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Graduate Program Fosters Strategic Leaders

  • Published
  • By David Vergun
  • DOD News

The Secretary of Defense's Strategic Thinkers Program is a highly competitive, 10-month, graduate program that produces officers and civilian leaders educated in strategic thinking, as well as coalition operations and interagency decision-making, according to Navy Cmdr. Charles R. Harmon, director of STP in the Defense Department's Office of Force Education and Training.  

This program is unique in its focus on developing strategists who can operate in unknown environments, deal with unanticipated challenges, and adapt non-military approaches to security issues, he said. It is helping the department build leaders who can navigate a rapidly evolving operating landscape and be responsive to the ever-changing demands of national defense.   

Drawing on the disciplines of applied strategic studies and history, STP uses interactive case studies and war games as problem-solving experiences to generate an understanding of topics in depth and context, he said.    

"Students gain the advanced cognitive, communications and analytical skills necessary to engage and advise civilian and military leaders in an unbiased and forthright manner on the development and conduct of strategy and military operations in the broader context of national policy objectives," he said.  

Air Force Lt. Col. Clifford Lucas, an alumnus of the Class of 2022, said STP uses the study of history to give participants the tools to understand the relationship between war and strategy. Through extensive reading, writing and debate, students extract lessons and build critical thinking skills to enable better decision-making in future command and staff positions.   

"In the profession of arms, we strive to master our craft. This course did more to that end, beyond tactical expertise, than any other I have attended," he said.  

Lucas, who is a Joint Staff political-military planner for the Iran branch of the deputy directorate for the Middle East and Africa, said he now approaches problem-solving differently, using the critical-thinking skills he learned to wholly grasp a problem, apply appropriate connections across broad contributing factors, add context where required, and present more nuanced solutions.   

Air Force Lt. Col. Ashley-Marie Cook, who is also part of the 2022 class, agreed, sharing that STP is unlike any other professional military education program. It pushed her beyond her normal comfort limits as both a student and as a professional. She said that STP cultivated her critical thinking skills, enabling her to solve DOD's most challenging problems.  

In her current position as the joint staff strategic assessments branch chief, Cook uses lessons from STP to approach problem solving in a more well-rounded manner. 

"Providing my leadership with options and context has guaranteed a more holistic conversation around intent, desire and outcome. Before the program, I would have been content with the most straightforward or direct route. Now, I understand the depth and width of a problem, allowing myself to explore a multitude of approaches," she said.  

Upon successful completion of the program, graduates like Lucas and Cook receive a master's degree in international public policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. 

They go on to accept meaningful, mission-critical follow-on assignments to joint and service strategy and planning positions, where they play a critical role advising senior military and civilian executives.   

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Arlon Smith, another class of 2022 member, said that earning the STP credential opened new doors beyond the reach of traditional career paths. "After spending a year immersed in the study of war and strategy, my dream job was to have the opportunity to directly support and learn from the undersecretary of defense for policy. I was fortunate to be afforded that opportunity." Smith is a military assistant to the undersecretary and deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. 

His STP classmate, Navy Capt. Holman Agard, likewise emphasized the benefits of STP to his post-program role and future positions.  

"On a practical level, I am able to apply more intellectual rigor to my writing and oral presentations. The program also helped increase my ability to extrapolate key themes – such as the reciprocity of war and strategy and learning and adaptation – from previous military campaigns and apply them to my current assignment while preparing me for my next command-at-sea opportunity," he said.  

Agard is currently serving as the destroyers branch head in the office of the chief of naval operations. 

STP is a rigorous and fulfilling educational opportunity for rising military and civilian leaders. "As the Department of Defense seeks to prepare the next generation of strategic thought leaders to confront an uncertain future characterized by conflict, crisis and rapid change, STP stands as a crown jewel in the portfolio of PME programs," said Smith. 

Application for the 2024-25 school year is currently open. To apply, contact Cmdr. Harmon at or visit the Johns Hopkins University website to learn more: