Small Wars Journal

The Ministry of Defense Advisors Training Program: Preparing Advisors to Have Strategic Impact

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 1:00am

The Ministry of Defense Advisors Training Program: Preparing Advisors to Have Strategic Impact


George M. Dryden

The mission of the Ministry of Defense Advisors Program is to prepare Department of Defense civilian and military advisors, through the provision of specialized training and education programs, to advance U.S. global security cooperation and institutional capacity building objectives, while serving in partner nations.

To fulfill this mission, permanently authorized by Section 332a, Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA) Program conducts specially designed courses for both civilian and military leaders.  The Program is structured to enable advisors, once deployed, to rapidly understand their operating context; identify and adapt to the challenges they face; and build healthy, productive relationships with their counterparts.  These capabilities are enabling them to make immediate contributions to the accomplishment of their organizations’ missions, whether in Afghanistan or other nations worldwide.


The advisors MoDA prepares and deploys directly support the second of three lines of effort contained in the 2018 National Defense Strategy:  Strengthen Alliances and Attract New Partners.  This strategy asserts:

Our alliances and partnerships remain the backbone of global security.  [We will] uphold a foundation of mutual respect, responsibility, priorities, and accountability.  By working together with allies and partners, we amass the greatest possible strength for the long-term advancement of our interests.[1]

In a press briefing on 28 August, the Secretary of Defense communicated how “seriously he take[s] [this] line of effort.”  “Our goal is to improve consultation, cooperation and burden-sharing so we can best deter the threats [we face].  [We] are stronger alongside like-minded nations.”[2]


Enabling the Strategy


The MoDA Program provides students the opportunity to become the capable, confident advisors required to execute this line of effort.  For civilians, the MoDA Program provides courses for General Schedule (GS) 13 to Senior Executive Service (SES) [all Tiers].  For military leaders, courses are designed and delivered for E-6 (Staff Sergeant) to O-6 (Colonel).  Special courses or workshops are prepared and facilitated for all grades of General and Flag Officer (GO/FO).  Courses vary in length from as long as seven weeks, to as short as hours-long seminars prepared to satisfy specific training or education requirements.


Initially designed to prepare civilians to operate within military command structures, the MoDA Program was established in 2009 by the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.  In 2012, it was transferred to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.  To date, 27 seven-week long civilian MoDA courses have been conducted.  Over time, the focus of the program has expanded from a singular focus on Afghanistan, providing trained advisors for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and, in turn, the Resolute Support Mission (RSM).  Today, the program provides advisors, uniquely prepared to advance U.S. Security Cooperation goals and objectives worldwide.  These “global” advisors fill billets in Ukraine (the largest mission), Georgia, Latvia, Botswana, Indonesia, Colombia, and in other partner nations.  Global advisors generally operate under the authority of the U.S. Ambassador in country, and normally report to the Security Cooperation Office Chief. 


Since its inception, the MoDA Program has deployed over 500 advisors to Afghanistan and nearly 50 to other global billets.  Numerous requests for advisors, generated by Embassy officials in nations receiving U.S. support and assistance, are in various stages of coordination to obtain approval.  When approved, these newly established positions will significantly increase the number of deployed DoD advisors who operate in Security Cooperation Offices worldwide.


Understanding Context, Appreciating Strategic Purpose and Building Relationships


Viewed through the lens of desired student outcomes, the overarching MoDA goal is for students to be capable of having strategic impact, once deployed, based on three interrelated sets of attributes: (1) The ability to appreciate the local context; (2) The ability to appreciate the strategic purpose of the U.S. mission and the attendant policy constraints; and, perhaps of greatest significance, (3) The ability to interact with their counterparts to establish meaningful relationships, based on respect, empathy, and humility (as manifested in their actions and behaviors).  Certainly, this is a tall order, considering the student population normally ranges in age from 30 to 70 and enters the Program with social styles and character traits normally firmly established. 


Nevertheless, through the application of cardinal adult education principles; sound, doctrinally sanctioned, performance-oriented training methods; and a balanced mix of evaluation, examination, and individual feedback, the Program has proven very successful.  Moreover, the Program serves to identify – and not deploy – those, by virtue of experience, social styles, or other factors, who are likely to become a burden to the command. 


