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Let’s Close All The Service Academies

And while we’re at it, let’s close the War Colleges as well.

That’s the prescription the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks puts out today as a great way to save federal funds.  Why is it the ideas these guy’s come up with to trim the federal budget are always aimed at the military and never at entitlements and the like.

Anyway, here’s what Ricks proposes:

Want to trim the federal budget and improve the military at the same time? Shut down West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and use some of the savings to expand ROTC scholarships.

After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I’ve concluded that graduates of the service academies don’t stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I’ve been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.

Now, I’ll admit it’s been a while but I’m sure the dynamic is pretty much the same now as it was when I was in.

I was an ROTC grad. Anyone who believes I was as well prepared as a West Point grad to function at the same level as them doesn’t know what they’re talking about. In today’s parlance, the West Pointers were “shovel ready” while most of us ROTC grads hadn’t even begun the bid process yet.

Of course I’m talking about my initial entry into the Army as a 2LT (of course our NCOs thought none of us were worth a crap). I had a good idea of what to expect, what was expected of me and what I’d experience, but I was far behind my West Point peers in real actual experience.

In fact, as I observed it, at company grade (the ranks 2LT, 1LT and CPT are considered “company grade” ranks), the West Point grad and the OCS grad were usually the best officers (and with obvious exceptions, I felt most of the OCS grads were a touch better than the WP guys) while the ROTC guys were playing catch-up. Around the 5 year mark, at the rank of CPT, everyone was pretty much even.
Again, these are my observations, but as we moved into the field grade ranks (the ranks MAJ, LTC and COL are “field grade” ranks), the ROTC and West Pointers began to pull away from the OCS grads. However, at both levels, West Pointers were right there among the best because they’d been taught and taught pretty well to function at both levels.

So I don’t buy this fellow’s two-year informal study at all.

I mean think about it – I went to one drill a week, not a number off them daily. And, in advanced ROTC, I went to ROTC classes three times a week. If you believe that schedule can compete with 4 years of being steeped in the military culture, visiting various military posts and schools, lectures from leaders in your field and having real, actual leadership and command responsibility during that time, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn in which you’d be interested. Not even close.

Ricks’ tries the usual academic elitist argument as well:

They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they’re getting community-college educations. Although West Point’s history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point’s faculty lacks doctorates.

Of course, as regulars here have had the opportunity to discover, PhD’s aren’t all they’re cracked up to be as the one who roams the comment section here demonstrates almost daily. Obviously the “intellectual firepower” Ricks notes would seem to be a fairly important to a school of that type. I don’t remember any of the schools with ROTC adding to that process of rethinking our strategy in Iraq.

That’s because you’ll find some of our finest military minds teaching at West Point. They’re also immersed in a culture that inspires and promotes that sort of thinking. What they bring to those schools can’t be bestowed by any sheepskin. Many of them are serving officers who come from a stint in the field to the classroom where they bring a freshness to their teaching which is utterly unlike the stale academic atmosphere found in most traditional institutions of higher learning.

Lastly, the comparison to a community college education is pretty ignorant because it ignores the purpose of the service academies. They do what they are there to do and do it well. And I have never heard an academy grad complain about his or her education. Their ability to earn advanced degrees at elite civilian universities seems to argue that it is much more than the level of a community college (unless we now have community college grands routinely headed to Harvard, Yale and Princeton as WP grads do).

I’d apply the same arguments to the War colleges. They’re there to serve a part of a very important process – to provide the transition from field command to higher command and staff positions involving policy, strategy and international relations for the brightest and best. They’re very selective. They also provide the next generation of the nation’s senior leaders the opportunity to begin networking among those with whom they’ll most likely be serving as general officers.

So, as you might imagine, I find Ricks conclusions based in some fairly poor assumptions based in conversations instead of any real experience. Not that such conclusions are surprising anymore – we’re no longer strangers to journalists who think a couple of years and a couple of conversations somehow bestow a depth of knowledge about a subject which is simply irrefutable.

Personally, I’d much rather Ricks take a look at the massive waste to be found in most of the rest federal government’s spending and tell us why it’s involved in programs that build museums for Liberace, bailing out failing car companies, or paying to research the mating habit of wombats, or sea slugs, or whatever.

