June 2015

The SAW Experience

Taking up the challenge
Volume 99, Issue 6

LtCol Karl C. Rohr

James H. Anderson
SAW students on a European staff ride.
Photo provided by MCU.

The Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW) produces officers who fill high visibility, high impact plans billets in the Operating Forces and Supporting Establishment. The school has been in existence for 25 years but remains virtually unknown to many. Prospective students wonder what it takes to be selected and to succeed in a program that opens the door to challenging and rewarding professional opportunities. This article seeks to illuminate the school’s purpose, teaching methodology, and recruiting procedures. The aim is to encourage more Marines to compete to attend and become one of the Corps’ lead planners.


SAW develops lead planners and future commanders with the will and intellect to solve complex problems, employ operational art, and design/execute campaigns. The smallest of Marine Corps University’s resident schools is best known for producing MAGTF planners (secondary MOS 0505), but its original and continuing charter is broader. SAW was designed to develop field grade officers eager to engage and capable of working the Corps’ hardest problems and most difficult operational and planning challenges.

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These institutional challenges may entail designing military campaigns, but they are even more likely to manifest themselves as complex organizational, training, equipment, fiscal, or even social issues. The original goal upon the school’s founding was to enhance the ability of select officers to address the thorniest of such concerns. Only later did the focus shift to crafting and conducting military campaigns, though often there is a campaigning aspect to resolving other complex problems in that the crux of the task, once identified, may be resolved via a discrete sequence of related actions.

The program’s ultimate goal is to produce officers who remain undaunted when presented with formidable planning challenges. Graduates know how to study, think logically, maximize an operational planning team’s potential, and communicate recommendations persuasively. They are, in short, leaders who deliver as both staff officers and commanders. This is a goal common to every service PME school, and each one addresses the challenge in a slightly different way based on its means and circumstances. The next section explains how it’s done at SAW.

Educational Methodology

There is nothing magic about the school’s pedagogical approach. SAW is a professional school that combines graduate-level study of the art and science of war with the practical application required to enhance an officer’s decision-making skills. The way to get better at resolving complex problems is to practice solving them; the way to get better at developing campaigns is to plan and critique them repeatedly. The SAW curriculum thus provides an 11-month immersion in problem solving and operational planning. Every aspect of the program contributes to the development and refinement of these critical thinking skills.

The curriculum comprises three courses: Operational Art, Operational Planning, and Future War. The three courses are taught simultaneously as complementary classes interweave across the 11-month program of instruction. Together, the lessons tell an evolving story about what it takes to fight and win in modern war. The program stresses an empirical approach—exploring and testing those things that enable competitive advantage in combat whether or not the ideas merit doctrinal sanction. Studies include a nearly equal concentration on conventional conflict and small wars since the former has not gone out of fashion and the world may again experience combat at the scope and scale unleashed in the 20th century.

Small seminars form the foundation of the school’s program; students experience a hundred such tutorials throughout the year. These sessions typically entail 200 pages of preliminary reading requiring a day or more of preparation for each class. Paralleling top civilian graduate schools, SAW averages 10 hours or less of student-faculty contact time per week. This ratio of individual study to collective implementation puts a high premium on student preparation and professional dedication. Initially, few students are prepared for 750 pages of reading per week totalling more than 20,000 pages across the year. But students develop the skills to manage the reading requirement and through repetition become capable of absorbing reams of information, quickly making sense of it, and succinctly communicating its essence.

The first of the three SAW courses is Operational Art. Largely seminar based, this sequence of lessons features a chronological study of seminal campaigns. Students examine 50 case studies from the Peloponnesian War to contemporary Afghanistan. These cases are used to explore and better understand operational art (“the strategy for the strategy”). The course uses history, but it is not a military history course. Rather, the history serves as a laboratory in which to explore military decision making in order to improve pattern recognition as well as develop insights on ways to resolve operational problems.

