A combat corps Corporal at an Army course in 2022 remarked, "Isn’t our job warfighting? Why are we spending time on intellectual education? If we were at war, we’d immediately stop spending our time on all of that stuff". If the example of Ukraine is anything to go by, the Corporal would seem to be right. When faced with war in early 2022, previously-planned Professional Military Education (PME) initiatives dropped away and preference given to training on newly acquired weapons systems.

Intellectual education in a military context is about developing cognitive superiority over potential adversaries, including skills in decision-making, problem-solving, creative thinking, cultural insight, adaptability, and similar abilities. This is a big part of PME and peacetime does indeed offer the best opportunity for this sort of development. It is for this reason that, prior to the war, Ukraine’s PME program emphasised the formation of both ‘critical thinking and functional abilities’. Recognising the deficiencies of a Soviet-influenced heritage that emphasised checklists and rigid hierarchy over the development of the mind, Ukraine sought to learn from NATO partners such as Canada.

When it emerged that Russia’s invasion would not result in a swift Russian victory, numerous observers pointed to the reformation of Ukraine’s PME as one factor influencing its surprising battlefield success. Canada’s National Post pointed to a ‘cultural transformation’ from Soviet-style top-down decision-making to the more ground-influenced approach of mission command, featuring ‘the autonomy to make decisions on the fly’.

Another analyst pointed to the revamped ‘professional development of the force’ beginning in 2016 and prompting a ‘cultural shift’. A professor of political science at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Ukraine pointed to ‘a wide range of NATO-backed military reforms’, including giving NCOs the opportunity to make quick decisions on the battlefield. The Wall Street Journal pointed to Ukraine’s development of the ability to ‘think on the move’.

Now that the Russo-Ukrainian war is a year old, military groups around the world are trying to draw lessons. The commander of the Canadian Army, Lieutenant-General Jocelyn Paul, identifies the ability of those on the ground to make quick decisions as a key lesson: ‘Even if you have less capability, even if you have less guns or less tanks or less troops. That gives you a clear advantage on the battlefield.’

Meanwhile, in Ukraine itself, the government has recently announced a resolution to bring its PME into greater alignment with NATO standards, resulting in a ‘more qualitative’ educational system. Despite – or perhaps because – Ukraine is in the midst of a war, it has recognised the need to prepare for the future by prioritising ‘continuous educational and professional development of military specialists throughout their military career’.