Past, Present, and Future for America’s War Colleges

Author: Notre Dame International Security Center

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Within the US military, there is a need for officers to maintain a continuing education. On the battlefield, mistakes and successes turn the tide of war—and both are critical for up-and-coming officers to learn from. Of the places where this education can be attained, America’s War Colleges are among the most prestigious. In this blog, we explore the past, present, and future of the war colleges in the United States. 


The History of America’s War Colleges 

America’s first war college—the first of its kind—is the Naval War College (sometimes abbreviated NWC or NAVWARCOL). It was founded in 1884 in Newport, Rhode Island. This was made possible by Navy Secretary William Chanler’s General Order Number 325, which created “an advanced course of professional study for naval officers.” The first president of the Naval War College, Commodore Stephen B. Luce, said the College was “a place of original research on all questions relating to war, and to statesmanship connected to war, or the prevention of war.” 

Beginning in 1887, the College became well-known for wargaming—a practice which realistically simulates armed conflicts and the strategizing of them. In fact, nearly all US naval operations during the twentieth century were originally designed and “gamed” at the College. To cite NWC’s website, the tools and technology used in wargaming have evolved with time, but the value of wargaming remains constant. Today, the War College conducts more than 50 gaming events per year. 


America’s War Colleges 

At the time of this writing, there are five war colleges in the US: 

  1. Naval War College, founded in 1884; located in Newport, Rhode Island 

  1. Army War College, founded in 1901 in Washington, DC; now located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania 

  1. Air University, founded in 1946; located in Montgomery, Alabama 

  1. National Defense University, founded in 1976; located in Washington, DC 

  1. Marine Corps War College, founded in 1989; located in Quantico, Virginia 


While these schools are still designed to offer military education to officers in the US armed services, they are also accessible to civilian employees of the US Department of Defense. 

One common question asks whether civilians outside the Department of Defense can attend one of the War Colleges. The answer is yes, but certain standards must be met. At National Defense University, for example: 

Civilian students attending will be professionals in their parent organizations and comparable in rank and potential to their military student counterparts. In addition, they should possess a graduate degree and demonstrate potential to serve at the senior executive level. 


The Future of War College 

The launch of the US Space Force—which falls under the purview of Air University—has highlighted the need for America’s war colleges to adapt to a rapidly-changing world and its international security needs. One of the ways enrolled officers can be part of this adaptation process is through fellowships at civilian universities. The Army War College, for example, has organized the Senior Service College Fellowship Program (SSCF). Every year, the Department of the Army selects a few officers into the program; these Fellows attend civilian universities, institutes, and government agencies in place of resident attendance at a senior service college. 

As part of our program, the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC) is proud to welcome War College Fellows from all five of America’s war colleges into our Fellowship Program. To learn more about NDISC’s commitment to International Relations scholars and students at the War College, contact us.