The second course, Operational Planning, is closely linked to the first. It uses Joint and Service doctrine as well as case studies to examine the art and science of military planning at the higher tactical and operational levels (typically MEF/corps, numbered fleet, numbered air force, and above). More than 20 seminars address discrete aspects of warfighting such as corps-level ground offensive and defensive operations, amphibious assault, civil affairs, aviation planning, and assessment. Analytical and intuitive planning styles are studied and employed in a series of seven exercises incorporating conventional and irregular scenarios in support of operations planning, deployment planning, and force structure planning. Conceptual, functional, and detailed planning skills are developed, with an emphasis on the first because it is difficult to recover when the initial conceptual planning is done improperly. SAW also teaches the use of the outline plan as a helpful tool to convey the products of operational design. The planning problems comprise 7 weeks of the 48-week curriculum. These exercises provide forums in which to apply the operational art learned in the first course. In addition to the planning problems, students participate in more than 36 oral and written decision games, play 8 individual and team war games, and contribute to 3 staff rides.

Indeed, the school is perhaps best known for its staff ride program, which is the most extensive in PME. The first staff ride traces Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign and uses decision games to refine decision-making skills and to critique choices made and neglected by Civil War leaders. The second staff ride visits Gallipoli, the sites of three operations in the World War II Italian campaign, and half a dozen World War I and World War II operations in France. The final staff ride goes to the Pacific, with stops in Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Peleliu, Bataan, Corregidor, Hanoi, Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Mekong Delta, Saigon, and Saipan. In years past, other stops have included Morocco, Egypt, Sicily, Israel, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Staff rides comprise 15 percent of the SAW program of instruction. These trips are valuable because they bring together and refine insights developed from in-class case studies and exercises. They enable students to reexamine operations they have previously studied by walking the ground on which events actually occurred. The experience invariably enhances understanding of campaign design and execution. Staff rides provide an exceptional venue in which officers can “wear the commander’s cloak.” In the end, planning and commanding are two sides of the same coin. Planners are engaged in perhaps the most effective preparation for command because they are helping to prepare and execute the key decisions that commanders make. Staff rides sharpen the intuitive feel for such decisions.

The final course, Future War, has been in the curriculum since the school’s founding in 1990. It is based on the recognition that organizational learning and dealing with change are inherent tasks of every military Service and unit. Organizations that prosper find ways to anticipate and prepare for change. Effective staff officers and commanders at every level develop the talent to encourage and foster constructive change. The goal is not to turn graduates into Nostradamus but to teach them to think more clearly about the future. This is a challenging task, and the course provides basic tools, techniques, and theories to jump-start the process. Students study successful learning organizations and cases of effective innovation and then spend eight months thinking about, researching, writing about, and briefing an individual project they design with the aid of a faculty mentor. These topics address organizational, tactical, training, equipment, or conceptual innovation across a gamut of applications. Results are published in a short paper and made available to audiences across the Services, academe, and industry.

The SAW education entails no magic techniques, secret knowledge, or “Jedi knight” hyperbole. The school fosters a journeyman environment in that student progress is based on very hard work over an extended period. Some observers suggest that graduates would do well professionally with or without the benefit of the experience based strictly on the high professional merit and work ethic of those selected to attend. Feedback from graduates refutes this assertion. Former students, including alumni of many other distinguished civilian and PME schools, claim that SAW was the most valuable year of education in their experience. Not every officer who starts the school is deeply read or academically gifted, but those who complete the program become, with rare exception, lifelong learners, passionate readers, and avid students of their profession. This outcome is the product of a strong curriculum, talented students, and an experienced faculty. These elements, along with adequate facilities, are the basic components of all great schools.

