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Defeated in Peacetime: The Fall of British Singapore, 1942

By Jason Lancaster

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the army you want.” – U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004

Much like Secretary Rumsfeld’s comments on fighting with the army you have, a navy required in crisis cannot be conjured overnight from thin air, good wishes, and steel. An effective navy requires money to build and maintain, time for construction, and foresight to understand the nature of the next naval war. This is a lesson Britain learned the hard way during World War II, and one that all nations with maritime boundaries should head. War weariness and debt from World War I caused defense cuts. Defense cuts reduced the size of the fleet. No longer would Britain maintain a fleet larger than the next two navies in size.

In the wake of World War I, people hoped the League of Nations could peacefully resolve international disputes. The German High Seas Fleet was seized by the Allies and sank at Scapa Flow. War weary British citizens expected defense cuts. In an effort to reduce the strategic risk of naval cuts, nations came together to agree to limitations on fleet size and armaments at the Washington and London Naval Conferences. Faulty strategic assumptions about friends, enemies, and their naval capabilities meant that Britain’s fleet was too small for imperial defense when called upon.

The Japanese attacked Malaya December 8, 1941, and by February 15, 1942 had captured Malaya and Singapore. In just 55 days, Japanese Infantry marched 1,100 Kilometers, established air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), sank a modern battleship and battle cruiser, and captured 85,000 British and Imperial soldiers.1 February 15, 1942 was a black day for the British Empire, the “impregnable” fortress of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese after less than a week under siege. Reputed as the Gibraltar of the Far East, Singapore’s defenses rested primarily on propaganda hype. Singapore was not just another catastrophe in a string of early war catastrophes, but a catastrophe caused by failed assumptions in strategic thought, naval procurement, and operational planning.

The Naval Treaties and the Two-Power Standard

The Royal Navy had operated on a two-power standard since the 19th century. The two-power standard meant that Britain would maintain more capital ships than the next two largest navies in the world. Pacifism and anti-war sentiment in the wake of World War I meant the British government was reluctant to spend the money necessary to maintain the two-power standard navy. Moreover, the next two naval powers were Japan and the United States; Japan was an ally until the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty, and the Admiralty did not consider the United States a threatening power.

Disarmament was the rule of the day. The London and Washington Naval Treaties limited the sizes of the world’s navies. The Washington Naval Conference set a ten year 5:5:3 ratio for battleships between Britain, the United States, and Japan. Battleship tonnage was limited to 35,000 tons per ship.2 Heavy cruiser tonnage was limited to 10,000 tons; however, there was no limit to the number of heavy cruisers in the Washington Naval Treaty. The London Naval Conference added limits on heavy cruiser numbers. As a pre-condition to sign the Washington Naval Treaty, the United States made Britain choose an ally, the United States or Japan. Great Britain chose the United States, offending Japan and forcing the British to plan for war against Japan. 

With great budgetary finesse and lack of strategic foresight, Great Britain replaced the two-power standard navy with a one-power standard navy. This change caused great debate in the Britain itself as well as in the Colonies. Australian Army Colonel John Lavarack suggested Japan would wait until Britain was occupied elsewhere and that “the dispatch of the British battle fleet to the Far East for the protection of Imperial (and Australian) interests cannot be counted upon with sufficient certainty.”3 Colonel Lavarack’s statements argued for Australian Army budget increases during the inter-war years.

Meanwhile in Britain, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond stated that the odds of Britain having to fight a two-ocean war were, “a hypothetical situation of improbably nature,” and, “I can imagine no worse way of stampeding a government into a waste of money.”4 However, in 1942, he blamed the loss of Singapore on, “the illusion that a two-hemisphere empire could be defended by a one-hemisphere navy.”5

The Singapore Strategy

Great Britain lacked the finances and political will to retain the number of ships required to defend Great Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. In order to defend the British Empire’s far eastern colonies, the Admiralty devised the Singapore Strategy. This plan was continually revised until the war broke out. Controversy surrounds what the Singapore Strategy actually called for. In its simplest form, the Singapore Strategy was divided into three phases:

Phase I: Period before relief, the time Singapore and Malaysia would be vulnerable to an attack or siege 

The length of time Singapore was expected to hold out expanded from initially 75 days in the 1920s to 180 days in the late 1930s.

Phase II: Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI)

Singapore’s dockyards and dry dock were built with supporting the fleet when it arrived to defend Singapore. This phase would enable the fleet to repair and resupply before action.

Phase III: Action, Royal Navy’s advance to isolate Japan6

The misperception is that there was only one plan for a purely naval war against Japan. In reality, these phases applied to multiple offensive and defensive plans that evolved as the Royal Navy contracted and slowly expanded.

The offensive plans called for the bulk of the Royal Navy to be forward deployed to the Far East during a crisis. These plans had two key assumptions. Assumption 1: there would be time to deploy the fleet from Europe. Assumption 2: no European crisis would prevent deploying the fleet. Singapore provided all the major basing facilities for the fleet required, including repair facilities, armories, machine shops, fuel depots, and morale infrastructure such as cinemas and mess halls.

The British battleship HMS NELSON off Spithead for Fleet Review, 1937. Anchored in the background are two Queen Elizabeth Class battleships and two cruisers of the London Class.

From Singapore, the fleet could operate from a forward base closer to the combat zone. Many ports were considered as a forward base. Within the empire, Hong Kong and northern Borneo were considered as potential forward bases. In addition to British ports, Britain considered the American port of Manila and French Camrahn Bay as alternate forward bases.

From the forward base, the fleet would force a major fleet action with the Japanese by conducting an island hopping campaign, seizing bases closer and closer to the Japanese home islands. Even an offensive plan placed great emphasis on the British ability to win a drawn out war of attrition with the Japanese. There was an assumption that Britain would win through economic warfare. Without British exports of rubber, tin, manganese, and oil, Japanese industry would lose efficiency and supplies. British diplomacy would also attempt to further isolate Japan by reducing American and Dutch trade.

This offensive plan required European peace. If European war loomed, the fleet would remain in Europe and offensive plans were moot. Debates over offensive and defensive plans and war games were frequent. With rising European tensions, British naval planners looked for ways to defend the Far East without weakening home waters. A guerre de course plan was also developed, and war games led to the development of the 1939 “flying squadron” theory. Admiral Reginald Drax proposed “a flying squadron composed of two fast battleships, two aircraft carriers, four large cruisers, and nine large destroyers” in the Far East to protect British maritime interests. This squadron would “be mobile enough to hunt down Japanese raiding forces of inferior size… and make the Japanese think twice before venturing too far south.” The expectation was to employ this fleet as a maritime commando, striking Japanese sea lines of communication.7

Admiral Drax’s proposal was a variation of the defensive strategy, which included sending four or five capital ships to Singapore to defend British maritime interests, while the bulk of the Royal Navy dealt with the Italian and German threats in Europe. Despite the originality of the Flying Squadron plan, the idea of a British fleet in being was considered too undignified a path for the Royal Navy. Without favor, all traces of the plan were removed from the War Memorandum. Its recommendation for a larger force that included aircraft carriers notwithstanding, many accused the Drax Plan as the seed of destruction for Force Z.

