News | April 14, 2022

What Is JSOU? Then, Now, and Next

By David M. Dudas, Bethany Fidermutz, and Amie Lonas Joint Force Quarterly 105

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Colonel David M. Dudas, USA (Ret.), Ph.D., is Senior Advisor for Horizon Strategies. Dr. Bethany Fidermutz is an Education Consultant. Dr. Amie Lonas is Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs at Joint Special Operations University.

Divers underwater gather around a pole near the surface.
Underwater Ops
Navy divers assigned to Naval Special Warfare unit raise hooked ladder during training exercise at Silver Strand Training Complex, San Diego, California, January 23, 2022 (U.S. Navy/Alex Perlman)
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Perlman
VIRIN: 220125-N-GP724-1285R

The Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) was formally organized in 2000 as a Department of Defense applied learning educational activity modeled after corporate universities. JSOU’s mission is to prepare special operations forces (SOF) professionals to address strategic and operational challenges, arming them with the ability to think through problems with knowledge, insight, and foresight. JSOU’s genesis came only 8 months before the tragic events and watershed moment of September 11, 2001. The events of 9/11 signified a threshold crossing for the United States, the international community, and pointedly for joint-combined SOF. It has marked a 20-year-long focus on direct action and crisis response “anti-” and “counter-” missions.

JSOU’s charter is to serve as the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) academic center of excellence for special operations studies and research. JSOU is designed to create, promote, and sustain postsecondary scholarship through teaching, research, and outreach in the strategic and operational art of joint special operations. The university is organized to facilitate U.S. Code Title 10 responsibilities of the USSOCOM commander to prepare SOF to carry out assigned missions and to increase the combat readiness of the force. This is accomplished by conducting specialized education that is unique and peculiar to SOF and not normally offered in other professional military education (PME) programs.

JSOU NEXT Purpose and Priorities

With its inception in the summer of 2020, JSOU “NEXT” established and executed priorities aligned with the USSOCOM commander’s guidance to assess the university’s direction and current curriculum after 60 days—in short, a JSOU NOW assessment and initial aspects of a plan of action toward realizing JSOU NEXT. The areas of focus identified included:

  • reconsidering what, how, and to which audience JSOU currently teaches
  • focusing on the “first principles” and nesting with 2018 National Defense Strategy priorities, while being agile and innovative to anticipate and address future challenges1
  • looking for divestitures and consolidations and reducing redundancy for greater cost-effective savings
  • considering new delivery methods for teaching, curriculum modularity, core versus noncore, and cross-functional and cross-domain modules.

Now in its 21st year, JSOU is poised to address the unique character of the strategic and operational environments that is marked by yet another threshold crossing of compound security threats in the context of strategic competition and irregular warfare. At its core, JSOU NEXT’s charge is to learn from the past to be more capable and ready in the future. This means analyzing SOF’s previous ages from their beginning in World War II, their role during the Cold War, SOF in the post-9/11 context of action, and what these previous stages present for requisite expert knowledge needed to address the challenges of strategic competition and to see future applications of SOF for the Nation, while learning from and avoiding past injuries.

Strategic competition in a joint environment is what SOF were born and bred to do. No single effort or suite of technology solves the puzzle of SOF’s future use and utility for the achievement of national imperatives. Rediscovering the full continuum of SOF utility in strategic competition is the grounding imperative driving JSOU NEXT reforms and refits. The key to educating SOF to gain the advantage for the Nation’s power purposes is to facilitate strategic and operational as well as critical and creative thinking in innovative ways. This ability includes enabling knowledge and practical applications of special operations that defend and deter against adversaries’ disruptor playbooks below thresholds of armed conflict through credible presence and preparedness of compellent force. Education provides the framework and multiple lenses through which we view and interpret the many aspects of a changing world. Without this understanding, we cannot assess threats and opportunities in ways that produce precise and actionable intelligence, and without awareness, we will target technologies as small fixes rather than a suite of synergistic tools that provide effect and agility in operations.

JSOU NEXT’s educational design includes three primary lines of effort that are centered on teaching and learning, research and analysis, and service and outreach—all in the context of great global disruption, where threats are compounding at a rate that requires aligning ideas and resources in a manner that can overmatch these threats. For SOF to be at the leading edge of creating solutions for compound security dilemmas, it is imperative that JSOU set the right purposes, priorities, concepts, pillars, key tasks, main (big) ideas, and building blocks of success and organize the many ideas and concepts in powerful ways, where SOF leader operators can transpose the expert knowledge acquired in the classroom to real-world practical applications.

Being at the leading edge requires understanding the purpose for JSOU today and in tomorrow’s historical contexts of action—the need to achieve intellectual overmatch against our adversaries and competitors. To achieve this overmatch, JSOU NEXT’s priorities start with adopting leading-edge techniques and research-based best practices in its learning models and methods. This includes modular delivery of an effective and agile outcomes-based curricula delivered both synchronously and asynchronously via resident, distant, and hybrid learning platforms; leveraging the latest technology; and incorporating andrological best practices in the physical and virtual classroom with real-time assessment of intended learning outcomes. JSOU NEXT teaching includes a series of hubs with partnered civilian academic institutions, think tanks, government, and private industry across the United States and globally. These efforts are already having an impact on how we are thinking anew about curriculum design and delivery and how we can leverage research with other key stakeholders to influence the environment and build scholarship with strategic and operational impact.