Who knows, he might actually know something about those subjects.  If we’ve got to get rid of something, I personally think this is a good idea.


22 Responses to Let’s Close All The Service Academies

  • I want to move the discussion down one notch to high school ROTC. Does he or doesn’t he believe in having ROTC as an elective course in every high school is a bad or good thing?

    I hate officers (respect a few). They know more then me which ticks me off to know end. The thing is when an officer needs something important done they don’t go ask another officer to do it.

    I have been able to over come obstacles in my life. ROTC in high school helped me on that journey. It wasn’t the deciding factor but it sure as heck helped along the way. I remember the marching drills. I remember the first time the town got together in a parade and we ROTC marched past a general (I was a squad leader and the one in front of me turned head and saluted. Squad leaders shouldn’t do that). For him to tell me, a man who has to follow the orders of the Chain of Command that my leaders tho younger then myself are not the best we can make….F him.

  • I heard this President, as many before him,  promise in his Oath of Office, to “protect and defend the United States.”  To provide for Defense is the executive’s preeminent duty.  There is nothing in his oath to provide free health care, a nothing-down home loan for every citizen or immigrant of any status, a 52″ tv for every kid, internet for every school child, a library for every town, free college education for every young adult, a shovel ready job, dog parks, water slides, or even a check for every oldish person,  like me, in their dotage.

    Seems to me, when it comes to cutting corners, the Service Academies are the absolutely wrong  place to slice.   Eh…what do I know?

  • I started my active duty Air force career at Pilot School.  I was in an 01 Class, which meant generally the other lieutenants I was competing with were for the most part academy types (“Zoomies” as they are referred to in the AF).  And even though I had my own private pilot’s license I was years behind the worst of the Zooms.  Why?  For the same reason McQ points out, I was competing with young men (women came later) who had been emersed in the culture of military flying for the past four years – four full 12-month years – not two semesters per year and then a summer break.  Members of the Academy enlist in the military with their entrance into their respective Academy.  For most, the first time they get any time off is for a short Christmas break their sophomore year.  Altogether they get approximately 12 weeks off in the four yearsw they are at the Academy.  Additionally, your average College academic load is 15-16 hours per semester. You had to have special permission to take 18 hours a semester and you were never authorized to take 20.  For the Academies, 20-22 semester hours or their equivilent is an average academic load.

    To this day, I joke with my Zoomie friends that they were deprived of a college education.  It is a joke that only someone who has served with people from that type of culture can understand.  The only negative thing I can say that is detrimental about an Academy education was the cynical attitude adopted by many graduates.  And the very same ones who have this attitude will admit that it is a problem they have, not a problem with the academy.  They have spent four hard years learning about the way the military is supposed to run – and when faced with the realities of service, become cynical and soon leave the service – bitter not for the education they had received but because they could not rectify the school military with the real one.

    As for Thomas Rick’s post, it is typical of a civilian mindset addressing a military education.  He forgets that most of the classes in your average community college or state university is taught by graduate assistants who are Masters or PhD candidates themselves.  And as far as how Academy graduate “stands out” all he has to do is look at the general officers in each of the militaries.  The per capita academy representation in flag positions far outstrips the per capita ROTC or OCS types.  And lastly, the service academies provide a specific sevice to the country – young men and women ready to serve as officers in their respective military service.  And in that sense they do a job that no college or university, regardless of stature, is positioned or structured to do.

  • If Ricks were intelligent and interested in cutting spending,  the Department of Education would be a great place to start.  Before Carter created the DOE as a payback to the teachers’ unions, the nation got along fine without it.  Let’s get rid of it.  Of course, I know this will never happen, and the DOE will continue to function as an indoctrination engine to keep our children parroting the leftist party line.   I pay hefty property taxes to fund my school district at the local level.   Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government should be telling the states how to run education?    Also, after listening to the nonsensical blather of supposedly educated teachers at an extended family get-together, I believe Ricks has a lot of nerve criticizing the abilites of war college grads.

    DOE gets billions and billions of taxpayer dollars.   I’d bet 50% of it is wasted or stolen.   If we can’t eliminate the DOE, let’s audit it and see where the money is going.

