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© US Army Europe Jesse Granger

Teaching and training


Colonel Timothy E. Dreifke of NATO School Oberammergau, Germany, explains how the school’s curriculum responds to security challenges

The NATO School Oberammergau, located in southern Germany, has been conducting education and training courses on behalf of NATO since 1953. It conducts training not at a tactical level but at an operational level, and aims to remain flexible to respond rapidly to the challenges of the future security environment.

US Air Force Colonel Timothy E. Dreifke became the Dean of Academics at the school in 2015, becoming Commandant earlier this year. He spoke to PEN about how the organisation fulfils its remit to anticipate and respond to emerging security challenges; how the school ensures that its course design reflects the needs of NATO’s international membership, and his vision for the direction of the school under his tenure.

Because NATO is a multinational organisation, course designs need to take into account the needs and capabilities of all of its member countries, as well as partner countries and others which take advantage of the school’s courses. Dreifke described exactly how NATO School Oberammergau approaches its responsibilities to its member countries when designing courses: “The role of [the school] is laid out by strategic command directives that say NATO nations are responsible for training their military personnel to a baseline level of understanding; then at NATO School Oberammergau, we supplement that knowledge at the organisational and strategic level. There has been discussion that some nations don’t have the resources to conduct all required training to get to that baseline… That plays into our course design, because it’s not just the NATO nations and partners; on an annual basis we bring through roughly 80 nations every single year.

“There’s no perfect baseline, so every one of our course designs has to think through the best mechanism to bring people up to speed quickly, within the first day, so that we can then lay on the additional teaching.”

Dreifke explained the guiding principle by which new courses at the NATO School Oberammergau are designed, which ensures that they fulfil emerging needs and address knowledge gaps: “There is a new process, pioneered at the Headquarters Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, US, called ‘global programming’. There is a requirements authority which identifies education and training requirements, and a department head, who then has to meet that training requirement and find a solution.”

Because the school has been in operation for many years, these requirements are often found to already be in place in the courses on offer, and so there is already a level of expertise in some areas which can be applied to new threats.

In the past few years, a rise in the threat posed by cyber-attacks has led to an increased demand for training in security and prevention, although Dreifke pointed out that the NATO School Oberammergau began offering these courses long before recent incidents, having already anticipated the emergence of cybersecurity concerns: “When I became Dean of Academics, there was already a four-course portfolio within cyber training being conducted at the school. I can’t attribute a cause and effect, as this pre-dated the maturity of global programming; there were already some wise people out there who saw the need for cyber training.”

© 7th Army Training Command

The cyber courses currently on offer include network security, network vulnerability assessment and risk mitigation, cyber incident handling and disaster response, and network traffic analysis, all of which offer a thorough understanding of the varied requirements of a complete approach to cybersecurity. In addition, the courses are designed differently to many of the other courses on offer at NATO School Oberammergau, to reflect the varied and complicated nature of cyber threats and the need for comprehensive education in order to combat them: “Among the roughly 110 courses in our catalogue, around 98% take place over one week, but these four cyber courses are designed over ten weeks. We begin with one week at residence at NATO School Oberammergau, then eight weeks conducted online, and finally, another resident week conducted back at NATO School Oberammergau as a capstone. We do these in co-operation with the United States Naval Postgraduate School, so they’re responsible for the course design, teaching methodologies and they provide instructors as well. That is then hosted here within our buildings; we also conduct these courses as a global training platform for many of our partner nations.”

In anticipation of more and more devices being connected to the internet – and consequently, becoming vulnerable to cyber-attack – the school is also launching a pilot course on mobile applications later this year, which aims to examine security concerns around mobile devices from the perspective of both applications and mobile networks.

The school has also taken advantage of a specific NATO programme called Science for Peace and Security, which supports the school to conduct courses in partner nations, further facilitating international co-operation and allowing the organisation to fully account for the needs of different member and partner countries.

While the NATO School Oberammergau is an autonomous organisation, and decides for itself what courses to offer and how best to address the requirements of its students, its relationships with other NATO bodies and external partner organisations remain vital to its work. “Our collaboration with the centres of excellence, partnership training and education centres (PTECs) and other NATO education training facilities is absolutely critical to how we conduct our courses here,” Dreifke said.

He continued to outline the nature of this collaboration, and why he feels that this allows the school to offer an inimitable experience: “I would say that there are two things that make NATO School Oberammergau truly unique and special. Internally, we have our resident courses representing 80 nations and over 8,000 resident students per year. What makes this special is the residential aspect and the networking opportunities. If you want to bring trust and interoperability across the multicultural environment in this alliance, human-to-human relationships and exercises need to be conducted, and this is an outstanding location to do that.”

The other form of external collaboration involves the sharing of information, knowledge and expertise, Dreifke went on: “For those 8,000 resident students, we bring in over 1,800 speakers; they come from centres of excellence, PTECs, and our operational headquarters within the NATO command structure. We also reach out to ministries of defence and their subordinate commands, EU parliamentarians and staff from all sorts of centres of excellence beyond just those supporting NATO. We really reach across the world to bring in experts, to make sure we have the best possible courses on offer.”