Key to the initiative within JSOU NEXT is the development of an outcomes-based military education approach aligned to the Chairman’s Desired Leader Attributes.2 At the institutional level, JSOU has identified six overarching learning outcomes in support of JSOU’s goal to produce highly educated, hyper-enabled, responsible operators (better known by the acronym HE2RO). Specifically, JSOU graduates will:

  • demonstrate advanced cognitive and communication skills employing agile, critical, creative, systematic, and innovative thought
  • appreciate SOF as a profession of arms to include the embodiment and enforcement of shared ethics, norms, and laws
  • apply knowledge of the nature, character, and conduct of special operations, war and conflict, and the instruments of national power across the full continuum of cooperation, competition, conflict, and war to achieve national security objectives
  • generate threats and opportunities endemic to the current and future operating environment based on analysis of historical, cultural, political, military, economic, technological, and other competitive forces
  • design strategies and plans for the conduct of joint-combined SOF warfighting at the operational to strategic levels across the continuum of cooperation, competition, conflict, and war
  • demonstrate the application of U.S., SOF, allied, and partner military force to conduct globally integrated, all-domain operations and integrative campaigns for national power purposes.

As a cognitive force multiplier in support of the Campaign Plan for Global Special Operations, JSOU has identified five mutually reinforcing learning pathways or integrated programs of study/discipline in addition to its Enlisted Academy—all emerging from the 2020 internal curriculum refit study:

  • strategic influence and informational advantage
  • strategic intelligence and emergent technology
  • compound security threats in strategic competition
  • SOF leadership and the SOF professional ethos
  • resilience and resistance.

These pathways illuminate and advance learning in five identified joint SOF common core knowledge competency arenas and support the JSOU institutional learning outcomes (ILOs). The metaframe uniting these pathways is the focused set of SOF-unique core activities USSOCOM possesses that can be employed to gain irregular warfare asymmetric and informational advantages over competitors and adversaries across the entire competition continuum, with special focus on gray zones.3

Each pathway has unique program learning outcomes (PLOs) nested within the ILOs along with requisite subordinate learning outcomes needed for ultimate achievement of the PLOs. JSOU identified specific and measurable learning outcomes that are crosswalked across lesson, module, course, program, and institutional levels. The programs of study cover a broad array of knowledge including 21st-century strategic influence and information advantage, strategic intelligence and emergent technology that enables and informs at the strategic-operational level, advanced application of resistance and resilience theory, design-based integrative statecraft, and ethically sound leadership and decisionmaking concepts and methodologies. The students who journey along these pathways will serve as enterprise future experts and thought leaders whose knowledge competencies will benefit current and future joint, interagency, interorganizational, and multinational cross-functional efforts across the spectrum of cooperation, competition, conflict, and war.

JSOU NEXT and SOF’s Grand Utility for the Nation

Growing, fostering, preserving, and sharpening the edge of SOF for the Nation is all about talent and leader development through PME that is governed by understanding the security environment and the contributions of all instruments of power. JSOU NEXT seeks to create SOF leader operators with the ability to anticipate and respond to surprise and uncertainty while leading through transitions on intent, trust, empowerment, and understanding. This includes making ethical decisions based on the shared values of the profession of arms and thinking critically and strategically in applying joint SOF warfighting principles and concepts to joint, interagency, intergovernmental, multinational, and commercial/civilian operations. To do this, JSOU will leverage inputs from the right leaders, experts, and practitioners in SOF and related fields.

JSOU NEXT seeks to provide PME that illuminates SOF’s grand utility and its multiple, discrete capabilities that are uniquely suited to the geostrategic environment. JSOU seeks to empower the SOF enterprise to be the “first three feet” of the space where threats and interests come together, embodying the iron triangle of SOF as diplomat-sentinel-warrior.4 Anticipating and avoiding strategic surprise is an imperative now more than ever, and the empowered SOF operator can truly be the watcher on the wall when the risks we face are ever morphing, gray, and evolving. This means having strong connectivity to SOF commands; knowing policy decisions, direction, and strategic guidance; and taking full advantage of being near the flagpole, which is another way JSOU differentiates itself from other more conventional educational institutions. This strong connectivity means JSOU can also help decisionmakers be better commanders—addressing some tough, highly relevant questions or problems with USSOCOM, Joint Special Operations Command, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict collaboration. JSOU, therefore, seeks to play a unique role in helping to link U.S. national security interests and objectives to SOF capabilities at all levels. JFQ


1 Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018), available at <>.

2 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Memorandum CM-0166-13, Desired Leader Attributes for Joint Force 2020 (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2013), available at <>.

3 Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy; NDS Irregular Warfare Annex (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, October 23, 2019), available at <>.

4 The iron triangle of special operations forces as diplomat-sentinel-warrior is part of an ongoing study of SOF as a profession, originally conceptualized by David M. Dudas and Isaiah Wilson III.