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Expertise: How Interwar Periods Inform our Army Officer Development

by Ben Elliott 

Imagine this scenario: A mainland force for years has been steadily infringing on the domestic issues of its regional neighbors and most recently began to advance toward its strategic direction to control its near abroad. At the same time, threat naval supremacy dominates in critical littoral commons, disrupting international commerce. Enemy submarines operate with relative impunity and have sunk over six million tons of commercial shipping. Sophisticated computing powers have broken allied communications technologies and created backdoors to logistics networks, effectively dismantling multi-national resupply efforts across vast ocean-faring distances. Regional neighbors who have hedged toward a distant superpower are being drawn under the control of an emerging regional power of the modern moment, seeking to come ‘closer to the center of the world’s stage.’

While the previous paragraph may sound like the opening lines of a work of fiction about the beginnings of a World War III similar to Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stravridis’s novel 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, many of the facts are present in the retelling of the intelligence leading up to the early forays into World War II (Operation TORCH as illustrated by John Patch, professor of strategic intelligence at the U.S. Army War College). A rising Germany demanded the world’s attention in what would come to be known as the ‘interwar period.’ It is within these interwar years that the future victors of places like Chouigui Pass would join their profession, learn their craft, test new technologies, and train to fight a rapidly advancing near-peer power that aspired to supplant the world order of its day.  

The interwar period of the 1930s informs the requirements of a cadre of military officers for the threats of the multi-domain future. While the TRADOC pamphlet titled The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations provides ‘solutions’ to the contemporary Army, which are essentially phases, the real solution to operating in complex environments—like U.S. commanders once saw in the Kasserine Pass in 1943—is Officership.

We are witnessing key indicators of a tale of yesteryear. Since at least 1999, the PRC has been meddling in the domestic affairs of Hong Kong, with the most publicized iteration being the so-called National Security Law, which aims to draw Hong Kong closer to Beijing’s control. Meanwhile, a targeted campaign of air-defense identification zone incursions, once creating daily headlines, yet now almost routine, is the latest attempt by the PRC to normalize passive-aggression targeted at the resolve of the Taiwan defense establishment. Beijing’s forays into the high altitude of the Indian border demonstrates her commitment to age-old border disputes, and violence along the border illustrates that a few bloodied sentries is a commitment the Chinese are willing to die to maintain. Harassment of fishing trawlers in the South China Sea and the weaponization of the Chinese Coast Guard and Maritime Militia are the latest development in subsuming domestic subordination to the defense establishment. The aforementioned indicators of a drive for regional hegemony are only the tip of the developing iceberg of PRC dominance of its near abroad. 

This is the background of China’s ever-growing and ever-expanding arsenal of a sophisticated, tailored military industrial complex. China’s growth in capital ships, aircraft carriers, missile arsenal, directed energy weapons, lasers, electro-magnetic spectrum jammers, fifth generation fighters, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber is astounding in comparison to historical precedent. Many of these weapons were developed and designed to directly counter their greatest adversary’s capabilities. The threat is real, and it is ever more becoming the present danger.

The multi-domain environment—observable in China’s behaviors—is one that TRADOC describes presenting persistent disorder, the contestation of international norms, an expanded battlefield that is hyperactive, and an increasing number of tasks and requirements in a given temporal space. As our modern Army evolves, it will be asked to return to combined arms operations, which our rotational brigade-level units have aimed to do at the institutional-level training centers since at least 2014. The same was asked of tactical-level commanders prior to WWII, when many engaged in the Louisiana Maneuvers in 1940-1941. Steven Thomas Barry, who studied U.S. Army tactical leadership in the interwar years, recounts the importance of the maneuvers by saying: “Soldiers and officers alike endured hardships on maneuvers…officers learned how to fulfill their commander‘s intent. This skill proved critical…in battle when units operated off of oral or very abbreviated operations orders.” This training was required in the interwar years because the Germans were dubbed the “best in the world,” while many throughout the U.S. intelligentsia have begun to describe China as the emerging pacing threat of our generation. Coincident with an emergent threat requires a cadre of trained, equipped officers prepared to face new, complex challenges.

