The Army’s venerable Reserve Officer Training Corps program is finally getting rebooted.
Some 78 percent of the officers commissioned by the Army last year came through the ROTC program, but in recent years the program has been shrinking. The number of ROTC host universities with a Professor of Military Science has dropped from about 450 to 273 (though ROTC programs draw from students at an additional 1,300 schools). This has resulted in new officers coming from a narrowing cross section of America. “Nearly half of all Army recruits come from military families,” observed the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller in the Wall Street Journal in 2010. “Southerners disproportionately populate all branches, while the middle-class suburbs surrounding the nation’s largest cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia—produce relatively few service members.”
For years, Schmitt and Miller have been warning about the decline of ROTC, and at an AEI forum this morning Major General Jefforey A. Smith was quick to credit the two experts for drawing attention to the problem. Smith is the commanding general of U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, and has spent the last few years conducting a “holistic review” of the ROTC program. While ROTC has been hitting its recruitment goals, the program faces significant demographic challenges. “Making the numbers is not all we need to do—we need diversity,” he said. Indeed, Smith notes that the specific reason for creating the ROTC program was to “ensure that our officers were reflective of the nation, and not one elite group or military arm.”
In addition to the lack of geographic diversity, the narrowing pool of ROTC recruits has also resulted in a lack of diverse academic backgrounds among new Army officers. In response to that problem Smith has made an aggressive push to expand ROTC in areas likely to increase diversity, such as Chicago, New York, and Southern Florida. The program is also expanding and benefiting from the recent death of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which was the source of politically correct resistance to ROTC programs on a number of high-profile college campuses.
But Smith told the crowd at AEI that the challenges of fixing ROTC go beyond the diversity problem. Upon taking command, of ROTC, Smith observed that the “program we have in place today is exactly the same program I went through between 1980 and 1983 at The Ohio State University,” despite the fact the challenges facing the Army today are radically different than the Cold War era. Smith is now fully engaged in “the process of totally rewriting the [ROTC] curriculum for all four years.”
One key challenge ROTC has been forced to address is “changes in learning science,” Smith said. The general noted that today’s teachers rely more on behavioral teaching methods, rather than more traditional socratic methods of instruction. Smith was being tactful, but the implication was that the Army would have to compensate for the decline in rigorous academic standards at American universities by enforcing higher standards and expectations in ROTC. Smith also spoke of incorporating new technologies to enhance learning in ROTC programs, though he was quick to add that technology was “not a solution” in and of itself.
Another significant change includes instituting a four week course on basic soldiering skills between freshman and sophomore years. This was done because they felt these skills weren’t emphasized enough. “By pulling that off campus, it allows them to increase academic rigor,” Smith said.
More generally, ROTC is working to integrate more practical military training into the program. The current military landscape is exceptionally demanding or young officers. In the past, ROTC programs might have given young officers training barely above squad level. With Afghanistan dragging out to be the longest military conflict in U.S. history, it’s not uncommon for newly commissioned officers to be deploying to war zones within a year. “When a lieutenant shows up, they walk right into a 36 to 42 person platoon,” said Smith. Making matters worse, the decentralized nature of the war on terror puts tremendous pressure and responsibility on young officers. Being deployed in isolated regions of Afghanistan means that lieutenants are making important battlefield decisions that would have been made by “lieutenant colonels and colonels 20 years ago,” said Smith.
To that end, Cadets are now being assigned to an operational unit between their junior and senior years, and the ROTC program is consolidating all of its capstone training programs into a single location—12,000 cadets will converge on Ft. Knox between May and June. That way, the ROTC’s resources aren’t spread thin and the Army can exercise more care in observing and training cadets.
All in all, the changes have been reviewed quite positively. “I don’t think we’ve made this kind of substantial change [to ROTC] in over 40,” years,” General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, told the crowd at AEI. However, after beginning the overhaul of the ROTC program, Smith will soon be deployed to Afghanistan. His predecessor will have to follow through on his efforts, and the Army can’t afford to once again neglect the ROTC program. “If we don’t figure this out,” Smith said, “I think we’ll have a problem three to five years from now.”
UPDATE—Army public affairs emails to clarify regarding the discussion of acadmic standards. "The Commanding General was not talking about the universities' standards, but our [ROTC] standards for academics."