In 1939, Britain found itself in a situation that previously had been thought impossible. Rather than one opponent, Britain now faced three: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Throughout the 1930s, Germany re-armed, whilst Britain remained limited by the Washington and London Naval Treaties.

As in World War I, the British expected French support in the Mediterranean. Britain expected that a combined Anglo-French force would rapidly destroy the Italian fleet and enable British reinforcements from Europe to the Far East. France’s rapid collapse eliminated the French fleet and opened French ports to the German fleet. Britain’s assumption of shared responsibility in the Mediterranean had been obliterated.

The Singapore Strategy’s Phase I assumed Singapore would hold out, initially for 75 days, this was raised to 90 days by the early 1930s, and by 1939, it had been increased to 180 days. The gradual increase in time was a reflection of the government in London’s changing priorities from the defense of the empire to the defense of Great Britain.

The offensive Singapore Strategy was similar to the American War Plan Orange, but smaller in scope. The British plan did not set out to achieve as much as the American plan. In 1928, the American plan initially expected 36,000 troops; and for the second year of a war, the United States expected over 400,000 soldiers and marines in the Pacific.8 Britain would have embarked on a similar campaign as the American island hopping campaign, if she would have had the same resources as America. However, British resources in the 1930s were too constrained for such ambition.

From 1919 until 1941, Britain’s “Singapore Strategy” fluctuated in scale as the resources to support the plan shifted. Very aggressive plans in the early 1920s shifted to incredibly defensive in the late 1930s. The plan reflected British defense priorities in a world rife with danger and more threats than resources.

Budget Maneuvers

The British Government and Press spoke of fortress Singapore, and the British public believed them. Eventually, the government believed their own hype. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was intimately involved in the decisions that hobbled Singapore and the Royal Navy. Churchill should have understood the reality: the propagandized and spirited defense was more of a pathetic whimper. As Singapore was coming under the gun, Churchill realized the error, and said:

“I ought to have known, and I ought to have asked about this matter, amid the thousands of questions I put, was that the possibility of Singapore having no landward defenses no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”9

In 1925, Admiral Beatty, Winston Churchill, and Austen Chamberlain debated over fleet size and military construction projects at the new Singapore naval base. Admiral Beatty argued, “Britain vis-à-vis Japan in 1925 was worse off than vis-à-vis Germany in 1914 and Japan could deal a naval blow which they were absolutely powerless to prevent.” Admiral Beatty wanted naval facilities and the new dry dock in the Far East rapidly constructed. There were no suitable facilities to support the fleet east of Gibraltar. Chamberlain responded to the Royal Navy’s sense of urgency by declaring, “War in the Far East a remote prospect.” He could not conceive Japan “single-handedly taking on the British Empire, unless Japan was aided by some new European grouping.”10

In his quest for thrift, Churchill eliminated a garrison in Johore, Malaya, across from Singapore Naval Base. Singapore army commanders had stated that an “attack from that direction was unlikely because of terrain.” British officers did not believe an army could advance through Malaya, and that Singapore only needed defenses from the sea. Admiral Beatty argued that 15” Inch artillery pieces would “provide a complete deterrent and make Singapore absolutely safe.”11

When Churchill became Prime Minister, the improbable event that Chamberlain had described in the 1920s was in progress. Winston Churchill had many difficult decisions to make. Britain had to prioritize its own defense over the empire’s defense. Churchill knew that some places would come under the gun. Churchill believed the cost of Singapore naval base military construction meant Singapore should be the Gibraltar of the Far East and capable to withstand a siege of 180 days before relief.

Force Z and the Fall of Singapore

When France fell in 1940, the Singapore Strategy fell with it. Instead of steel hulls and shells, bluffs and the hope of US intervention would defend the Far East . Churchill’s priorities placed the defense of the Far Eastern colonies below the home islands and the Mediterranean.

The Far East was considered a third-string front and received equipment and untrained units accordingly. In Britain, the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire defeated the Luftwaffe over Britain. In Singapore, the majority of fighter squadrons flew the obsolete Bristol Buffalo against the Mitsubishi Zero. The troops and officers sent to reinforce the garrison in Singapore and Malaya were, according to Churchill, “an inferior troop of military and naval men.” Most of the Imperial Troops had been in the army for less than 90 days, and some of the Australians had enlisted only two weeks prior. Several Indian Brigades bound for training in Egypt were diverted en route to Singapore.12

The Singapore Strategy required the fleet. When the crisis came, the fleet was not available. Britain prioritized defending the Atlantic convoy routes, the Mediterranean, and the home islands. Only two capital ships could be spared to defend Singapore. The modern battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and three destroyers were sent to defend Singapore. Churchill requested an aircraft carrier as well, but none were available. This small fleet could not hope to defend Singapore against a concerted Japanese onslaught.

On December 8th, Force Z sailed from Singapore to search for the Japanese amphibious task force. The Royal Air Force was supposed to provide air cover, but poor weather and lack of inter-service coordination prevented air support for Force Z. Without air support, Force Z was vulnerable to Japanese air attack. Japanese aircraft located Force Z around 1015, and shortly thereafter, three successive waves of land-based Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers and Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers attacked Force Z. By 1300, both Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk.

Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, December 10, 1941: Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. The battlecruiser Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. The battleship Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. The Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

At the War Office in London, the General Staff knew, “it was almost certain, once the Japanese had established themselves in northern Malaya, that Singapore was doomed.” The War Office never imagined an invasion of Malaya as the enemy course of action. With no recognition of a threat, British Malay had no defenses and ill-trained defenders.

Despite this qualitative disadvantage, Churchill said, “If I had known all about it then, as I know about it now, there were no substantial resources which could have been diverted from home defense, the desert, or from Soviet Russia.” After years of study and contemplation, Churchill said of the matter, “If it had been studied with the intensity with which we had examined the European and African operations, these disasters could not have been prevented, but they might at least have been foreseen.”13

The Far East had been determined to be least important of three important theatres of action, and since the situation there was the worst as well as the most remote, they were not going to receive the equipment they needed for the struggle. Britain’s assumptions for the defense of Malaya and Singapore were flawed. Britain had no tanks in Malaya. Britain had not expected Japan to land in Malaya, much less operate tanks in the jungles. Japanese tanks and bicycled mounted infantry achieved spectacular breakthroughs and rapidly advanced through Malaya.

