Sounds like the thesis from the speech of a frustrated education reformer, right? Wrong. It’s a paraphrase of what I’ve heard when talking to current and former teachers at the National Defense University, or NDU, the leading government organization for training the future leaders of the United States military.
President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal includes a 13 percent reduction in the operation and maintenance costs of the entire Department of Defense, including the university and its programs.
It’s hard to say what kind of budget cuts the NDU system might receive, what with continued Congressional infighting and possible shifts in the DOD-wide budget But, looking at the most recent projections from the NDU and DOD, the university might face cuts of almost 9 percent to the $93 million operating budget it had for 2012. Officials at NDU said even that number was unclear.
“We’re not a congressional district,” explained Dave Maxwell, a former Army Special Forces colonel and graduate of the National War College at the NDU. Those who wage budget battles for the military, he said, “focus on those big-ticket items that we need – of course we need ships and planes and all of that – but those will have support of Congress.”
“There is no constituency for professional military education,” he said, explaining that when lawmakers start looking at ways to save money, there aren’t many who would stand up for military education when the axe falls.
Every service has what’s called a senior service college or school, like the Naval War College in Norfolk, Va., or the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn. But the NDU and its constituent colleges and research centers are under the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which means they have fewer layers of bureaucracy above to insulate them, giving them less protection from politics than their counterparts in the services.
The NDU is also different in its mission and composition. The best and brightest lieutenant colonels and colonels from all the branches of the armed services vie for a limited number of spots. So do high-level members of other government agencies like the CIA and FBI and the departments of State and Homeland Security, and even some foreign officers from countries such as front-line counterterrorism allies like Pakistan and Indonesia.
Students who enter the NDU system are expected to be the future leaders in their fields and agencies, and learn about global-scale strategy and diplomacy. Graduates include former chiefs of staff and cabinet members, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs And former Army Chief of Staff.
“In essence, one of the reasons why the war college exists is to be a kind of walking, talking interagency process where the students get to know each other and understand each other’s work and perspectives,” said Audrey Kruth Cronin, a former war and statecraft professor at the college.
Also troubling, according to both Cronin and Maxwell, is that the president of the NDU – Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, who retired in April – will be replaced by a major general, a rank lower.
“From a perception standpoint, that just gives the appearance that there is reduced priority on education,” Maxwell said.
That may be due to “brass creep,” or the proliferation of high-ranking generals and admirals and complementary pay and staffs, and DOD’s efforts to reduce their numbers. In today’s budget environment, there are few programs in the armed services that aren’t feeling the pressure to cut costs.
Those familiar with the deliberations say that the extent of the cutbacks at NDU, or in the entire military, aren’t clear yet. But in times of budgetary belt tightening, whether in the military and civilian world, education often gets the axe first, says Cronin. “It’s a short term perspective, really,”
“It’s understandable why people want to put resources toward the folks that are in harm’s way,” she said. “Because they have their lives on the line.”
On the other hand, Cronin added, “What we have in the professional military education system is the strategic perspective and the future of our country, and when you cut back on that, you’re eating your seed corn.”