Innovation and Adaptation

Academic Learning Through a Military Prism

By Jack Cross August 15, 2018


Introduction Australia exists in a turbulent and uncertain environment within the Indo-Pacific. As the United States of America power shifts towards protectionist policies, and China flexes its muscle in regional territorial disputes, Australia faces a period of significant uncertainty in regard to the future [1]. As such, the importance of judgement and astute decision making in the Australian Army has never been higher. This essay seeks to analyse the training of officers in the Australian Army and provides suggestions to improve the end-product so that they may thrive in an ambiguous and uncertain environment. Firstly, this essay will compare the different Australian Army systems for producing officers and identify the reasons why certain approaches are more effective than others. Following this, differences between the United Kingdom (UK), United States (US) and Australian models will be discussed. Finally, lessons for incorporation into Australian training will be identified. Overall, the key factor in producing the best officer possible in all of the training methods analysed in this essay is the conduct of academic study through the prism of military service: the days of thinking about military problems in purely military terms are well and truly over.

The Australian Approach In the Australian Army there are two primary methods through which civilians are trained and commissioned as officers. The first method sees officer cadets conduct three years of academic and military training at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and then an additional 12 months of training at the Royal Military College Duntroon (RMC-D) [2]. Through this method, officers graduate with a bachelor’s degree and are all commissioned as a lieutenant in the Australian Army. Corps are allocated in accordance with the preferences and performance of the Cadets, balanced by the needs of the Army. The second method is more direct, in that the cadets conduct 18 months of pure military training at RMC-D and thus commission far quicker [3]. The main difference between the two methods is the conduct of academic study whilst being a member of the military; this difference is not insignificant and will be the key focal point of this paper.

Academic study has been identified by the Chief of Army as an important way for leaders within the Army to enhance their intellectual capacity; and in a broader sense, to boost the ability of the Army to prepare for the contingencies and challenges of future warfare [4]. This study is most effective when conducted in the military, as it provides a frame of reference as to why you are studying, thus contextualising the lessons learnt. With this in mind, the ADFA method of generating officers provides this context far earlier in an officer’s career.

When contrasting this with the direct RMC-D method a few problems become apparent. Firstly, at RMC-D there is no academic component within the curriculum, only a theory component to the practical activities that the cadets undertake later in the semester. As such the frame of reference which the cadets learn through is highly bent towards the military activity. Whilst a large number of cadets may come to RMC-D with a university degree (more than 28% in the current third class)[1], this study was completed prior to military service. As such these members did not study through the lens of a military profession, which means that a lot of the critical thinking which they are more than capable of is beaten out of them over the course of the 18 month curriculum. This intellectual beating starts during an entirely necessary shaping phase early on in the RMC-D curriculum, where basic military skills require a very prescriptive training approach. As the curriculum focus moves from basic skills to more intellectually focused activities, the trainees are already shaped into a pattern of behaviour which minimises lateral thinking and attempts to reduce the amount of scrutiny that they elicit from their instructors. In a word they are attempting to remain grey [5]. This factor is not isolated to RMC-D and is somewhat replicated in the US West Point model, which is discussed later in this paper.

In an attempt to quantify the disparity in the two methods, the chance of an officer becoming a Commanding Officer (CO) was calculated in a fairly rudimentary fashion. The analysis is limited to a single calendar year and only looked at the combat brigades, as this information was readily available on the Defence Protected Network. This analysis and the sources of information which were used can be found at the conclusion of this article. Given the limitations of this study, it is still interesting to note the revelation that in 2018 you are 2.5 times more likely to become a CO in an Australian Army combat brigade if you were a former ADFA cadet. Further analysis and comparison of future years will need to be conducted to validate these findings, in addition it would be valuable to expand the research to the other Australian units as well. Australia aside, comparable qualitative reflections have been made in other militaries with similar officer training systems, again to be discussed later.

The same disparity in performance can also be seen within RMC-D. At the time of writing, the performance of ADFA cadets in comparison to direct RMC-D cadets during the initial officer training is far greater. This is illustrated by the fact that the majority of the top third of Order of Merit List (OOML) in the current II Class are former ADFA cadets[2]. In addition the majority of direct RMC-D cadets within the top third of the OOML are ex-serving soldiers or non-commissioned officers. This further demonstrates the disparity in performance between the ADFA cadets and their peers.