Recruiting Procedures

SAW is the only Marine Corps school that selects its own students. Applicants must meet the following eligibility criteria:

  • Must be an active duty U.S./international military officer or an interagency civilian professional;
  • Must be a promoted major/lieutenant commander or grade equivalent civilian at the time the school year starts;
  • U.S. officers must not have been selected for lieutenant colonel/commander at the time of application;
  • Must not have failed selection to lieutenant colonel or commander;
  • Must be eligible for a top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information security clearance;
  • Must have completed resident or nonresident intermediate-level school (Joint Service and international officers must be graduates of resident staff colleges or their PME equivalent; only Marines may attend based on College of Distance Education & Training [CDET] nonresident education);
  • Must possess an accredited undergraduate degree or its international equivalent;
  • International officers must be able to comprehend, read, speak, and write English. (Minimal TOEFL scores: 83 on Internet-based test or 220 on computer-based test)

A normal class includes 24 students: 16 Marines, 2 sailors, 2 soldiers, 2 airmen, and 2 international officers. These numbers are only a template as there are no quotas for each category and the composition varies from year to year based on the strengths of the applicant pool. Similarly, there are no quotas for MOS mix across a class. Table 1 depicts Marine MOSs represented across the last five classes. Officers from every MOS should apply. SAW is a MAGTF school, not one optimized solely for combat arms Marines. In the end, applicant merit determines the class mix of occupational specialties. Usually the selection process produces a class with a desirable mix of professional backgrounds, but if the 24 best applicants represented a single MOS, they would still be selected. The same criteria apply to Joint, international, and interagency applicants. Officers from 13 different countries and 1 United States Government agency have attended the school since 1990.

Last fall, 135 applicants competed for 24 academic year 2016 (AY 2016) seats. Most of those officers and civilian professionals represented the top 15 percent of their staff college and CDET classes. Of that select group, only the top 15 percent are offered a spot in the next class. Who should apply? Competitive officers who desire to become better problem solvers and decision makers, seek a deeper comprehension of the operational level of war, enjoy an intellectual challenge, and want to serve in a high impact plans billet while preparing for future command. The selection process is straightforward. Applicants complete a basic personal data form; respond to an objective test covering military history, Joint doctrine, geography, and current events; write a short essay based on a writing prompt; submit a Master Brief Sheet, copies of the last five fitness reports, faculty and reporting senior recommendations, undergraduate and graduate transcripts, and other letters of recommendation (which are accepted but not required); and complete a 30-minute interview with the faculty.

Many applicants have sterling records with superior performance in a variety of challenging positions plus impressive academic pedigrees. But SAW is not filled with supermen and women. It is a school designed to take solid officers with a developed work ethic and a strong desire to serve as a lead planner and prepare them for this responsibility. Graduates do well professionally (including above average promotion and command selection rates) not because they carry the 0505 secondary MOS and a master’s degree from SAW but rather because they have performed well as planners in some of the Corps’ most challenging field grade assignments.

More Marines are encouraged to apply in order to experience the rewards associated with service as a lead planner on a high-level Service, Joint, or combined staff. The same professional opportunities await graduates of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), the Navy’s Maritime Advanced Warfighting School (MAWS), the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), and the top-level Joint Advanced Warfighting School (JAWS). The last school is board selected, but too few Marines are aware of or apply to the other three advanced intermediate-level schools. All of these programs are excellent and provide a superb education for future planners.

To learn more about these programs and the work they prepare you for, potential applicants should talk to current students, graduates, mentors, and monitors/detailers. Personal example and testimony remain the best advertising; many officers apply because they have observed previous graduates in the Operating Forces and want to emulate their role, contributions, and impact. For those who wish to apply, instructions appear in an annual July Marine administrative message (MARADMIN). Applications are due in October, followed by interviews. A selection panel convenes in November, with results announced in a second MARADMIN in December. The school year starts right after the 4th of July holiday and culminates at the MCU graduation the following June.

SAW and the other advanced intermediate-level schools are not for everyone. But these programs provide a rigorous educational experience leading to rewarding professional opportunities. Those who seek a challenge and want to serve in a high impact billet as a lead planner should apply. The Corps reaps enormous institutional and operational advantage from these schools. They are a unique PME option worthy of serious consideration by majors and lieutenant commanders looking to maximize their professional contributions to their Service.