategy.  Drawing on the disciplines of applied strategic studies and history (including the importance of economics, culture, geography, etc.), the STP provides officers with the contextual ideas and information needed to make them more effective in their profession and to develop their critical and creative thinking ability. 

The aim of the STP is to offer a mid-career intensive educational program primarily focused on war and strategy in its full context, to develop officers and interagency personnel to be more effective strategic thinkers and leaders. This program is unique in its intense focus on the development of joint, cross-Service strategists who can operate in unknown environments, deal with unanticipated challenges, adapt non-military developments to security challenges, and seek innovative approaches to why, how, when, and where we fight.

The course is taught through a mix of hands-on war games and decision exercises, staff rides, research, classroom discussion and the Socratic method. Students will be exposed to a broad range of knowledge that requires a depth and breadth of understanding and cognitive analysis in to provide a strong foundation for their continued lifelong learning and support the goals outlined above.

The STP seeks to build on the existing programs (rather than replace or supplement them) by offering a unique, highly selective, in-depth, joint-specific program based around strategic studies and war and society through core strategic themes in their full context. The chosen pedagogical model will require learners to solve authentic problems and develop innovative approaches to deal with future security challenges and emerging threats by immersing students in the conceptual dynamics and trends of power and decision making, along with their role in the development of effective strategic thinking and successful execution of military operations.

For more information, read Professor Paula Thornhill's 2022 article More Military Education Should Be Like the ‘Strategic Thinkers Program.’

Members interested in applying to STP will follow the SAASS admissions process and guidelines.

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Learning Objectives

Upon successful completion, students will have the knowledge and skills to:

  1. Master the specialized theoretical and integrated learning in strategy, military operations, and command and leadership.
  2. Investigate, analyze, and critique complex scholarly works and, where applicable, policy documents relevant to strategy, military operations, command and leadership.
  3. Assess, reassess, synthesize, and adapt to changing strategic, military, or policy conditions.
  4. Synthesize complex theories relating to the conduct of strategy and military operations.
  5. Design, evaluate, and analyze developments in strategy, military operations, and command and leadership.
  6. Justify and interpret theoretical propositions, methodologies, and conclusions in strategy, military operations, and command and leadership.
  7. Investigate, analyze, and critique complex scholarly works and primary source documents relevant to great power competition and warfare in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
  8. Synthesize complex theories relating to the conduct of military operations and command and leadership across various case studies.
  9. Generate and evaluate complex ideas to practical problems in a contemporary setting and exercise judgment in military or policy contexts.

Program Themes

Nature and Character of War

The nature of war is immutable with its essence being a violent struggle between two or more hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other.  The character of war, however, is ever changing, with each war reflecting political, societal, cultural, and technological aspects. Further, preparing for and conducting war has been an enduring and core function of the state.

Political Objective

Fundamental to the conduct of war is the influence of politics and policy.  All wars begin with a political goal, end with a political solution, and are influenced throughout by political direction. Political judgments about the role of force in international affairs also determine what kinds of wars for which a nation prepares.  Policy aims define strategic objectives against which operational-level commanders and planners design military campaigns.

Unity of Effort

At the national level, the armed forces are but one of the instruments of national power that countries use to avoid, manage, or prevail in conflict. The course examines the evolution of civil-military relations, joint and interagency approaches to conflict at the operational and strategic levels throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The course also explores the dynamics of coalition responses to conflict.

Strategic and Military Culture

As a societal effort, the way countries conduct and prepare for war reflect their wider national and cultural values.  As such, culture provides essential context to the conduct of war.   Further, national military culture is not homogenous and comprises many individual elements, such as service cultures, which may at times be complementary or adversarial.  STP examines the 'context' and culture of militaries to better understand the influence of culture on war and defense policy.

Resourcing, sustainment, capability and force structure

The ability to sustain military operations is essential to success in war, but the overall balance in national resources is a poor predictor of success. Military capability rests on economic, demographic, and technological resources, and readiness trade-offs are of central important for preparations for war. Finally, resourcing must be operationalized through military concepts appropriate within the context of a given campaign.

Operational Environment and Geography

Geography, and the perception of it, is central to how countries define their strategic interests and thus shapes both policy in peace and action in war. STP thus examines the role of geography in strategic and operational decision making. It also highlights the way in which terrain, climate, patterns of development, local cultures, societies, and international actors combine to constitute a unique operational environment that presents both constraints and opportunities for a commander. Within these areas are the adversary, friendly, and neutral actors that are relevant to a specific war, campaign, or operation.

Command and Leadership

Success in war, as well as peacetime preparation, depends on coherent leadership and command that embraces all the other themes of STP. Throughout all elements of the course the nature, functions, and mechanisms of command are explored, as are the application of leadership to them. Leadership, however, is an elusive quality, and the aim of the course is not to provide a ‘how to’ guide, but to stimulate new thought about one of the fundamental aspects of the military profession.

Learning and Adaptation

Nations and militaries enter war with a hypothesis for the war’s character and conduct.  Military operations, however, generate new information, requiring learning and adaptation to secure success across the levels of war:  strategic, operational, and tactical.   Organizations that learn and adapt appropriately at all levels of war, win; those that do not, lose.  Further, the interwar uncertainty about future conflict confronts policymakers and military leaders with the challenge of preparing for war with the goal of beginning higher on the inevitable learning curve. STP examines the process of learning, adaptation, and innovation in a series of case studies, in both war and peace; historically, determining the future character of war in peace has been as challenging as ‘reform in contact’.


STP is a laboratory for critical thinking. It offers a select group of students a range of accelerated, academically rigorous graduate level courses that promote analysis, stimulate the desire for life-long learning, and reinforce academic research skills. STP graduates will not be satisfied with facile arguments; they understand the complexities inherent in almost any endeavor and develop the tools and fortitude to confront such complexities, analyze challenges, and independently seek nuanced solutions in the face of those who would opt for cruder alternatives. Through the pursuit of these outcomes, the STP seeks to improve and deepen professional military education.

Professor Michael Howard, writing in 1961, laid out one of the best ways to educate military officers in the art of war, to which we will endeavor to model. In his article, “The use and abuse of military history,” he stated:


Three general rules of study must therefore be borne in mind by the officer who studies military history as a guide to his profession and who wishes to avoid pitfalls. First, he must study in width. He must observe the way in which warfare has developed over a long historical period. Only by seeing what does change can one deduce what does not; and as much as can be learnt from the great discontinuities of military history as from the apparent similarities of the techniques employed by the great captains through the ages….Next he must study in depth. He should take a single campaign and explore it thoroughly, not simply from official histories, but from memoirs, letters, diaries. . . until the tidy outlines dissolve and he catches a glimpse of the confusion and horror of real experience… and, lastly, he must study in context. Campaigns and battles are not like games of chess or football matches, conducted in total detachment from their environment according to strictly defined rules. Wars are not tactical exercises writ large. They are… conflicts of societies, and they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the society fighting them. The roots of victory and defeat often have to be sought far from the battlefield, in political, social, and economic factors which explain why armies are constituted as they are, and why their leaders conduct them in the way they do…. It must not be forgotten that the true use of history, military or civil… is not to make men [women] clever for the next time; it is to make them wise forever.