The Intellectual Senior Non-Commissioned Officer

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“There is a lack of consciousness of the importance of professional education in many members of the Army, and consequently it has a lower ‘value proposition’ for most members”.

– Brigadier Mick Ryan, 2016

Mastery in the profession of arms instils a culture and a habit of persistent learning and of cognitive curiosity. In 2019 the Department of Defence, through its sponsor the Australian Defence College (ADC), released the Australian Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) Continuum. Although this continuum is directed at developing mastery in the profession of arms for all Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel, its primary target is officers and their development across all the ranks. 

A similar continuum that is focused on the intellectual development of the senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO) (using this as a catchall term to include tri-service ranks from E6-E8) does not exist. This article’s purpose is not to criticise the training continuums within the ADF, but rather to emphasise the importance of JPME; in particular, the demand for greater intellectual capacity that is being placed on the ADF’s SNCOs in today’s complex battlespace.

The number of officers in the ADF that have tertiary education is growing rapidly, and it has become necessary for career progression. Anecdotally, in a recent conversation with a Commanding Officer they mentioned that it’s getting to the point that without a double master’s degree you would not be considered for command positions beyond O5. 

This demand for greater intellectual leaders is a by-product of the ADF we have become, and the need to remain a current and credible combat force. The challenge that has manifested now is the ‘education gap’ between the commander and their SNCO. 

The organisation risks fracturing this foundational bond. 

The command team relationship is built on trust; and the SNCO develops trust through the credibility of the technical and tactical advice they provide when required or when sought after. With the ‘education gap’ increasing, SNCOs face the risk of losing credibility when poor advice is provided that stems from a lack of current and relevant education. 

The ADF does offer opportunities for all ranks to conduct tertiary education with financial assistance, but it’s mainly conducted by distance and done outside of work hours. This method of learning does not suit all. I am not suggesting that SNCOs need to get tertiary education to close the knowledge gap, I am merely encouraging SNCOs to read and write in order to increase their knowledge. 

This can be reading about current affairs and staying up-to-date with technology, capability, changes in security and strategic policy, geopolitics, engaging in JPME and even writing opinion or discussion articles. Sharing what you know by writing is a proven way to increase your knowledge on the chosen topic and generate discussion at the same time.

In 2017, I wrote an article about the conduct of Tactical Exercises Without Troops and how I believed we could do it better. I utilised my experience and observations from nearly 20 years of service in the Australian Army. I considered myself qualified to speak on this topic and received both positive and negative feedback. 

I was apprehensive about having my opinion published for the world see; for the world to criticise. When I received negative feedback, I wondered ‘who are these people telling me that I am wrong, or disagreeing with my knowledge and experience?’ I focused on trying to counter argue when in hindsight I should have embraced and accepted the criticism as an opportunity to improve. After this experience, I was hungry for more and seized an opportunity to join the team at Grounded Curiosity (GC). 

My role as an Associate Editor is to advocate for SNCO PME. To date this has been an extremely difficult task and I have often wondered why SNCOs are so reluctant to write and be published. Only recently, due to posting, I have been encouraging Trainee Officers (TO) to write articles for GC and I have had a lot of interest. 

This enthusiasm stands in stark contrast with my peers who, like I was at the start of my writing journey, are apprehensive about receiving criticism in an area where they are subject-matter-experts; and apprehensive about how their peers and superiors will perceive them. 

The TO, on the other hand, is still learning their craft but craves the feedback their writing generates as a key input to their education. Feedback arms the author with the knowledge to problem solve during times of uncertainty and to communicate solutions effectively 

With the introduction of The Forge to Australia’s PME landscape, all ranks, but especially SNCOs, have at their fingertips the resources to educate themselves on what is being discussed. Units across the ADF can tap into the content and use the current and relevant information to enhance their training continuums. 

Units will traditionally be conducting trade specific training at this time of year which primarily focuses upon individual and crew level skills. It is at this time that command teams can train together using the JPME continuum resources and enhance training outcomes. For example, using content focused upon autonomous systems and how they affect the battlespace from The Forge’s Core Study Areas. This knowledge would enhance training during a small team or sub-unit activity and increase the command team’s knowledge for current and future operations. 

The greatest difficulty with upskilling in JPME is when and how to start. Once you open yourself up to the world of education and begin sharing your thoughts on a global platform, you will reap the benefits professionally and do your part in closing the ‘education gap’ and helping command teams develop the ‘intellectual edge’. 

SNCOs must keep up with the changing dynamics of the modern battlespace and the stakeholders within. I do not mean get multiple master’s degrees, but challenge yourself to read about the present and the future. History is important, but increase your credibility and arm yourself with the knowledge that’s needed to contribute to your organisation now and, more importantly, do our core job which is mentoring junior officers and providing advice to commanders. 

About the Author: Chris Sharp is a Squadron Sergeant Major at the Officer Training College with in the Australian Defence Force Academy. He has been an Associate Editor with Grounded Curiosity since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter via the handle @SHARP_CR.