    Let’s move on to the Department of Energy.  Hmm…what have they done since its inception?   I put some solar panels on my roof.   I have done more on a per-capita basis to solve energy problems than the Department of Energy.  Let’s get rid of it.   Oh, right, government agencies are like herpes…don’t want it, can’t get rid of it.   Then let’s audit them and see where the money is going.   Bet you couldn’t find out if you tried.

    As usual, leftists want to cut the military, but you never hear a word about cutting or reorganizing any of the liberal spending machines.

    I watched Obama and McCain during the debates and shook my head in quiet despair.   Both of them are clueless on the economy, but Obama is clueless and dangerous.

    One last note:   “Janet Napolitano–back up your ‘facts’ or resign.”


  • Hmmm.  I guess to save money they would need to shut down these huge drains on the budget.  We could ‘t possibly think of ANY other areas of the government to cut instead.  It ‘s like the with cities.  When they have to cut the budget they always say the police and firemen have to be sacrificed.  But we can never touch the multi-culturalism offices.

  • West Point FAILS in its primary mission, to provide long-term professional leadership to the US Army.  It provides no more field grade officers than ROTC.  The idea of West Point was to provide the long-term 15-30 year career…they don’t.  So unless West Point can change this OR provide an alternative mission I think it is rightly vulnerable to closure.

    ROTC makes the VST majority of officers within the ranks…the Army does very well, even though the “les sprepared” officers are in the pipeline…because your OBC makes you prepared.  Not your West Point training….

    Further, it has been my anecdotal experience, from serving NCO’s and officers (admittedly ROTC officers) that Ring Knockers have the greatest culture shcok in meeting the “Real Army” as compared to the Not-So Real Army of West Point.  The Real Army is a bunc of folks who are kin the Army for a host of reasons, and may or may not be very motivated…they may or may not consider themselves an “elite.”  It’s a different world than West Point.

    Were I running the Army I’d cut West Point and emphasize Officer Candidate Schools, myself.

    • What percentage of those ROTC graduates come from  schools like The Citadel  which are just as steeped in the military culture and tradition as the service academies?

  • I attended a military Junior college for my ROTC (advanced ROTC) training and then finished Bachelor’s at a ‘standard’ 4 year institution.

    The military Junior college prepared me for the drill and ceremony part of Army life; the OBC prepared me for my job as a 2LT.  Real Army life was nothing like the ROTC, even at a military college, and I suspect the same would be true for Academy grads.

    Perhaps the Academies are at the wrong level?  Maybe they should be Master’s Degree schools concentrating in History, Political Science etc rather than engineering.  Certainly the military needs technical and non technical disciplines within the Officer Corps, but perhaps Academy training should be focused upon leading and managing their respective Service Force in total.

    Certainly the Academies were established to provide a career oriented, professional Officer Corps.  To the extant they do that, they are a success. To the extant they fail to do that, in other words produce career officers, they are a failure.  I don’t know that the statistics show.

    However, to assume, as Rick’s seems to, that all future conflicts will be the type in which General Petraeus skills excel, ie insurgency etc, is a recipe for disaster. Since Petreaus has not commanded in a more ‘conventional’ large scale type conflict, we do not know what his PHD from Princeton means, if anything.  Elite Universites are just a repleat with the type of group think Rick’s warns against as our the Service Academies.

    The real crucible is combat.  No Service Academy, ROTC, OCS etc can prepare for that.

  • McQ: I am agnostic on Ricks’  suggestion, as I am too ignorant on things military to hold out an opinion. However, when I watched the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” based on the true story of  real WWII soldiers and officers (which series in turn was based on the book interviewing surviving soldiers from Easy Company), the West Pointer came of as totally clueless in contrast to the battle-experienced enlistees. Do you think there is any truth to that?

    I do not mean that argumentatively, I really don’t know.

    • Everybody is clueless their first days, not just West Pointers.  There is always a big adjustment to be made when theory is put into practice. This is even true in civilian life. Would you want to go to a doctor right out of medical school? Or a lawyer right out of law school?

      • I might in fact want a freshly graduated doctor, mainly because they would have the most up-top-date information, and the internship probably gave them a lot of experience anyways. Which is sort of an argument for the service academies.

