A new definition for the profession of arms

Originally published in the December 2017 Checkpoints.

Retired Lt. Gen. Christopher Miller ’80 has questions — lots of them — about the profession of arms and its definition in the 21st century. And he’s allowed, because it’s part of his recent assignment at the Air Force Academy.

Miller was appointed the inaugural Helen & Arthur E. Johnson Chair for the Study of the Profession of Arms this year. The endowed position was established by a $6 million legacy gift from the Helen K. and Arthur E. Johnson Foundation. It focuses on redefining the term “profession of arms” for the military of today and the future.

Six months into his tenure, Miller knows there are so many questions to answer and people to discuss the topic with before he is ready to settle on a refined definition. He also can mine his experiences from a lengthy career in the Air Force. He has deep experience in training, education, personnel, politicalmilitary and joint staff leadership; he has commanded B-1, B-2 and deployed units in Operation Enduring Freedom; and he is a former Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs. He understands that the ethos of the profession of arms cannot be mandated or directed from the top down. A reflection written on a mobile whiteboard in his office in the new Center for Character and Leadership Development illustrates his approach to helping craft this new definition: “Culture forms like a web, not a pyramid.”

While not the only source for a current definition, Samuel Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State” has long been read by Academy cadets. Widely held perceptions of the profession of arms from the late 1950s to the present have been strongly shaped by Huntington’s book, which focuses, in part, on the use of force to protect one’s own nation-state from others.

Miller says today’s profession of arms is more nuanced, more inclusive and more complex.

“We have seen a proliferation of adversaries and a proliferation of domains to contest them. We have seen a diversification of the kinds of actors in our society who contest in those domains, including DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and other three-letter agencies, the private sector, hackers,” he says. “The complexity of the warfare environment is far greater, and the complexion of the national response and organization is more complex. We’re really trying to update our conceptions of the profession of arms so we understand what truly constitutes the profession and how it should interact with civil authority.”

One only has to compare military conflicts of the 1950s with those of today to understand Miller’s point. The wars in the mid-20th century were contests of countries, fought with infantries, cavalries, artilleries, ships and airplanes.

Today’s conflicts involve all of the traditional means, plus remotely piloted aircraft as well as cyber and space warriors, yet they are operating in a warfare system based on earlier definitions of war and warriors.

“The question for the Academy is, given the very complex warfare environment — from invisible threats to thermonuclear war, all of which we need to successfully master — what do we need to do to think clearly about that environment and to prepare people to think about that environment?” Miller says.

Getting started

The creation of the Johnson Chair was the inspiration of Dr. Erv Rokke ’62. A retired lieutenant general who has served as president of National Defense University and Moravian College as well as dean of the faculty at the Air Force Academy, Rokke has a background in international relations and intelligence. He has most recently been working as part of the team at the Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development.

He has forcefully argued that the Academy continues to do well at building leaders who exemplify integrity and service, but that its leaders need to think deeply about what it takes to achieve excellence in an increasingly complex and non-linear world. A study of the modern profession of arms was first on his list of important explorations.

As a starting point, Miller has drafted a paper titled “Examining the Profession of Arms,” which lays out areas that are ripe for clarification and interpretation, such as the notion of responsibility, corporateness, and a unifying competence. The paper ends with a compelling argument for the Johnson Chair’s work:

“Without a robust, resonant and unifying modern concept of the profession of arms, it is harder for individuals to identify their work as a profession, and harder for the profession to maintain coherence and attract, develop and employ those most capable of defending society. It is also harder for the American military profession and its civilian masters to sustain an agile, durable relationship that merits trust from both partners and which consistently produces timely and effective national security decision-making in a dynamic and dangerous future.”

Miller has wholeheartedly embraced his mission.

“I feel very strongly our national security depends on us getting this kind of thing right. We don’t need to take 20th century conception into the 21st century. We’re a target for many, many hostile players. If we don’t organize ourselves properly and think of ourselves properly as we prepare for the inevitable and constant contests, we run the risk of losing some or all of our way of life,” Miller says.

Other perspectives

The study of the profession of arms can take many turns. Miller and other researchers can define shared sacrifice for airmen across all functions. They can attempt to show how cyber warfighters fit into the concept of wingmen when they may be working alone.

To be sure, the topic of the profession of arms is studied at many other institutions. The New America Foundation, among its many programs, is studying the future of war.

The Modern War Institute at West Point focuses on new knowledge for the profession of arms.

There’s also the Institute for the Study of War, the Air Force’s Profession of Arms Center of Excellence, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, and the Naval Education and Training Professional Development Center.

Miller’s — and the Air Force Academy’s — perspective is focused less on the future of the profession’s relationship with civil society and more on the essence of the profession and the outcomes it wishes to effect.

“The wisdom of those who established this chair is in recognizing we need to look more inwardly, at who we are as a profession and what the right professional ethos looks like in this century. I’m taking the changes in the environment as the starting point and looking at the profession itself,” he says. “What can enhance or degrade cohesion? What can enhance or degrade esprit? What can enhance or degrade effectiveness in the national security competition with potentially serious consequences?”

To fully define the profession of arms, Miller says he has been starting with books and casting a wide net. His focus is on identifying the right questions to research and building bridges with other experts in the field. He has reached out to Air Force leaders as well as leaders in the other military branches.

As his definition takes shape, he plans to write articles and a book that can shed new light on the ideas in Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State.” He plans lectures and seminars and other speaking engagements to spread the word. And he wants to spark a conversation among senior Department of Defense leaders and the civilians they work with and for in Washington, D.C., on the key issues that warrant their consideration.

What hasn't changed

In all of his discussions about defining the professions of arms, Miller says not everything has changed. The fundamental concepts of service and sacrifice remain an important part of the definition. As he emphasizes, this is an “and” not an “or” challenge.

“The willingness of airmen, Marines, soldiers and sailors to sacrifice time, life and other pursuits — and the importance of the burdens on their families in defending our nation — will not change,” Miller says. “Our core values don’t change. But their application may, and already does, look very different in some settings. The heritage we have as defenders of our nation doesn’t change, it just gets richer.”

To get to the end product — a definition of the profession of arms that aligns with the hard realities of our era, guides our thinking clearly, and strengthens the teams of teams needed to win complex conflicts — Miller has many more months of research, dialogue and refinement ahead of him. His work will inevitably focus on the effects the country needs to create as it opposes adversaries and defends its interests.

“One of the concerns I have is that effects are inherently less tangible and more ephemeral than things,” he says. “It’s really easy to identify with your airplane, your carrier, your platoon, with your tank. To see the tool you use as kind of a part of your professional identity. To see and feel heroism in lethal combat and to appreciate it in those who sacrifice. It’s much harder to see the effects you create, as part of a very diverse team, as your purpose and inspiration to do what you do.

“The ability of our nation to weave these things together in a sophisticated way to fight a complex set of adversaries, that’s what’s going to be important for the future.”


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