Whilst the ADFA approach arguably produces better officers, it is unrealistic that all potential officers would be produced through this method. This is due to the sheer cost, the capacity of ADFA and more importantly that it is not ideal to have all officers produced in the exact same way. Diversity of thought is important and has been a major initiative of Army capability development for a number of years [5]. There needs to be a number of ways in which the Army produces officers, as this will increase the intellectual diversity of future leaders in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). This intellectual edge can be produced through a number of ways which other militaries utilise, and which can be incorporated into the Australian approach to enhance our officers. This paper will now discuss two of these alternate approaches and offer suggestions as to how to augment the Australian training methodology accordingly.

The British Approach

The British Army produces officers in a very similar way to the Australian Army, which is intuitive as the Australian model itself was originally based on the British Royal Military Acadmey at Sandhurst. However, there has been a divergence in training over the 100+ years that the Australian Royal Military College (RMC-D) has been in operation. From an approach to education perspective, the British have a far more comprehensive academic component. This is due in large part to there being no British ADFA equivalent; but is also due to the weight the British place on ethics and academics.

During the 44 week British commissioning course, 10% of the cadets' classes are led by an academic [6]. These courses are fully integrated within the curriculum and often enhance the military application courses which are led by the military staff. There are three faculties of academics that deliver training from behavioural science to international affairs [6]. This training is integrated with the military curriculum and even culminates in an academic-led field exercise that focuses on the ethical application of leadership.

In contrast, the Australian curriculum at RMC-D has a similar academic component. However, at RMC-D this is prepared and delivered by military officers. The focus of this training is on leadership and ethics, and definitely falls short in international affairs, behavioural science and military history when compared to the British course. By not having the civilian academic community contribute to the delivery of officer training, Australian officers are not being exposed to differing intellectual perspectives. Furthermore, the military personnel allocated to delivering this training are not subject matter experts in any of these fields; they bring a purely practitioner viewpoint. The comparative time spent focused on these academic elements of a military officer’s education is similar between the British and Australian approaches to training. This presents an opportunity to incorporate academia into RMC-D without having to expand the curriculum. It would also assist in providing the broader cadet body with the benefits of academic learning through a military prism that is currently only experienced by the ADFA cadets. This can be achieved through a number of small changes.

Firstly the Leadership and Ethics package should be broadened to include a variety of different components. This should include behavioural science, defence and international affairs and military history (as in the British model). These modifications will increase the scope of academic training within the current package, which has been observed to be somewhat repetitive due to its narrow focus[3]. Some work is being done to broaden this package, though this is being completed by one military officer and therefore might not provide the most balanced and comprehensive outcome.

Secondly, the staff which prepare and deliver this training should be non-military academics. As stated previously, a non-military approach is critical in fostering creative thought in the cadets and will go some way in countering the fear of failure which most Army trainees exhibit throughout their careers [7]. Diversity in thought will be encouraged from the earliest point in an Army officer’s career and not be postponed until professional military education is conducted post-graduation.

Fixing the approach to training at RMC-D does not necessarily go far enough in diversifying the intellectual perspectives of Australian officers. There are decentralised examples of officer training which should also be considered, as they provide cost-effective alternatives to the two centralised models which are used today.

The American Approach

The US Army has a number of approaches to training their officers. For comparison in this paper we will look at the United States Military Academy (USMA), or West Point as it is colloquially known, and The Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) models, as these contrast the centralised and decentralised approaches that can be utilised in training officers. The USMA is a centralised service academy for the US Army [8]. This is the most similar US Army institution to RMC-D. The ROTC is one of the other major methods that the US Army uses to train their officers for commissioning. Trainees attend a civilian college or university and complete their officer training concurrently. Due to the decentralised nature, and large number of participating institutions within the ROTC model, the majority of US Army officers are trained through this method [9].

The USMA training model suffers from some of the same limitations that RMC-D does. Namely there is a disproportionate focus on barracks behaviour, which leads to a stifling of their intellectual and social development [10]. The nature of a centralised and highly controlled environment such as RMC-D or West Point sees creative thinking and intellectual agility sacrificed in an attempt to avoid scrutiny from instructors. In turn this encourages a cohort of “grey men” attempting to blend in with the crowd and simply survive until graduation [11].

In contrast, the ROTC model, whilst being slightly disjointed throughout an academic year, focuses on more military training. In addition, it benefits by an elongated period of study (2-4 years,) allowing the officer trainees to consider their future careers and the officers they want to become. Importantly this consideration time is somewhat less scrutinised and impinged by a draconian enforcement of barracks discipline. This is not dissimilar to the ADFA model in Australia, though the ROTC model goes further as it produces an officer ready to conduct their corps specific training at the end [8]. As such, this system falls somewhat short of the end product that you get from the hybrid ADFA and RMC system, which combines the benefits of both centralised and decentralised training methodologies. By producing their officers in a purely decentralised manner there is the risk of differing quality of instruction and assessment. However, the US Army does not have the benefit of the comparatively small size of the Australian Army, which can afford to bring all of their officers to a centrally controlled point during the training continuum.