Prime Minister Churchill’s actions are understandable—finite resources must be used economically—however, between 1919 and 1928, Churchill’s budgetary tactics greatly decreased the capacity of the British to withstand a future onslaught in the East. German rearmament began openly and in earnest in 1933. While Germany rearmed, British naval expansion was constrained by the Washington and London Naval Treaties and the economic impacts of the Great Depression.


Actions taken decades before the war amongst the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster determined the outcome of the campaign in Malaya. Decades of government policy placed British forces defending the landing beaches of Singora and Kota Bharu at a major disadvantage. Fleet size had been reduced to save money during the inter-war years. In London, the government created plans and strategies but failed to source the ships, planes, and tanks to fight the battle, and the military infrastructure necessary to support the plan.

The maintenance of the two-power standard might not have saved Singapore, but the action might not have been so rapid and one-sided. Colonel Wilfred Kent Hughes, administrative officer of the 8th Division, summed it up nicely in his mock epic poem, Slaves of the Samurai:

…Perhaps a more important sphere

Had claimed priority in men and gear.

The troops on outpost had to pay the price 

Of wasted years of selfish Avarice.14

LCDR Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has served aboard amphibious ships, destroyers, and as operations officer of a destroyer squadron. He is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.


[1] Farrell, Brian and Hunter, Sandy (eds.), Sixty Years On, The Fall of Singapore Revisited. Singapore: Eastern University Press, 2002, pg 220.

[2] Bell, Christopher M, The Royal Navy, Sea Power and Strategy Between the Wars. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, pg 13.

[3] Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter, Sixty Years On, pg 32.

[4] Ibid, pg. 33.

[5] Bell, Christopher M, “How are we going to make war plans: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond and Easter Warn Plans,” Journal of Strategic Studies, September 1997.

[6] Christopher Bell, The Royal Navy, Sea power and Strategy Between the Wars, pg 67.

[7] Ibid, pp 86-76.

[8] Ibid, pp 96-97.

[9] Churchill, Winston S, The Second World War volume IV, The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Mariner Books, 1985, pg 43.

[10] McIntyre, W. David, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979, pg 46-48.

[11] Ibid, pg 76.

[12] Swinson, Arthur, Defeat in Malaya, the fall of Singapore. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. pp 84-85.

[13] Farrell and Hunter, pp 160-62.

[14] Ibid, pg 293.

Featured image: LTG Percival and his Staff surrendering (Credit:

Afghanistan After America: China’s Next Adventure

By Micah Petersen and Addison McLamb

As the final boardwalk shop on Kandahar Airfield closed its doors for the last time, reality hit home: this time the United States was actually leaving Afghanistan. A decade ago, thousands dined at TGI Friday’s on the boardwalk and joined in for Salsa Night; but now the desert dust of Kandahar blew trash across the empty basketball court and into the barbed-wire fence surrounding it, deterring anyone from playing a game during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the proposed closure of the airfield in 2015, the minimal numbers of U.S. troops throughout the country was indicative of an impending full withdraw. A nearby volleyball court, track, and soccer pitch—once part of a bustling complex of over 30,000 visitors—now sat empty in the sun, waiting for the revolving door of imperial powers to supply its next occupant.

The U.S. military began its first withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, but 2,500 troops remained in the country at the start of 2020. In February 2020, as part of a U.S.-Taliban peace plan, former President Trump agreed to the full, conditional withdraw of all U.S. troops by May 2021. President Biden then delayed the date of withdraw until September 2021. With the withdraw now complete, continued instability in Afghanistan seems inevitable, and foreign stakeholders will vie for leverage as part of a larger Central Asian strategic competition for influence. Of these players, China is uniquely poised to fill Afghan power vacuums and pursue its foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan by leveraging its historic neutrality with the Taliban, capitalizing on existing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Afghanistan, and backing Pakistan to consolidate gains in a post-American occupied Afghanistan.

China’s Central Asia Strategy

Predominantly populated by a European diaspora, the United States first sought its strongest foreign ties with the “Old World” of Europe. In contrast, as a civilization unto itself, China sought its strongest ties and influences with the areas most able to affect domestic wealth and power—in a word, its borders. Throughout history—perhaps inspired by a “Go” strategy of avoiding encirclement—China has sought to secure lines of communication (LOC) in zones of influence adjacent to its borders. Whether through the eastern “nine-dash line” or western clashes with India, China sees its borders less as boundaries, but more as the circumference of a territorial platform from which to project power in near-area zones of influence, thereby ensuring domestic security and buffering outside threats to the desired “Grand Society” envisioned by Confucius.

This realist approach to security has also been balanced with a partnership approach via bilateral relations under the BRI. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likely recognizes its western-focused BRI will necessitate power projection in Afghanistan. Beijing’s policy proposals often allude to Chinese cultural references or shared history (usually an attempt to nest the young Communist Party within ancient Chinese society), and the choice of Silk Road alliteration is not melodrama. China probably desires Central Asian resources and economic clientelism to offset any adversarial posturing from South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan. Beijing would also anticipate Pakistan’s help with any push to utilize LOCs in and around Afghanistan. As if to signal the depth of their alliance, Pakistan and China recently leaked an intelligence agreement between Pakistan’s Defense Ministry and China’s Central Military Commission, demonstrating their willingness to combine strategic effort with tactical collaboration. Overall, China recognizes that stabilization in Central Asia requires a stable Afghanistan.

Over the last two centuries, Beijing learned from previous Russian, British, and American occupations in Afghanistan. As a result, the CCP has neither taken an official political stance against the Taliban nor generated unilateral policy positions towards Afghanistan. Their “bilateral” relationship with Afghanistan (framed with the same grandeur and opacity as its nearly eighty other BRI “bilateral” partnerships) allows the CCP to exert paternalistic dominance in economic relationships whilst couching investment loans as indicative of symbiotic “global leadership.” With the Taliban now in control of most of Afghanistan, Beijing could use infrastructure investment and United Nations’ influence to support a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Supporting a Taliban regime could also allow China to excuse itself from foreign accusations of anti-Islamic bias. The Taliban is geographically postured to quell any potential uprisings against their CCP partners, allowing Xinjiang abuses to be cast as a purely secular effort to shore up public safety rather than as an Orwellian plan to crush recurring thought crime.