To accomplish its mission and overarching goal, the Program is designed to achieve eight Course Objectives.  In simplest terms, these objectives represent what advisors must be able to do to be successful.


  • Understand the purpose and role of a ministerial level advisor, particularly in the areas of planning and performance assessment
  • Demonstrate effective cross-culture behaviors to enhance relationship building:  active listening, problem solving, tact, humility, empathy, and respect
  • Understand and apply principles, approaches, and techniques to build institutional capacity
  • Comprehend, in broad terms, the history, culture, demography, and religion of the host nation (as well as its regional role and its relations with neighboring states and other actors)
  • Demonstrate familiarity and comfort with host nation languages, culture, customs, governmental and societal structures, and politics
  • Understand the policy and strategy which governs how the U.S. mission is to be implemented within the host nation and the context it creates for advising at the ministerial level
  • Understand and apply practices to operate as a member of a team, while deployed to a foreign, stressful, austere, and complex environment
  • Understand and apply individual awareness skills to maintain personal security and safety while deployed

It’s our view that if candidates – who enter the Program having demonstrated and been evaluated as having considerable professional knowledge and experience – can achieve these objectives, they will, in fact, be well prepared to achieve success as advisors and leaders in forward locations.  Again, these locations include both operational commands (e.g., Resolute Support Mission) and Embassy Security Cooperation Offices.


To ensure these objectives remain relevant and well suited to our “customers” (both those who employ the advisors we certify as well as the students who rely upon our training to best prepare them for the challenges they will face), we take numerous deliberate actions.  These actions include:  Training Program Reviews (normally annually) to interview both students and their bosses; Student Surveys of instruction and exercises (before, during, and after their class); a formal Curriculum Review (conducted annually during the Fourth Quarter of the training year); and many others.


Standards-Based, Adult Focused, Performance Oriented and Increasing Complexity


The development of the Program of Instruction for the MoDA Course is guided by four, familiar yet seminal, design characteristics.  First, the curriculum is fully standards-based.  Based on the analysis of the requirements prescribed by theater as well as Embassies in which advisors serve, a set of 26 discrete Essential Tasks has been developed – which all students must perform to standard to complete the Course.  (These tasks are discussed later in the article.)


Second, the lectures, reading, practical exercises, panel discussions, guest speaker presentations, evaluations, language training, and other courseware are carefully tailored to meet the needs of adult learners.  Put simply, adhering to the instructional model depicted in Bloom’s Taxonomy,[3] the Course emphasizes synthesis and analysis levels of thinking, rather than overreliance on learning which demands cognitive recall.


Third, the Course is performance oriented, and where appropriate, features “learning by doing,” rather than lecture-based instruction.  A hallmark of the Course is the high quality, tailored feedback provided to students from Mentors, Subject Matter Experts, instructors, and role players.  We are proud of this feature of the Course, which is made possible by attracting Mentors and Subject Matter Experts – all highly successful as deployed advisors – who share their experience and insights with students.


Our Mentors concentrate on students as they perform as leaders and members of teams principally during the Final Exercise.  Our Subject Matter Experts coordinate the execution of specially designed vignettes featuring our role players.  Both Mentors and Subject Matter Experts observe and evaluate students who are assessed and evaluated in carefully structured scenarios.


These scenarios provide the conditions for students to demonstrate their proficiency in Essential Tasks which focus on aspects of advising, such as Establishing Rapport, Demonstrating Desired Advisor Attributes; e.g., Empathy.  The training scenarios – as well as frequent TELECONs with former students and experts deployed in theater – benefit from the flexibility and agility of our program to add realism (often by reflecting current political, strategic, and military developments).


Fourth, the Program features a “building block” approach which begins with Advising Fundamentals and culminates with a fully immersive Final Exercise designed to add stress, realism, in addition to challenging scenarios in which students must recall all they’ve learned in the Course to be assessed as proficient in all Essential Tasks and certified to deploy.  The Course features both tasks and scenarios which become increasingly more complex.  Moreover, they require students to perform under levels of stress and fatigue which increase in a corresponding fashion over time.