The ADFA and RMC-D hybrid training model is expensive and it is not feasible for all Australian officers to go through this system. However, there is an opportunity to utilise a hybrid approach for a percentage of officer trainees to increase the number of Australian officers that have conducted academic study through the prism of military service. This could be achieved by modifying the Army Reserve officer training model as it exists now.

Australian civilian universities could be utilised in a similar method to how ADFA is used in training Army Officers. By accepting officer candidates as Army Reservists within these universities, and training them in a modular fashion similar to the ADFA single service training continuum, you could replicate the benefits of ADFA without having the cost (or indeed reputational risks) associated with an ADF owned institution. At the completion of the trainee’s university degree, you could then accept the graduates at II Class within the General Service Officer First Appointment Course (GSO FAC) at RMC-D. Or if the trainee is unsuitable, you could transition them out of the ADF, or if appropriate, offer them the option to stay on as an Army Reservist and complete the remaining Army Reserve officer training. By adding this training method to the available full time Army officer training pathways, we will increase the diversity of intellectual preparation across the organisation.

Conclusion This paper has outlined a number of ways in which the Australian Army can improve its training methodologies to produce more effective leaders for an uncertain future. It has outlined the reasons why the ADFA to RMC method of producing officers is effective, with the most notable influence being the conduct of academic study through the prism of military service. This aspect was then compared with the US and UK’s equivalent officer training institutions and methods and the positive approaches from each were examined. As Australia looks to improve the intellectual capacity of its Army’s leaders, a number of different methods for training officers should be considered. Diversity in thought, not just in gender or cultural background, must be promoted throughout officer development if success in the contemporary operating environment is to be achieved.

Likelihood of becoming a CO ADFA vs RMC

Calculations for Likelihood to become a CO


Rough figures for graduation rates of ADFA graduates and RMC cadets are approximated as: 33%
ADFA graduates 67%
RMC-D direct entry graduates

Current COs in 2018 (1, 3 and 7 Brigade)[4]
56% ADFA graduates
44% RMC-D direct entry graduates

Calculations 33 x a = 100
a = 100/33
a = 3.03
multiply a by % of ADFA grads that are COs
3.03 x 0.56 = 1.7

67 x b = 100 b = 100/67
b = 1.49

multiply b by % of RMC grads that are COs
1.49 x 0.44 = 0.657

Adjust for 100%
1 / 0.657 = 1.52
1.7 x 1.52 = 2.59 times more likely to be a CO if an ADFA graduate

[1] Statistics come from Corps of Staff Cadets nominal roll, which includes all ARA cadets currently at RMC-D, correct as at Jun 2018
[2] Statistics gathered from CAPT Langford (SO3 cadets) after review of the Order of Merit List, correct as at Jun 2018
[3] Interview with Package Master Leadership Character and Ethics, Ryan Barwick Apr 2018
[4] This was calculated by reviewing the CO’s Bio letters posted to the Brigade SharePoint pages in Feb 2018. It does not take into account COs in units outside of the Combat Brigades. This is a major limitation of the analysis.

1.  P. Dibb and R. Brabin-Smith, “Australia's management of strategic risk in the new era,” ASPI, pp. 2-3, 2017.
2.  Department of Defence, “Army Officer: ADFA entry method,” 1 March 2018.
3.  Department of Defence, “Army Officer: RMC entry method,” 1 March 2018.
4. L. G. D. Morrison, “Chief of Army Scholarships,” Australian Army, 2014.
5. L. G. A. Campbell, “Army Diversity and Inclusion Framework 2016-2020,” Australian Army, 2016.
6.  M. Fey, “The Ideal British Officer - Wishstream,” 2011.
7.  N. Barber, “MacLachlan's Charge: Improving Army's Tactical Acumen,” 18 April 2018.
8.  A. Wojack, “Putting Experience First: An Analysis of the Impacts of the Army Junior Officer Development Model on Combat Effectiveness,” US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, 2010.
9.  A. Coumbe, “Toward a US Army officer strategy for success,” Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, pp. 344-380, 2009.
10.  T. Ricks, “West Point: Time to bring its military training up to the standards of ROTC?,” 29 October 2010.
11.  J. Brown, “Fifty Shades of Grey: Officer Culture in the Australian Army,” Australian Army Journal, pp. 244-254, 2013.      



Jack Cross

Jack Cross is a signals officer currently instructing at the Royal Military College - Duntroon. He has served for over 12 years in a variety of regimental, staff and operational roles.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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