    • There are good and bad in every class, Mona, and he was one of the bad ones. Some of the best officers you’ll ever see come from WP. The fact that the particular unit in BoB was saddled with a relative loser doesn’t mean that ‘s what the school turns out as a rule. Most figure out how it works rather quickly and do very well. They’re certainly given much more of a solid foundation from which to excel in the job than I was in ROTC.

      Ricks ignores all the intangibles at the school to concentrate on cost and the qualifications of the instructors. Not particularly persuasive metrics by which to judge the school if you’ve ever been there and seen what it is all about.

      • Thanks everyone for your input. I will say when I first encountered Ricks’ suggestion to close WP my reflexive reaction was negative. But as I said, my knowledge of what it takes to make good soldiers, sailors and officers is negligible.

  • It is funny to me that the Department of Defense is always where some people look first to cut spending. It is ironic insofar as defense is one of the few and the foremost legitimate purposes of a federal government in a free nation. It reminds me of BRAC, which always results in the closing of Army bases (always Army bases, because the other branches have too much political clout), and always ends up costing money, never saving it.

    Having said that, Ricks doesn’t give anything more than anecdotal “evidence” of anything. Who are these people who support his reasoning, the “some commanders” that prefer ROTC officers over Academy officers? The only hard “fact” that he provides is the cost (“$300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student”), which is arguable since it is interpretive and extrapolated.

    There is a very good reason why, on average, an ROTC education is cheaper than an Academy education. It is because, on average, the education is worse. To suggest that every ROTC graduate receives an education that is superior to, or even anywhere approaching on par with, an Academy education is idiotic, plain and simple. There are, literally, hundreds of college ROTC programs. Not to disparage any particular institution, but does anyone actually believe that an education from the University of Bridgeport or San Diego State University is on par with one from West Point? USMA, USNA, and USAFA are routinely in U.S. News’ top ten rankings for engineering fields, to give one example. To say that West Pointers or other Academy graduates are “poorly educated” is profoundly stupid. In the military, many people favorably compare an Academy education with an Ivy League one for good reason.

    I served with many other ROTC graduates, OCS graduates, and several West Pointers. I was commissioned through ROTC at a very prestigious public university, but I wouldn’t attempt to compare my education, either the civil or military aspect, to that of an Academy graduate. From firsthand experience, I can think of one bad officer from West Point, but most of them were excellent, and a couple were decent.

  • I wrote an essay in college in which I outlined why it was important that the military have officers from the three different sources; Academies, ROTC, & OCS.  The basic thesis was that different motivations existed for choosing each path, and officers coming from each path brought different perspectives and experiences that would tend to be unique to the chosen path.  The end result is better balance of life perspective and immersion into the military ethos than could be gained by utilizing any single source. As a Navy ROTC grad and recent retiree after 20 years of service, I still believe that is the best approach. 

    In practice it is OCS that is closest to going away.  It has been cut back over the last 20 years to the point that OCS officers, at least in the Navy, are few and far between.  I don’t know the numbers, but that is my experience.  Part of the problem is the overhead cost of running an OCS program, as well as the recruiting burden and associated costs in effort and manpower.

    One other perspective on the academies is to look at it like maintaining our industrial base.  These schools provide unique training and expertise that does not exist elsewhere.  It would be nearly impossible, and hugely expensive to regenerate that capability at some future date when world events don’t turn out just as some people may hope.

  • As a former NCO, I heard quite a bit about “Ring Knockers” and their faults.  However, I would NEVER suggest that the service academies be closed.

    Frankly, this isn’t about saving money or even making better officers: it’s about a sort of reflexive contempt for and even hatred of the military that can be commonly found among lefties, who of course dominate MiniTru.  We’ve seen in for years in MiniTru stories about how the military draws on ignorant, poor men and women to fill its ranks, how military programs are ALWAYS overbudget and don’t produce good equipment, how high suicide rates are in the Armed Forces, etc.  These stories are seldom if ever motivated by a desire to improve the military; they are uniformly critical and almost always written by people whose sole military “experience” is tagging along with an infantry platoon for a couple of hours.  Talk about “shake and bake” experts!

    Get ready for a lot more of this sort of drivel.  Anybody remember during the Clinton administration when there was a lot of talk about “saving money” by eliminating the Marine Corps?