Overall, to China, Afghanistan likely reflects a ripe investment opportunity, credible hedge against criticism of anti-Islamic bias, and tantalizing opportunity to display international leadership. To Afghanistan, China likely represents a steady supply of invasion-free investment, a sympathetic ear within the United Nations Security Council, and a pan-Asian sense of durable partnership. Whether the relationship blossoms will be largely dependent on the real returns of each side’s commitment.

Infrastructure Investment

During America’s two-decade effort in Afghanistan, Beijing took advantage of waxing relations (especially in the Hu Jintao era) to quietly fund infrastructure investment throughout the country. This was not a new tactic for China—from the early 20th century through the 1980s, China bankrolled various African infrastructure projects and even supplied weapons to sub-Saharan tribes fighting for independence from their colonial invaders. China transitioned to more passive models for the next three decades (largely due to Deng Xiaoping’s famous “lie low” doctrine and Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai Clique”opportunism), which culminated most recently in Xi Jinping’s hybrid BRI.

Modern Sino-Afghan relations were significantly shaped by Mao’s diplomacy in the 1960 Beijing-Kabul Non-Aggression Treaty. Despite sharing a slim border with Afghanistan; and even in comparison to the billions of dollars of United States’ aid since 2001, China nonetheless still holds rights to Afghanistan’s largest foreign investment project: the Aynak copper mine. Chinese payments for mineral exploitation fees alone guarantee the Afghan government an annual return of over $800 million. As strategic hubs like Kandahar Airfield are no longer controlled by foreign actors, China’s construction and operation of airports in Zimbabwe and other African states foreshadows interest in controlling and managing Afghan transportation networks. The Taliban lacks any experience in operating international airfields, and China is likely to offer its managerial expertise in hopes of establishing a similar control over transportation networks that it has with aforementioned African states. The durability of economic quid pro quo is questionable, but Chinese strategic intentions remain clear.

Infrastructure development in Afghanistan allows China to secure both profit and security. The Taliban has a history of supporting the Eastern Turkmenistan Movement, which is China’s largest terror threat in Xinjiang. Using Afghan infrastructure investment as an incentive—and domestic resources (like Aynak) as collateral—Beijing can field both carrots and sticks to dissuade Taliban support of Uighur Turkic groups. The mechanics of such negotiations can be nested within BRI projects and then marketed as skillful CCP maneuvering focused on both foreign and domestic outcomes.

Risk and Alliance

Chinese success in Afghanistan will be most reliant on its alliance with Pakistan. Kipling’s famous “Arithmetic on the Frontier” lyricizes the debilitative cost of attempting to stabilize a society that has been de facto tribal since the 14th century Durrani Empire. True to Kipling’s foreboding, it seems that durable stability in Afghanistan will only come when Pashto, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and other minority tribes are aligned to a common national vision. China’s initial networking among some of Afghanistan’s most rugged and hardened regions—in concert with Pakistan—will pay dividends in their understanding of how to assess and realign competing visions.

The United States and Soviet Union both struggled in Afghanistan in part because of difficulties in suppressing insurgent activity from the ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Relationships with powers like Pakistan are helpful for casting a wider, more effective net against regional terror activity, and China has a very strong and stable diplomatic relationship with Pakistan. Through this relationship, China has arguably set conditions to stabilize the infamous northeast provinces near the FATA. This could create a power dynamic where Beijing’s most significant negotiations would be with the Pashto and Taliban-dominated South—areas historically more aligned with kindred Pashtos in Pakistan. Northern stability and southern alliances may then serve as a platform to negotiate with a larger confederation of tribes (including those of the former Northern Alliance) to more quickly realize a Durrani redux and Afghan solidarity.

The crux of China’s involvement in Afghanistan relates primarily to security—both economic and domestic—and the risk tolerance of the CCP to flex global leadership aspirations in such a difficult environment. China will likely mitigate this risk by leveraging its existing infrastructure investments and strong alliance with Pakistan, while using BRI channels and domestic information control to frame the move as necessary for Central Asian prosperity and stability in Xinjiang. Furthermore, with the inevitability of the Taliban attaining at least some formal influence within Afghanistan governance, China remains the only permanent United Nations Security Council member whose relationship with the Taliban could bring benefits to both parties.


The U.S. military and NATO writ large made a lasting impact on the country of Afghanistan. Despite the fall of the Afghan government, other aspects of development such as female literacy rates, female employment, and significant overall growth of GDP per capita since 2001 are evidence that the NATO mission transformed the lives of Afghans. But long-term outcomes of western involvement remain ambiguous.

If history is any guide, U.S. troops will not be the last foreign soldiers to see shops close their doors at Kandahar Airfield. What we do know is that the discussion regarding Afghanistan’s future development is a conversation space that should not be dominated solely by the People’s Republic of China. The CCP’s expansion over the last decade, and its associated exploitation of countries in need of steady development, raises enough red flags to force the United States and its allies to consider how China will insert itself in Afghanistan over the coming years. Recognizing the incentives China possesses to influence Afghanistan is of the utmost importance and critical for the United States as it repositions itself within the Middle East.

Micah D. Petersen is a graduate of the University of Delaware with a BA in International Relations and an MA in Geography, focusing on Chinese migration to Africa. He is also a Schwarzman Scholar and currently serves as an Infantry Captain in the United States Army. He  has studied and traveled to over 25 countries and deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as the Aide-de-Camp to the Kandahar Airfield Commanding General.

Addison McLamb is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a BA in Chinese Language and  Culture, focusing on Chinese foreign policy. He is a Schwarzman Scholar (Class of 2017) and currently serves as an Intelligence Captain in the United States Army. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.

Featured image: December 2020 – Once the center for social activities, the Kandahar Boardwalk sat desolate before coalition forces handed it over to the Afghan government in January 2021. (Credit: authors)

U.S. Southern Command Needs a Permanently-Assigned Hospital Ship

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

The variety of extreme natural disasters that annually hit U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) area of responsibilities, exacerbated by climate change, demonstrates the Command’s need for a permanently-assigned hospital vessel. While the Command can obtain assets if needed in case of a crisis, like the current deployment of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD-24), among other naval units, to Haiti after the deadly earthquake on August 14, there are benefits to having a permanently-assigned hospital vessel.

Comfort: SOUTHCOM’s key asset

In an interview that will soon be published by Janes, U.S. Navy Admiral Craig Faller, the current commander of SOUTHCOM, explained to the author that it would be great to have the Mercy-class hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) sail annual four-to-six month missions in the region. Comfort last sailed in Latin American and Caribbean waters in 2019. 

As part of Operation Enduring Promise 2019, the vessel made 12 port calls across Latin America and the Caribbean, providing free medical services to local populations, an important humanitarian operation that helps win the hearts and minds of civilians and authorities alike.

