Cover: Making Military Education More Effective and Affordable

Making Military Education More Effective and Affordable

Published 1999

by John D. Winkler, Paul S. Steinberg

Research Brief

In response to shrinking budgets and smaller numbers of military personnel, the Department of Defense is exploring ways to reduce the costs of education and training while sustaining military preparedness. These costs are substantial; in recent years institutional training alone cost DoD $14 billion annually. In Restructuring Military Education and Training: Lessons from RAND Research, John D. Winkler and Paul S. Steinberg draw on numerous RAND studies over the last two decades to identify new directions for reorganizing military education and training in order to reduce costs while preserving effectiveness. Their analysis shows that while some forms of restructuring reduce duplication and improve resource utilization, others may have transition costs and recurring expenses large enough to outweigh any possible savings. Hence there is no "one-size-fits-all" rule guiding restructuring.

Training Technology

Figure 1. Cost and Paybacks for Training Technologies

One promising approach to restructuring lies in using training technologies—such as training devices and simulators—as substitutes for vehicles, equipment, and live-fire training. Research confirms that technology can reduce the resources required for effective training, but care is needed to make sure that costs remain small and expected payoffs are actually achieved.

For example, one study evaluated different approaches to developing, delivering, and supporting device-based training for armor crewmen. As shown in Figure 1, the level of savings depends heavily on how the devices are developed. If devices have to be built from scratch, startup costs of $20 million will return an estimated $16 million in the initial five-year period. But if the devices are converted from existing equipment, startup costs of $8 million will return as much as $38 million in savings in five years.

Distributed Training

Figure 2. Costs and Paybacks for Distributed Training

A second approach to restructuring focuses on "distributing" training away from centralized schools to soldiers' home stations using distance-learning technologies. A RAND analysis of one proposed distributed training program—the U.S. Army's Armor Officer Advanced Course—shows that the amount of savings depends crucially on how much and what type of new infrastructure is needed. Figure 2 compares costs and savings under assumptions that require minimal (low-cost) versus extensive (high-cost) new infrastructure. Technology advocates often adopt low-cost assumptions. For example, if one assumes that the Army can use existing equipment and facilities, distributed training yields significant savings with a very quick payback. For a one-time cost of $1.7 million, savings will total $8 million by the end of a five-year period. Alternative assumptions, however, paint a less optimistic picture. For example, if the Army needs to develop new training products, acquire additional delivery systems, and expand learning centers, then startup costs increase, and recurring savings, if any, are much more modest.

Another cautionary finding suggests that the mix of training delivery media can drive costs sharply upward. In general, more technically complex training media lead to higher startup and operating costs, lower recurring savings, and longer payback periods. Thus, the study of the armor officer course indicated that "lower-tech" delivery methods (employing paper-based or computer-based training and videotape) could yield noticeable savings. However, the same study found that operating and maintaining a purely "high-tech" system (in this case, videoteletraining) would actually cost more than traditional methods of instruction, even under the most optimistic assumptions.


A third approach entails consolidating the military's specialized jobs and their associated training programs. A concept termed "field-based cross-training" exemplifies this approach: consolidating two or more occupational specialties and shifting initial skill training from schools to on-the-job training in field units. RAND researchers evaluated such a program proposed for Army helicopter maintainers, and cautioned that consolidations should be approached selectively. They concluded that consolidations should encompass highly transferable skills, be augmented by flexible assignment of personnel in units, and include training packages that support cross-utilization of similar occupational specialties. Furthermore, they found that reducing initial in-school training would increase on-the-job training requirements and place additional burdens on field units that could easily offset the benefits and decrease readiness. Moreover, when combined with consolidation, such programs would incur a high risk of reducing individual and unit capability.

A very different restructuring strategy focuses on consolidating schools offering similar programs of instruction. One such study points to support costs as a key factor in consolidating a dispersed system of training locations. Although consolidating into fewer locations may cut support costs, fewer training sites mean longer travel distances for students and instructors and therefore higher travel costs. Only if the increase in travel costs is less than the decrease in support costs will consolidation of training sites yield efficiency. If support costs are already low—as is often the case, for example, in reserve unit weekend drill training—multiple schools offering similar programs of instruction may well be the least-cost option.

Implications for Improving Civilian Education and Training

This research points to important lessons for civilian as well as military training. For example, classroom technology applications should be guided by instructional strategies and investment plans that show the expenditures to be cost-effective. Military experience also highlights the need to set skill standards and develop performance measures that clearly establish what workers need to know and how well they perform in specific occupations. In both cases, research results underscore the value of conducting systematic, quantitative assessments of education and training innovations to demonstrate benefits and determine appropriate applications.

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