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The Human Factor: Rethinking Joint Professional Military Education for a Multi-Domain Future

  • Published
  • By Capt Eric Dayhuff, USAF

Drones, cyber-attacks, and artificial intelligence have transformed from entertaining fantasy to tactical realities that modern military commanders must face. Grappling with a future where the traditional land, sea, and air domains must account for effects in and through the space, cyber, and information domains, the US military has developed concepts-such as the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and Air Forces Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2)--to make sense of these changes. Despite the temptation to focus on things like doctrine and technology, winning the next fight requires recognizing a truth laid out two hundred years ago by Carl von Clausewitz: though the character of war will change, war is a violent human endeavor, and it must be fought and won by humans.1 The current Professional Military Education (PME) model fails to account for this human factor and creates an artificial limiting factor around what planners and commanders can conceptualize and execute. To meet the demands of MDO and JADC2, the US military must adopt an approach to PME focused on integrating service competencies into a joint, multi-domain context starting at the captain level.

MDO is difficult in practice. It requires the harmonious employment of effects across not only service specializations, but the entire joint force. A multi-domain planner must not only be able to solve a problem but how leverage the best that each service has to offer into a cohesive operation. For example, how could the joint force bring Air Force surveillance asset, supported by an Army electronic warfare capability to do targeting for a Navy long-range fires capability to support a Marine ground unit fighting in a denied environment? For MDO to be feasible, the joint force must first overcome the skill and training gaps required for effective joint operations. Current PME models and career tracks are built to favor service expertise at the cost of breadth of knowledge in the broader application of military power across all domains.2 A survey conducted by the Joint Staff J-7 Directorate of Combatant Command staff officers revealed that 68 percent of joint staff officers were in their first joint assignment, regardless of rank (survey population of O-4 to O-6).3 Additionally, 63 percent of these same respondents reported a seven month or greater learning curve before reaching effectiveness in their assigned positions. Given most billets are only held for 22 to 24 months, this long ramp-up time and lack of experience effectively shortens the tour and has a tangible negative impact on the quality and creativity of what these officers produce.4 This effect is most notably seen when joint planners face significant time pressures to solve problems. Often disregarding or lacking awareness of alternative means to accomplish their tasks, planners force problems into service-centric solutions.5 Further complicating the issue, even if an officer is successful in the joint context, professional advancement requires leaving the joint world to return to the parent service and meet service specific professional development requirements. This deprives the joint staff of valuable experience and creates a perpetual cycle of amateurism. If MDO is to become the US military’s way of war, it must find a way to create planners who can bring together the complexities of each service despite limited operational exposure to the joint world.

Another consideration for MDO is the extreme difficulty for the joint force to both plan for and then command and control the vast array of systems employed by each service. The root of this issue is fundamentally in the acquisitions world where each service focuses designs and efforts on what the service perceives as the top priorities.6 A good example of this is the conflict between the US Army Staff and US Central Command (CENTCOM) over whether to fund the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle or the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS). Despite a demonstrated tactical need for the MRAP in the ongoing conflict, the US Army staff continued to pursue the Army’s top priority, the FCS, until Secretary of Defense Robert Gates personally intervened.7 This kind of service and combatant command disconnect is evidence not only of misaligned incentives in the acquisitions and budgetary world but of a fundamentally different understanding of what the joint battlespace looks like. The planners and program managers for the FCS were focused on a technology designed to win large land-battles through the integration of Army systems. The joint planners were trying to reduce casualties from improvised explosive devices along roadsides. Because the Army and joint staff could not agree on which problems were the most important to solve, the Army staff spent a decade and billions of dollars on a system designed to win a fight the joint force was not fighting.8  This problem is magnified many times over in the multi-domain environment. Services will fight to procure the systems that they believe will win the next war. However, how that war is conceptualized and understood drives what capabilities are sought. A combination of service specific PME and service culture creates deep divides on what is needed and how it will be employed. No amount of bureaucratic reform within the procurement system can compensate for a fundamentally different view of the future. That requires structural changes to the education and culture of each service.

To solve this problem, the US military must leverage its most valuable assets: the men and women who serve. Each service must re-examine their PME process and re-align key educational outcomes for PME to reflect what joint staff officers have reported as the most important skills coming into the joint world: familiarization with other service’s capabilities and critical thinking skills.9 It is no longer sufficient for air, land, sea, cyber, and space professionals to grow deep within their respective domain only to emerge onto a joint staff unprepared for the challenges of a multi-domain environment. Instead, services should shift to teaching their domain-specific tactics, techniques, and procedures in the context of a joint fight.

One way to accomplish this could begin with a top percentage of captains from across the joint force attending a rigorous 10-week course set to follow the service’s captain (O-3) level PME. Small cohorts of 15 officers will spend a week and a half conducting an academically rigorous deep dive on each service’s core doctrine and operational capabilities. Using a hybrid distance/in-person model, learning cohorts from across the services could complete foundational knowledge work at low cost and then shift to an in-person capstone consisting of a hands-on wargame and planning exercise. To maximize value, a competitive and mature red force would simulate a thinking enemy and employ the entire arsenal of multi-domain capabilities, forcing students to confront the emotional and technical difficulties they may someday fight through.10 Graduates would understand service capabilities and cultures while developing critical thinking through the operational problem presented in the wargame. Joint PME I and II would maintain similar formats with the critical addition of a joint wargame focusing on putting operational art into practice.