Much like the officer training of the interwar period, where aspiring officers learned from a company-grade cadre of officers with a “combat experience chasm,” each graduating class of our commissioning programs is witnessing the decline in combat-tested overseers. Many of the junior- and mid-career officers at our pre-commissioning sources have not been afforded the overseas deployment opportunities that were widespread one generation ago. The interwar decline in combat opportunities resulted in the leaders who were in the first throws of WWII in the Mediterranean theater who lacked combat experience. We can anticipate the same will be true for military officers leading small units into the first forays of combat. Yet not only will they be novices, the trainers that had seen them through their pre-commissioning programs may have never deployed and will certainly have never faced a near-peer adversary.

Similar to the description of the ‘Paratroopers in Sicily’ described in ADP 6-0, today’s future officers will be required to operate across expanses of territory with limited communication with their higher headquarters. Prior to Patton’s landing in Messina in 1943, small groups of paratroopers—after sustaining heavy losses—rucked up and attacked anything that supported the Axis powers. These “little groups of paratroopers acting on their own initiative” resemble the modern-day leader that our current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN Mark Milley, described several years ago. The then Chief of Staff of the Army said, “we are going to have to empower [and] decentralize leadership to make decisions and achieve battlefield effects in a widely dispersed environment where subordinate leaders, junior leaders…may not be able to communicate to their higher headquarters, even if they wanted to.” Today, GEN James McConville’s contemporary strategy for the Army is people-centric and about building cohesive teams. Much like GEN McConville’s interwar contemporary, Douglas MacArthur, who chose to preserve the officer corps’ talent and treated manpower as the most valuable resource, today’s Army is expecting its human capital to be central to winning future wars.         

The modern implication then becomes how to educate, train, and equip the cadre of future officers for a future fight. Through reflection on the past, we see that the threat is not necessarily new, the interwar training conditions are similar, and the factors leading to creating decisions on the battlefield all resemble the characteristics of the interwar years. The battalion commanders who will fight the next war are recently commissioned, currently in the pipeline, or aspiring to one day lead. Therefore, history may offer the contemporary officer clues as to what to expect in the near future.

And to the rising officers of today and aspiring leaders of tomorrow, S.L.A Marshall’s historical perspective explaining “why certain officers are marked for high places and find the door wide open, come an emergency,” are as poignant today as they were in describing the leaders of battalions in the greatest generation. They are:

  • Superior efficiency reports
  • Doing well in service schools
  • Exceptional performance during maneuvers or in committee work
  • Conspicuous degree of special talents, including writing, instructing, lecturing and staff administration
  • The advancement of an original idea that has led to a general improvement in any one service.

What Marshall was describing in the initial cut of the Armed Forces Officer is the concept of military expertise, including a collective of characteristics that prove to result in exceptional leaders. Our Army doctrine would suggest that two other critical pillars of attributes are essential to the whole nature of officers, central to our Army Ethic. ADP 6-22 adds honorable service and stewardship to expertise in detailing the critical elements of an ethical, professional military officer. While these other attributes will not be explored here, we observe that military expertise is a key pillar in Officership.

Officers who developed in the interwar period honed their military expertise in their formal education and through combat-focused training. Today a cohort of military officers is emerging and may be called to fight in a conflict, the likes of which have not been seen since WWII. Through training today and preparation for tomorrow, Army officers will be required to take on a similar burden of combat leadership. Officership is the key to battlefield leadership and the efforts that will defeat our future enemies.

Major Ben Elliott is a graduate from the United States Military Academy where he earned his B.S. in Psychology and a graduate of the National Intelligence University where he earned a M.S.S.I. in Strategic Intelligence. His topics of interest include terrorism, future threats, near-peer competition, character, virtue, leadership, and officership.

These views are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense. Benjamin J. Elliott is a Major in the U.S. Army.