SOUTHCOM’s activities in Latin American and Caribbean waters also include a constant participation in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations. HA/DR will become more critical due to the increasing frequency, violence, and impact of weather-related events, particularly hurricanes. 

The role of vessels in HA/DR operations

The Greater Caribbean – meaning Caribbean and Central America – is a region that knows very well how catastrophic these disasters can be. Just in the past decade these areas experienced the devastating 2010 and August 2021 earthquakes in Haiti and the April 2021 La Soufrière volcano eruption in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Moreover, the region is hit annually during its summer months with frequent hurricanes, which are existential threats to many countries. Hurricane Irma in 2017, for example, hit Antigua and Barbuda particularly hard, as ReliefWeb explains,

“The impact on Barbuda was particularly severe as the eye of the hurricane passed directly over the island; 81% of Barbuda’s buildings were reported to have been destroyed or severely damaged, and the island was deemed uninhabitable, as all resident households (HHs) on Barbuda were seriously affected by the hurricane.”

In November 2020, past the usual hurricane months, Hurricanes Eta and Iota, category 4 and 5 respectively, hit the Colombian Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia, and then made landfalls that affected El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua with devastating results. Climate change will increase the strength of the hurricanes that hit the region for the foreseeable future, making regional cooperation and partnerships all the more important.

In response to the devastation caused by the two hurricanes the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) “arrived off the coast of Honduras… to support Joint Task Force Bravo’s (JTF Bravo) mission by conducting familiarization flights, delivering medical supplies, and coordinating with other JTF Bravo assets to identify future HA/DR needs.” U.S. Navy helicopters and U.S. Army watercraft also participated in the relief effort. SOUTHCOM’s 2021 Posture Statement explains that by working together with partners and components like JTF-Bravo, the Command “[conducted] search and rescue operations and [delivered] lifesaving aid to areas isolated by the storms, delivering over 1.2 million pounds of life-saving humanitarian aid and rescuing 852 people.”

As for the response effort to the recent earthquake in Haiti, apart from Arlington, other ships deployed include the Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Billings (LCS-15), and USNS Burlington (T-EPF-10), a Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship. A total of six U.S. ships have been deployed as of the end of August. RFA Wave Knight, which serves in the Royal Navy, and the Mexican ships ARM Papaloapan and ARM Libertador have also been deployed.

One vessel that was not in Central America after the 2020 hurricanes or the recent incidents in the Caribbean islands was Comfort. The hospital ship last deployed in Latin American waters in 2019 (my commentaries for CIMSEC on Comfort include “USNS Comfort’s Latest Humanitarian Mission Throughout Latin America,” and “The Significance of U.S. and Chinese Hospital Ship Deployments to Latin America”), even though it has proven to be a critical component of SOUTHCOM’s strategy to strengthen relations with regional partners by providing civilians free and efficient medical services. While the ship has other duties and maintenance requirements, its value to SOUTHCOM’s HA/DR operations is undeniable.

What are the Options?

The US Navy is currently considering the expansion of its fleet of medical vessels to replace Comfort and its sister ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19). For example, the Australian shipyard Austal displayed a model of its expeditionary medical ship (EMS) during the Sea Air Space 2021 defense expo, held outside Washington DC, in August.

Another proposal to revamp the Navy’s medical ship fleet was made in a July 2 CIMSEC commentary by Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Misty Wilkins, a US Strategic Sealift Officer. Lt (j.g.) Wilkins proposed that unused offshore supply vessels (OSVs) “are ready to be used and ripe for re-purposing to meet Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force needs.” The officer proposed that “these vessels could be converted at relatively little cost and would likely be available much sooner than the time needed to construct and test the [Expeditionary Fast Transport] ambulance ship concept.”

I certainly agree with Lt (j.g.) Wilkins’ argument, and I would take it one step further, highlighting that the U.S. fleet requires more hospital ships not solely for wartime missions but also to help with HA/DR operations, which are a critically important activity for a command like SOUTHCOM.

Therefore, in the very near future, an OSV-turned-ambulance ship must be permanently assigned to SOUTHCOM given the constant activities the Command carries out in its area of operations. While units like LCSs or destroyers are certainly helpful to HA/DR operations, it would be even more beneficial to have a specially-designed hospital vessel deployed annually in the region and ready to help with disaster relief when, not if, it is needed. Admiral Faller explained to me during our interview for Janes that it would be great if SOUTHCOM had Comfort deployed annually. This type of assistance and cooperation would strengthen US relations with partners and allies throughout the Western Hemisphere, and win the hearts and minds of regional populations. 

The Case for a Permanent Ship

SOUTHCOM and its naval component, U.S. Fourth Fleet, do not have ships permanently assigned. Rather, SOUTHCOM deploys a variety of units that are assigned on rotation, including Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and LCSs. Admiral Faller has requested additional ships to combat drug trafficking and monitor the activities of U.S. adversaries like Venezuela in the region.

SOUTHCOM’s leadership is very aware of the challenges and threats (not just drug trafficking-related) that regional partners face. Thus, the Command trains with Caribbean forces via exercise Tradewinds, tabletop exercises, and also works with agencies like the Regional Security System and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). The goal is for regional forces to cooperate more effectively when the next hurricane or other type of disaster occurs.

Given that natural disasters afflict Latin America and the Caribbean, combined with the success of medical assistance operations like what Comfort has carried out in the recent past, SOUTHCOM has demonstrated the need for a permanently-assigned hospital vessel in order to be ready for the next HA/DR operation or medical deployment to its area of responsibilities. While the likelihood of SOUTHCOM obtaining additional warships is low, the Command should still lobby for a permanent hospital vessel.

Final Thoughts

SOUTHCOM’s Posture Statements routinely highlight the success and relevance of HA/DR operations that the Command carries out in its area of responsibilities. Case in point, the 2021 Posture summarizes what the Command did to help Central America after the 2020 hurricanes, stressing that “there is no better way to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region than to respond to our neighbors’ needs in times of crisis.” Working together to face natural disasters is not just a cliché, it is how SOUTHCOM gets the job done. 

Looking to the future, by acknowledging that climate change-enhanced weather events will get worse; by taking into account the positive impact of SOUTHCOM’s role in HA/DR operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, and by highlighting the fact that that the U.S. fleet in general needs more hospital ships, it is clear that SOUTHCOM not only deserves, but also requires, a permanently-assigned hospital ship in order to effectively carry out its missions.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured image: The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) sits anchored off the coast of Colombia during Continuing Promise 2015. (U.S. Navy photo)

Lifelong Student-Centered Learning: A PME Paradigm for Honing Our Intellectual Edge

By Dr. Mie Augier, Maj Sean F. X. Barrett, and MajGen William F. Mullen, III (ret.)

Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen remain our most important resource for prevailing in long-term competition. We will remain the world’s preeminent naval force through recruitment, education, training, and retention of diverse active, reserve, and civilian talent. Transforming our learning model for the 21st century will enable us to adapt and achieve decisive advantage in complex, rapidly changing operating environments. –Advantage at Sea1

The recently published Advantage at Sea, a Tri-Service Maritime Strategy signed by the Chiefs of the three Naval Services, provides guidance for prioritizing threats, integrating, and modernizing in order to prevail across the competition continuum. The strategy emphasizes the importance of training and education for developing an integrated all-domain naval force. Given the change, complexity, and uncertainty inherent in the security environment, Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen must develop the intellectual agility to adapt to rapid change and emerging threats and shape the organizations they lead.

This necessitates changing the industrial age training and education paradigm for Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen by placing a greater emphasis on skills such as creative, critical, and innovative thinking; holistic problem solving; and, lifelong learning. Doing so implies not only the need for comprehensive changes to current curricula, teaching materials, and methodologies, but also placing a greater emphasis on informal education and self-study as a lifelong professional duty. 

Today, discussions concerning military training and education include explicit calls for changing the industrial age paradigm to a post-industrial age one, as well as considerations of the kinds of training and education appropriate for the post-industrial age, including moving beyond the “lecture, memorize facts, regurgitate facts on command” model to one focused on cultivating growth mindsets.2

It is important, first, however, to recognize the tremendous progress that has already been made at U.S. professional military education (PME) schools, while acknowledging the work that remains to be done throughout the training and education continuum. Secondly, it is worth noting that paradigm change is difficult because it entails rejecting an otherwise well-established paradigm and substituting a new one, and paradigms by their very nature tend to reinforce themselves and are not intended to generate novelty.3 The industrial age training and education paradigm holds schools, educational institutions, and academic textbooks at the center of the “universe.”4 Today’s security environment, however, demands a new student-centered, outcomes-based approach that is lifelong and continuous. Learning must be valued and evaluated both in and out of schoolhouses to systematically produce the intellectually agile leaders needed to compete.

In this article, we seek to build on our previous conversation, which touched on the skills and attitudes that are important in a post-industrial age, as well as some barriers to cultivating and implementing the mechanisms central to this paradigm change. We also integrate elements of our understanding of paradigms and organizational change with research in learning, education, cognitive science, and individual and organizational decision making to discuss a few interrelated issues that are central to developing a 21st century approach to training and education. 

The Industrial and Post-Industrial Ages

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Winston Churchill5

The Naval Services’ industrial age approach to training, education, organization, and manpower, among other things, has its foundation in Taylorism, the concept of breaking down complex production sequences into simple, sequenced, and standardized tasks. People are trained to be interchangeable parts to maximize efficiencies associated with solving fixed problems in stable environments. Taylorism was cutting edge management science at the turn of the 20th century, leading President William McKinley to appoint Elihu Root as Secretary of War in 1899 “to bring ‘modern business practices’ to the ‘backward’ War Department.”6 In the mid-1950s, this trend towards organizing for large-scale, stable problems was exacerbated as additional tools and techniques such as strategic planning and financial management were developed and employed to measure progress and efficiencies in solving known problems.

Applying known tools to known problems made sense in a relatively stable and predictable world. Such a paradigm gradually reinforced itself over time, not only in the U.S. military’s organizations, but also in its training and education institutions and approaches to learning. While PME schools have made great strides, the challenge is that military occupational specialty (MOS) training schools are still largely based on this outdated and ineffective approach, which undermines the ability to produce the leaders we need as a matter of course rather than by exception. 

One result of this industrial age approach is that education in particular is viewed as episodic and undertaken only when required. Even worse, in the profession of arms, attending a PME school is oftentimes viewed as a break from the operating forces or pressure cooker supporting establishment tours that comprise the normal career path. For some, it is also merely a “check in the box” for promotion purposes and not viewed as a serious educational endeavor requiring one’s best effort. Additionally, due to negative educational experiences earlier in their careers, warfighters oftentimes lack the intrinsic desire to better educate themselves and instead believe they are already smart enough, leading them to partake in educational endeavors only when forced to do so, and then only at the minimum level of effort required to graduate.

Industrial Age Post-Industrial Age
Characteristics of Larger Environment and Problems Confronted – Stable, well structured

– Changes slow and incremental

– Rapid change

– Wicked, ill structured 

– Changes blur boundaries between organizations, industries 

Central Aspects of Organization and Leadership – Large hierarchies, functional organizational structures

– Management of standard operating procedures and processes

– Decentralized, decomposed organizational structures

– Emphasis on resources (including human), competencies, and capabilities

– Agility built in to enable and facilitate organizational learning and adaptation 

Skills and Attitudes Critical to Learning and Leading – Knowledge (static)

– Functional (and individual) learning of facts, knowledge, and how to immediately use, measure, and control

– Fixed intelligence mindset enough

– Understanding (dynamic) of both knowledge and changing contexts, as well as how to interpret knowledge in different situations

– Holistic problem solving, strategic and critical thinking, imagination, active open-mindedness, and judgment

– Growth mindset needed

– Intellectual preparedness and ability for lifelong learning

Learning Types and the Role of Teachers  – Schoolhouse, passive learning

– Receive and memorize data teachers transmit 

– Instructional learning and lectures

– Test and forget 

– Doctrinal approach to learning

– Lifelong, active learning

– Dialogues, discussions

– Two-way learning between teachers and students 

– Teachers as mentors/coaches

– Dialectic approach

Educational Materials and Approaches  – Textbooks confined to disciplinary silos 

– Rote memorization 

– Static learning goals and procedures to control activities 

– Learning measured by tests

– Cases, simulations, wargames, and problem-posing approaches

– Learning goals are constantly revised and updated; best practices are explored and created

– Learning practiced through reflections and self-reflections

Civic Engagement  – Not really a focus – Fostered through critical thinking (i.e., enabling understanding others), we-leadership, and small group discussions

Table 1. Industrial Age Versus Post-Industrial Age Characteristics.