This solution bridges both the human and technical gaps in the current model. First, by experiencing the joint force early in their careers, graduates would bring back beneficial experience to their own service. Current studies of PME show that extended exposure to another service’s officers creates officers less likely to approach their own service dogmatically and more likely to develop novel approaches to solving problems.11 This kind of exposure would also prepare officers for the challenges of working on a joint staff at any rank by shortening the learning curve, reducing misunderstandings on joint staffs, and increasing the staff’s ability to collaborate and creatively solve problems at speed.12 Second, the war game component would allow joint officers to see how and where capabilities from across the services were best employed.13 This education would allow joint staff officers to conceptualize the integration of effects in an unprecedented way and potentially lead to the use of novel combinations of weapon systems to achieve objectives. In this scenario, a Marine artillery officer, a Navy surface warfare officer, and an Air Force cyber operations officer could integrate capabilities and solve a complex problem, such as targeting enemies in busy littorals using sensors and effects from all three services’ domains.

The most important benefit of this rigorous education is how the shared intellectual heritage among rising junior officers would shape the future of each service. By providing the critical context of how each piece of the joint force fits into the whole, officers would develop a joint mindset and deeper understanding of the multi-domain fight. 14  Eventually, officers with this heritage would be in positions of leadership from which they could shape service policies and priorities. Consider for example the marked effect that PME had on the pre-World War II Navy and Marine Corps. The intense focus on PME and wargames led to critical, almost prophetic, developments of naval, air, and amphibious doctrine.15 By the time the war started, the officers who were at the front of this development used it to justify practical acquisitions, such as the Higgins landing craft and radar fire-control systems, which would play vital roles in the conflict. As the innovators of old did for their service, today’s innovators, brought up in multi-domain and joint problems, could likewise solve critical issues for the joint force. While PME is not a panacea for all the challenges of capability acquisitions, creating a generation of officers who understand the US military holistically will create the kind of leaders who will be able to navigate an uncertain future.

The idea of joint PME at junior levels is often met critically, especially when most captains will not see the direct application of this kind of education for many years. There is a risk that starting joint PME too young could create officers with too much breadth and not enough tactical depth. While a valid concern, no PME program will compare with the deep impact of operational experience gained in an officer’s own service. This proposal does not seek to replace existing service schools or training events, rather, it seeks to create additional layers of understanding and critical thought. Officers can then use these new layers to examine and experiment with both service and joint doctrine and provide refinements to both.16 The combination of service-centric operational experience coupled with deeper joint knowledge will provide a full tool kit with which to solve future multi-domain problems.

The environment in which the US military operates will only continue to grow in complexity. Competing and winning in conflict across the entire spectrum of domains requires the US military to change the way it develops officers by fully embracing the joint and multi-domain approach to both operations and education. If this course is successfully implemented, the US military will create a generation of critical thinkers able to seamlessly move between a service-centric approach to problem solving to a domain-aware approach integrating the best each service has to offer. These dynamic officers will be able to understand and solve problems that we cannot even imagine today and execute MDO at the speed of war.


Captain Eric Dayhuff
Capt. Eric Dayhuff is an active-duty Cyberspace Operations Officer and currently is a student attending Expeditionary Warfare School (AY 2022) under Marine Corps University at Marine Corps Base, Quantico. His background includes roles as a planner and flight commander at both base and expeditionary squadrons, as well as a tour serving in various roles on the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) J6.



1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Peter Paret and Bernard Brodie (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984) 127.

2. Miranda Priebe et al., Multiple Dilemas: Challenges and Options for All-Domain Command and Control (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2020), 28.

3. Ibid., 35.

4. The Joint Staff, The Joint Staff Officer Project, Final Report (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, April 2008)

5. Priebe, Multiple Dilemmas, 35.

6. Eliahu Niewood, Greg Grand, and Tyler Lewis. 2019. A New Battle Command Architecture for Multi-Domain Operations: Counter Peer Adversary Power Projection (McLean, VA: MITRE Center for Technology and National Security, 2019).

7. Micheal McInerney et. al., “The Case for Joint Force Acquisition Reform.” Joint Forces Quarterly 93 (July 2018) 39.

8. Albert Palazzo and David P. MClain, “Mutli-Domain Battle: A New Concept for Land Forces”, War on the Rocks. September 15, 2016.

9. M. Wade Markel et al., Developing U.S. Army Officers for Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational Environments (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2011), 32.

10. Sebastian Bae. “Just Let them Compete: Raising the Next Generation of Wargamers.” War on the Rocks. October 9, 2018.

11. Markel, Developing U.S. Army Officers, 40.

12. Ibid., 93.

13. Nathaniel Flack, et al., "Leveraging Serious Games in Air Force Multi-Domain Operations Education: A Pilot Study." In International Conference on Cyber Warfare and Security. (United States of America, Reading, July 2020), 158.

14. Markel, Developing U.S. Army Officers, 85.

15. William Bowers and Williamson Murray. “Mastering the Single Naval Battle: ADM Spruance’s lessons for Naval Leaders.” Marine Corps Gazette, August 2019, 43.

16. Rhonda Kiester, et al., "Joint PME: Closing the Gap for Junior Officers." Joint Forces Quarterly 73 (July 2014) 68.

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