    (1)  I recall stories about how the M-1 Abrams program was a boondoggle, how it wasn’t a good tank, how inferior it was to its Soviet counterparts, etc.  O’ course, we know after actual combat experience that it is a SUPERB tank, one of the very best in history.  Similar things were written about the Bradley, the B-2 bomber, etc.

  • What if Ricks is wrong?  We’ll probably find out by losing a war.  It might not end the nation as we know it, but that’s not a risk I’m prepared to accept.

    Just shut down the Department of Education.  That will save a lot of money, and might improve things.  After all, education was better before the Departmen of Education existed.

  • We really are re-living the 70s. This was an argument made by some back in the dark days of VOLAR (post Vietnam). IE, ROTC was a more “efficient” way to recruit commissioned officers. That was in spite of the rather obvious elephant in the room, ROTC participating had collapsed. Granted, in part that was driven by the abandonment of mandatory participation for freshmen and sophomores at land grant colleges, but I can remember sitting in a room reviewing ROTC enrollment sometime in the early 1980s and seeing that my year group, 1978, was the trough of ROTC enrollment.If I remember correctly, something like 50% of the year group was appointed in the Regular Army and 75% of the total commission reported for active duty. Academy enrollment, on the other hand had been managed down to align graduates with the expected needs of the services. That sounds like a feature, not a bug.

    It should be obvious that the academies are more expensive. Just look at the overhead required. What Ricks fails to realize is that you could likely not duplicate the number of total accessions with a massive scholarship program. First, the base does not exist. Many ROTC programs are barely making their numbers, even after the significant consolidation of the 80s and poorly executed expansion of the 90s. How exactly are we going to recruit people of the caliber that go to the academies to attend school at Texas State University? How large can we grow the ROTC program at Princeton before it becomes unmanageable?

    I’m all for increasing scholarships, I just don’t see it as a practical solution. And I see a lot of downsides to it.

    As people wrote above, if you are looking for ways to reduce federal spending there are more lucrative places to start. You might even call the federal budget a “target rich environment”.

    Besides, not to worry. How likely is it that Congressman Jones from East Jehosophat is going to give up his service academy appointments. Having lived in a small southern county, I can assure you that academy appointments were highly prized. So much so that many Congressman and Senators personally attended high school graduations (attended  by VOTERS) to endow the appointment.

  • Get ready for a lot more of this sort of drivel.  Anybody remember during the Clinton administration when there was a lot of talk about “saving money” by eliminating the Marine Corps?

    I remember when Clinton apologized for the USA involvement in the crusades.

    That was supposed to fix every thing.

  • I’m asthmatic. I never had the chance to attend a War College.

    I could only go to a public university.

    Asthma probably wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t attend a War College, but my personal failures shouldn’t be the reason to deny more capable others to do what I couldn’t.

    Thankfully, I’m not as intellectually impaired as is Ricks.

  • I don’t agree with this Ricks idiot, but it’s a mixed bag when it comes to JOs.  Officers are good, bad, and some are great, wherever they recieved their education.  I will say that the Ring Knockers, like all JOs, seem to have real problems when they first arrive.  They can’t get their heads around the fact that a troop with any experience is more interested in results than in having everything “just so” and in perfect accordance with some pub.  As long as there is no descent into gundecking and cheating, a good troop just wants to do his job with a minimum of unneccesary rework and pointless “tweaking.”  Many, but not all, Ring Knockers seem to be a bit slower in making this mental leap than other JOs.  A smart O1 will let his senior enlisted run the show and try to learn more, while still keeping his eyes peeled for trouble.  You can find smart O1’s from any educational background.
    However, most of the truly exceptional officers are from a service academy.  They are very rare, but they are the guys with the right combination of dedication, patriotism, and the humility to realize that their education only marginally preapred them for real service.  While they spent years preparing for military life, they still respect the greater experience of both their seniors and their subordinates.  Any command is lucky to obtain such an exceptional O1, and I thank the service academies for producing them, however rarely they may crop up.  Even if you only get 1 out of 1000, they make the academies worth every penny.

  • The last time this subject came up in Congress, I believe debate promptly ended once this statement was made:

    “The only person who ever tried to sell West Point was Benedict Arnold.”