Table 1 provides an overview of some of the dimensions differentiating the industrial and post-industrial ages to help inform efforts to change the industrial age training and education paradigm.7 In particular, we focus on clarifying some dimensions of these differences, including the concepts relevant to learning, as well as fostering lifelong learning, active minds, and a sense of value beyond oneself. Several key themes differentiating the industrial and post-industrial ages that are relevant to training and education include the following:

From tools to thinking. Specific tools and techniques are adequate for solving structured, repetitive, known problems, but ambiguity, uncertainty, and ill-structured problems require intellectual agility, creativity, and the ability to think critically, rather than purposely overlooking or oversimplifying aspects of problems to fit prescribed solutions. Nobel Laureate Herb Simon cautioned, “What we must avoid above all is designing technologically sophisticated hammers and then wandering around to find nails that we can hit with them.”8 Rather, the prevalence and rapidity of change necessitates leaders who can take integrative, pluralistic approaches and make connections across disciplines, domains of knowledge, and methodologies. Leaders must not only be able to learn new tools quickly to adapt to the changing environment, but also understand when and how to employ them, as well as when to drop them entirely, if needed.

From knowledge to understanding. The wicked, ill-structured, and interdependent problems of the post-industrial age demand leaders who can think holistically and in an interdisciplinary manner in order to identify and understand the deep structure of a problem before they try to solve it. While important, knowledge is mostly static and needs to be paired with imagination, creativity, intuition, and improvisation in order to enrich understanding. Knowledge by itself, Alfred North Whitehead observes, “does not keep any better than fish.”9 Practicing problem formulation (and re-formulation), active open-mindedness, and purposely focusing one’s attention outside one’s domain of expertise can help nurture this imagination that enriches understanding and the ability not only to adapt to changes in the environment, but also to anticipate them.10

From memorization to learning. Warfighters are confronted with situations clouded by ambiguity and uncertainty in which they must make decisions when facing time and information constraints. Developing the intellectual agility to make these decisions and transfer knowledge across domains or apply it to entirely new and unforeseen situations or problems is enabled by first learning how to think, not what to think. The current industrial age training and education paradigm, however, is based on “the fallacy of rote memorization.” Simon explains, “Rote memorization, as we know all too well, produces the ability to repeat back memorized material but not the ability to use it in solving problems.”11 

From school-centric to student-centric learning. In the industrial era, schools were the central institution in education, and administrators developed procedures and mechanisms to enhance and measure the efficiency with which schools could transmit information to students. Learning was thus, by necessity, passive and objectives static. In the post-industrial age, the focus must shift to students and their learning, which must be active and lifelong. 

Post-Industrial, Student-Centric Training and Education 

After thinking about the trends and changes outlined above, we can start piecing together some key elements of what is needed for post-industrial age training and education. In particular, critical thinking enables leaders to widen their apertures and question information presented to them in the pursuit of ground truth. “Questions,” Ian Leslie explains, “weaponize curiosity, turning it into a tool for changing behaviors.”12 A questioning attitude enhances leaders’ understanding of the world around them while instilling in them the notion they will never know everything and thus must embark on a lifelong pursuit of wisdom. The ability to think critically and the curiosity underlying it must be cultivated and driven by a quest for knowledge and understanding, especially of questions with no definitive answer.13 The following considerations are relevant to this post-industrial, student-centered paradigm: 

Educating active minds. Mortimer Adler distinguishes between the doctrinal and dialectal approaches to learning, which embody the industrial and post-industrial ages, respectively. The doctrinal approach effectively indoctrinates and attempts to imbue students with as much truth (and no errors) as possible, and the textbooks upon which this approach relies simply reinforce disciplinary silos. In the industrial age paradigm, teachers and educational institutions are viewed as the principal causes of learning, and students are expected to passively absorb information without any real understanding of it. In contrast, the aim of the dialectical approach is teaching students how to think and pursue truth. In post-industrial age training and education, students must be taught to identify, engage, and sort through contradictions and contradictory ideas. Teachers aid students through this learning discovery process by helping them ask questions, identify problems, think through hypotheses, and so on.14 It is cooperative and inculcates a desire in students to adopt a growth mindset, seek an ever-increasing understanding of great ideas and issues, and pursue lifelong learning for their own betterment.

Learning and learning approaches. Today’s students are different than those in previous generations, so a student-centric approach to instruction must correspondingly adapt in order to foster a culture of continuous learning. Determining how individual students learn best and the pace at which they learn, and then tailoring their learning experience accordingly, is vastly more effective than the “one-size-fits-all,” industrial age approach to learning that placed a heavy emphasis on known problems for which providing students with specific tools for solving them proved adequate. Additionally, incorporating active learning approaches, such as historical case studies, sand table or map exercises, tactical decision games, terrain walks, or tactical exercises without troops, across the training and education continuum will benefit MOS training schools, and not simply PME schools. Active learning approaches focus on problem solving and making decisions rather than simply remembering information or theorizing. Students must be encouraged to think independently, practice making decisions, and learn from mistakes along the way if they are to develop the judgment needed to take intelligent initiative.15 Active learning presupposes that learning has to occur in—and transform—the minds of students.16

Building creative thinking. Today’s strategic documents and the rhetoric of many senior leaders emphasize the importance of innovation, which unfortunately, all too often leads to the misunderstanding that technology can solve any problem. As a result, leaders overlook the need for warfighters who can think critically and creatively and develop ways to incorporate and effectively employ these new technologies. Creative thinking can and should be taught in conjunction with subject matter content. Students must have enough domain-specific knowledge to have something about which to think creatively, but some useful guidelines for encouraging creativity include posing questions or problems that have more than one response, asking students for multiple solutions to open-ended prompts and to think through their implications and implementation, group work, solving analogies, and identifying novel relationships between two or more seemingly unrelated ideas.17

Learning leaders. To truly embrace a culture of lifelong learning, leaders must set the example, embody the warrior-scholar motif, and inspire junior warfighters to embark on a lifetime of learning themselves. Learning and professional self-study must be expectations. Implementing a student-centric 21st century approach to learning at MOS schools (and even boot camp) can help mitigate some of the negative educational experiences warfighters might experience early in their careers that turn them off to learning, but to be truly lifelong and continuous, leaders, especially senior officers, need to engage their junior warfighters, demonstrate the humility to learn from them, participate in activities with them, and empower them to experiment and learn from mistakes. 

 Obstacles to Change and Closing Thoughts

This article has discussed some central aspects of industrial age training and education, as well as the elements of what is needed to transition to a post-industrial age paradigm. Without understanding the differences and the mechanisms by which the industrial age paradigm reinforces itself, the ongoing (and needed) transformation of the training and education paradigm will necessarily remain incomplete. The U.S. military has made great progress implementing student-centered learning in its PME institutions, but the same changes must be implemented across the training and education continuum, especially at MOS training schools. 

To do so, military educators must focus on what students take with them after graduation and how it changes their thinking, not on the process that pushed them through to graduation. Bureaucracy and the formal school inspection process are the biggest obstacles to cultivating and implementing these changes since they simply reinforce the industrial age training and education paradigm.

