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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Why Teaching Defense Statecraft Matters

M1 Abrams Tanks for Ukraine?
An M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, fires its main gun at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Dec. 2, 2020.

This semester I will teach Defense Statecraft for the 17th time, having skipped out on the course only once since I joined the faculty at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce

Much has changed in the study of defense statecraft in the last year, largely due to the lessons learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But what if we take a longer time horizon?  How has the teaching of defense statecraft (and similar national security courses) changed over the past two decades? The question matters, because the way that we teach conflict is fundamental to public literacy about war. In the midst of the latest debate about sending tanks to Ukraine, knowing what a tank is and what it does is surely important to the deliberations of a democratic public. 

The World Has Changed?

It is undeniably fascinating to teach a class on defense statecraft during the middle of a war; every engagement of every battle seems to offer grist for the mill. In 2005, the United States had been at war in Afghanistan for four years, and in Iraq for two. The U.S. remained at war in Iraq until 2011 and re-engaged in the 2014-15 fight against ISIS. The U.S. remained at war in Afghanistan until 2021, albeit at a low level of intensity.

Nevertheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine feels like something new, or perhaps like something old that we have not seen in a great while. Apart from the first few weeks of each, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were counter-insurgency affairs, deadly and destructive but of a scope fundamentally different from the grand battles of maneuver and attrition that we have seen in Ukraine. My courses never skimped on discussions of traditional ground combat, but student engagement on combined arms maneuver, the role of artillery, and similar topics sometimes waned because of a perception that the character of war had changed. Counter-insurgency is still in the syllabus, but we no longer treat it at the same depth as 2007 or 2008, and it has ceded space to an in-depth discussion of special forces. 

With respect to other domains, seapower, airpower, and nuclear weapons remain on the syllabus, although the readings and to some extent the focus have changed. The growth of China’s navy and air force have changed the salience of air and naval combat, with more attention on how high-end air and naval forces might fight one another, rather than how they conduct campaigns in support of expeditionary warfare. Space has yet to earn its own week, but it probably will in the next year. 

On the institutional side of the syllabus (usually about one-third of the class), the general structure remains the same, but the readings have been updated. The Goldwater-Nichols Act is no longer in the recent past, but the creation of the U.S. Space Force most certainly is. I have added material on the international arms trade and the defense industrial base as my own academic interests have developed. 

The Material Has Changed

The universe of material available for national security instruction has also changed. In 2005, internet materials were readily available but were harder for students to access because of both interface and content. Students no longer xerox chapters or articles behind the JSTOR paywall, and on-topic work is often easier to find and share. Moreover, the proliferation of online journals, supported by the work of think tanks and similar organizations, has made it considerably easier to assemble a syllabus on issues of defense statecraft today than in 2005. In particular, the high level of work available from outlets such as Foreign Policy and Ryan Evans’ War on the Rocks have distilled much of the best work that emerged from the old national security blogosphere, offering consistently excellent analysis across a wide spectrum of military questions. These outlets and others (including the Diplomat, the National Interest, and 1945) have also opened up space for female, minority, and international authors to be heard in national security conversations. The style of the conversation has also changed, with work tending to favor a more conversational and less academic tone that anyone other than a political science graduate student would prefer. 

I Have Changed

As you would expect, my own approach to the material has changed considerably in the last 17 years. I was trained as an academic political scientist at the University of Washington, with few connections to public policy relative to Ph.Ds produced in northeastern or mid-Atlantic schools.

Learning how to teach defense issues to policy-oriented MA students, an audience much different from academically oriented graduate students or advanced undergraduates, was an intense process for several years, and the lessons continue in some form to this day. A year of teaching at the Army War College made some gaps in my presentation apparent, while confirming that other aspects of the course made sense.

Teaching contemporary material is a critical but sometimes difficult obligation of someone who works at a public university. Keeping syllabi modern and keeping students engaged is often challenging. However, when done appropriately, it represents one of the most rewarding aspects of a job in higher education.

Graduating students who understand how the institutions of national security work represent a small but important contribution to maintaining an informed public capable that can understand complex military and defense questions. 

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Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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  1. Tomb

    January 25, 2023 at 6:03 pm

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