In fact, this collaboration extends to the very design of courses and identifying requirements through the principle of global programming, as Dreifke elaborated: “The requirements authorities generally come from the operational command within SHAPE and NATO, and they identify the training requirements. The department heads who have to find those training solutions often reside within centres of excellence; for example, the cyber centre of excellence works hand in hand with us to ensure that our cyber defence courses are meeting the demand that is out there. NATO has identified 29 disciplines within its military operations, and the course directors at NATO School Oberammergau are empowered to build these relationships – those cover everything from cybersecurity, to intelligence, to education and training, for which we’re actually the department head.”

To facilitate the kind of information sharing that is necessary to analyse and identify these training needs, the disciplines that are utilising the global programming method hold annual conferences, gathering stakeholders and providing a platform for collaboration to ensure that needs are met as quickly and efficiently as possible. This also helps NATO School Oberammergau and other such facilities to co-ordinate their efforts. Dreifke continued: “The annual discipline conferences may be hosted here at the NATO school, or they may be hosted at centres of excellence, and our course directors attend and co-ordinate these conferences to further refine and react to the strategic environment of today, ensuring that what we’re teaching is still relevant, or modifying as we go.”

The use of online courses and e-learning, which was adopted by the school around ten years ago, has grown to become a fundamental part of the way courses are now taught. “We have built a platform – in conjunction with Allied Command Transformation – which now has 40,000 subscribers,” Dreifke said. In addition to providing a new arena for learning to take place, e-learning, or advance distributed learning (ADL), has been used to supplement courses very effectively, the colonel continued: “We’ve had some really great success with an optional module conducted in conjunction with the Nordic Centre for Gender in Military Operations in Sweden. We incorporate gender in our thinking across NATO, and we’ve encouraged our students to take the ADL module dubbed ‘Improving operational effectiveness by integrating gender perspectives’ before they attend a resident course… Our numbers within just one year are somewhere around 5,000 students out of around 8,000 resident students.”

© US Army Europe Jesse Granger

Another benefit of e-learning is that it is able to provide courses which target more specific training requirements, but that would be unfeasible to conduct on a broader scale. “They dig another layer deeper, beyond just introductory courses, to more advanced depths of knowledge,” Dreifke described. “With that advanced knowledge, we expect a smaller student body, and so e-learning is how we address some of these requirements.”

What’s more, by utilising online resources after the course ends, students can reinforce their knowledge and continue to revisit the topics they have learned, ensuring that they retain their knowledge for longer. The principle is based on the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, which measures how knowledge is forgotten over time, Dreifke explained: “If you refresh your knowledge base and revisit what you’ve been taught – a day later, then a week later, then a month later – you can really expand the knowledge that’s retained over a much longer period of time. This is something I’ve tasked our academics directorate with: How we can continue to advance our e-learning portfolio for the interests of really helping retention in the long term.”

The major role played by e-learning in courses is part of a wider drive to modernise and innovate with teaching methodologies at the NATO School Oberammergau, something which Dreifke identified as one of his key ambitions for his tenure as commandant. Ultimately, his vision for the future of the school is supported by three pillars: relevance, innovation and safety. The colonel elaborated on the specific ways in which these pillars would manifest into concrete progress: “Within innovation, as well as e-learning’s role, I think there’s a place for tablets and audience response systems in a classroom. We could run a poll and find out if most people are answering this wrong, and that would cue the instructor to continue elaborating on a topic – we can leverage technology in that manner.”

In terms of relevance, the use of the global programming framework has addressed this and ensured that all courses are meeting identified needs, but this is not the be-all and end-all. Dreifke emphasises that the NATO School Oberammergau’s relative autonomy from the NATO command structure offers it the opportunity to go beyond the remit of fulfilling needs identified by an external requirement authority: “By Paris Protocol, NATO School Oberammergau is a NATO institution, but we are not part of the NATO command or force structure, so if we see a need to conduct a course but none of the requirements authorities have demanded it, we can commit our own resources to present the course.”

He continued to say that there are currently a number of such courses being planned: “We are looking at conducting a hybrid threat course, which would be a cross discipline subject including strategic communications, cyber, resilience, special operations, all threaded together. We don’t have a defined requirement from NATO; we’re just going to do that because I see it as absolutely relevant to the current situational environment.”

The final pillar, safety, has two components which are of equal importance to ensuring that the school fulfils its remit successfully. “Of course, I mean safety in the physical sense,” Dreifke clarified, “but much more so I mean it for the purpose of individual education and training. When I greet all of our new students, I thank them, their nations and their staff for cutting them free for a week, two weeks or ten weeks, to conduct this training. That’s a huge investment, but I also remind them that this is about individual education. They’re here for their own benefit, so we lay forth the Chatham House rule that opens them up to professional dialogue, and they feel safe to express their own ideas, ask their own questions, and walk out of here with a better understanding of whatever the topic of instruction is.”

Under Dreifke’s tenure, the NATO School Oberammergau has a clear direction for its development, and its growth shows no sign of slowing.


Colonel Timothy E. Dreifke


NATO School Oberammergau


This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 22, which will be published in July.

Pan European Networks Ltd