As a result, on August 26, 2019, Major General William F. Mullen III, then Commanding General, U.S Marine Corps Training and Education Command, published a memorandum, “Training and Education Command Authority to Experiment With New Learning Practices Policy,” to grant “to Formal Learning Centers (FLCs) the authorities necessary to experiment with new learning practices with respect to innovative curriculum design, development, and delivery.”18 He granted commanders a pass on those aspects of the formal inspection process that no longer applied due to the experimental changes they had implemented. Some commanders embraced the ability to experiment and, for example, loaded curriculum onto tablets so Marines could make their way through training at their own pace with the aid of staff and avoid the long periods in which they would have otherwise been awaiting training. Marines responded to being granted flexibility and responsibility, and those in MOS training reached the operating forces more quickly and with the same (or more) knowledge and skills than the industrial age approach would have otherwise provided them. It placed the focus on what the graduates understood and retained rather than on the process.

Change is never easy since there are always antibodies to change in any organization. However, just as a paradigm change in the understanding of the solar system was once needed, today’s military requires a paradigm change for training and education that addresses the totality of the training and education continuum, including the self-reinforcing obstacles to change.19 This will require a lot of hard work and leadership, but as the Naval Service Chiefs identified in Advantage at Sea, the threats China and Russia pose to global peace and prosperity demand nothing less.

Dr. Mie Augier is a Professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI) and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Maj Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD, is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion. He has previously deployed in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, Enduring Freedom-Philippines, and Inherent Resolve.

MajGen William F. Mullen, III, USMC, retired after 34 years as an infantry officer. Among his many assignments, he served 3 tours in Iraq, and as a General Officer, was the President of U.S. Marine Corps University and Commanding General of Education Command. He is also the co-author of Fallujah Redux, which was published in 2014 by the USNI Press. MajGen Mullen retired on Oct 1, 2020 and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado. He also recently started as Professor of Practice at the Naval Postgraduate School (Graduate School of Defense Management).


[1] U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All-Domain Naval Power (Washington, DC: 2020), 22.

[2] See, for example, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War: The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management, (Washington, DC: 2020); Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower (Washington, DC: 2019); Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2019).

[3] The notion of paradigms—a set of shared fundamental beliefs, concepts, ideas, models, theories, and practices accepted by communities of scholars and practitioners in a given era—is often associated with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Regarding the self-reinforcing nature of paradigms, Kuhn explains, “Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise, an actualization achieved by extending the knowledge of those facts that the paradigm displays as particularly revealing, by increasing the extent of the match between those facts and the paradigm’s predictions, and by further articulation of the paradigm itself.” Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50th Anniversary Edition (The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 24.

[4] Thomas Kuhn’s first book, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, documents the paradigm change from the geocentric to heliocentric model of the universe. We need an analogous paradigm change from focusing on school-centered processes to student-centered learning in order to develop a 21st century approach to training and education. 

[5] UK Parliament, “Churchill and the Commons Chamber,” accessed March 6, 2021, 

[6] As quoted in Don Vandergriff, Personnel Reform and Military Effectiveness (Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2015), 7.

[7] The table draws on and extends thoughts in, among others, Al Gray and Paul Otte, The Conflicted Leader and Vantage Leadership (Columbus, OH: Franklin University Press, 2006); Mie Augier and Sean F. X. Barrett, “Learning for Seapower: Cognitive Skills for the Post-Industrial Era,” Marine Corps Gazette 104, no. 11 (Nov. 2020): 25-31; Commanding General, Training and Education Command to Distribution List, “TECOM Commander’s Guidance,” July 18, 2018.

[8] Herbert A. Simon, “What We Know About Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education 87, no. 4 (Oct. 1998): 346. 

[9] Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1929), 98.

[10] Herb Simon, for example, notes, “Problem formulating is itself a problem solving task.” Herbert A. Simon, Problem Formulation and Alternative Generation in the Decision Making Process, Technical Report AIP 43, (Arlington, VA: Office of Naval Research, 1988), 7. Unfortunately, we are prone to rush to identify solutions rather than taking the time to understand a given problem. Active open-mindedness entails treating forecasts as hypotheses we actively seek to disprove. 

[11] Herbert A. Simon, “Problem Solving and Education,” in Issues in Teaching and Research, eds. D. T. Tuma and F. Reif (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1980), 87.

[12] Ian Leslie, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 98.

[13] Leslie differentiates between diversive and epistemic curiosity. He defines diversive curiosity as an “attraction to everything novel” and epistemic curiosity as a “deeper, more disciplined, and effort type of curiosity.” He also differentiates between puzzles (e.g., how many or where questions) and mysteries (e.g., how or why). We tend to be attracted to puzzles, since they can be definitively answered, whereas mysteries are more complex and intractable. Finding the key piece of information that enables us to solve a puzzle quenches our curiosity, but curiosity inspired by mysteries is deeper and longer lived. Leslie, xx, 47-49.

[14] Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, ed. Geraldine Van Doren (New York: Collier Books and Macmillan Publishing Company),––a4.size.pdf, 5-9.

[15] A case, for example, “provokes in the reader the need to decide what is going on, what the situation really is, or what the problems are—and what can and should be done.” Kenneth Andrews, The Case Method of Teaching Human Relations and Administration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951), 60.

[16] See, for example, Herbert A. Simon, “What We Know About Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education 87, no. 4 (Oct. 1998): 346. Simon explains, “You can do anything you like in the classroom or elsewhere—you can stand on your head—it doesn’t make a whit of difference unless it causes a change in behavior of your students. Learning takes place in the minds of students and nowhere else, and the effectiveness of teachers lies in what they can induce students to do.”

[17] Emma Gregory, et al., “Building Creative Thinking in the Classroom: From Research to Practice,” International Journal of Educational Research 62 (2013): 43-50.

[18] Commanding General (CG), Training and Education Command to CG, Training Command; CG, Education Command; CG, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island; CG, Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego; CG, Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, “Training and Education Command Authority to Experiment With New Learning Practices Policy,” August 26, 2019. 

[19] For example, school accreditation requirements limit options available for implementing changes in PME institutions, and quotas at MOS training schools exacerbate an excessively short-term focus on producing the required number of graduates—even potentially at the expense of their long-term development. Epstein notes that excessive hint-giving (the proverbial “foot stompers”) may help a student pass a test but at the expense of long-term progress. See David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019), 85-90.

Featured Image: U.S. Marine Corps infantry squad leaders assigned to School of Infantry West, Detachment Hawaii, move to their next position during the Advanced Infantry Course (AIC) aboard Kahuku Training Area, Hawaii. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)