Minister of Defense Advisor Course Building bBock Approach


Reinforcing Success Through Evaluation and Feedback


A central feature of the MoDA Course is the emphasis on evaluation we’ve recently reinforced.  Evaluation is intended to support learning, while identifying and certifying those students who are well suited to serve as advisors.  The purpose is best expressed in our governing Program of Instruction.

The requirement for comprehensive evaluation of student performance is critical.  Given the relatively short duration of the training, the requirement for timely evaluation is equally critical.  The assessment process is designed to evaluate performance across the breadth of those requirements and to provide feedback and counseling to the students quickly so that aspects of performance requiring modification can be altered accordingly.  Students are briefed on this assessment process as part of their orientation and introduction to the [MoDA Course].[4]

The evaluation program is guided by fairness, equity, and pragmatism, as reflected in this statement of intent.

The purpose of this evaluation program is to enhance the quality and effectiveness of the training and education we provide within the MoDA Course by improving the process of student evaluation.  Our ultimate goal is to create an environment in which to best prepare U.S. advisors to excel while serving in overseas billets worldwide.  The core of our evaluation program is a set of Essential Tasks, for which each student must demonstrate proficiency.  These Essential Tasks provide the basis for achieving the attributes and qualities of Strategic Understanding, Strategic Mindset, and Character we strive for each of our advisors to demonstrate (as established in our Program of Instruction).[5]

The Essential Tasks evaluate proficiency in such areas as:

  • History, Geography, Demography, and Local Culture
  • Key Factors in the Contemporary Operational Environment
  • Advising Principles and Desired Attributes
  • Relationship Building Skills
  • Negotiating Principles
  • Developing an Individual Advisor Plan
  • Writing and Briefing Skills
  • Marksmanship and Safe Weapons Handling Practices

Moving Forward


For those in “the advising business,” this is an exciting time.  During the past year, beginning with the Secretary of Defense, leaders throughout the Defense Establishment have articulated the compelling need to best prepare the advisors – civilian and military – that we deploy to theaters of operation and distant countries worldwide.  The MoDA Program is grateful for the many partners and enablers who make it possible to deliver the highest possible level of training for those who will deploy.  We stand ready to cooperate, exchange ideas, and to collaborate in order to meet the Secretary’s guidance.


The views herein are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


End Notes


[1] Extracted from the U.S. National Defense Strategy, UNCLASSIFIED, 17 January 2018, p. 2 and p. 9.  The other two lines are:  Build a More Lethal Force and Reform the Department [of Defense] for Greater Performance and Accountability.

[2] Real Clear Politics, Defense Secretary Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford Press Briefing, posted by Tim Hains,


[3] Professor Bloom’s Taxonomy is used as a guide to properly focus the level of complexity throughout the MoDA Course.  Bloom’s Taxonomy, revised in 2012, provides an internationally recognized framework to define and categorize levels of learning, as described in, posted August 2013.

[4] MoDA Program of Instruction, 1 March 2018, p. A-1.

[5] Ibid, pp. 8-9.  The discussion includes how classroom and exercise observation, appraisal of products, academic essays, and peer assessments – as well as Subject Matter Expert and Mentor feedback – are intended to contribute to the overall learning experience. 8-9. 


About the Author(s)

George M. Dryden is a former Army Sniper with extensive Government service in the broad areas of Security Cooperation, Security Assistance, strategy development, and theater planning.  From 2011 to the present, he has served as the Program Manager for the Minister of Defense Advisors (MoDA) Program, within the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.  This program is charged to prepare DoD advisors to serve as advisors in Afghanistan and worldwide.  Prior to assuming responsibility for the development and direction of the MoDA Program, he served as a Senior Advisor in the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan.  He has also served as an Army strategist in the Pentagon and in Europe.  He also has considerable experience as a senior manager in the private sector.  He has earned two degrees in International Affairs:  a BA from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from American University.