Fast Facts

U.S. military commanders have a wide range of legal responsibilities. Commanders, for example, have legal authority to discipline personnel under the military system of justice and need to comply with international law and rules of engagement.

They receive legal training throughout their careers. However, we found the relevant military databases did not include all training. Training provider records showed higher participation than service databases.

We also found the timing, amount, and mix of legal training may not meet commanders' needs.

We made 15 recommendations, including better recordkeeping and better assessments of training needs.

Servicemembers in a classroom.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Military commanders are entrusted with a variety of responsibilities that can involve understanding, interpreting, or complying with legal requirements. Thus, the military services provide legal training to commanders throughout their careers. GAO found that commanders receive dedicated legal training; other training that includes blocks of legal content; and informal legal training, such as informal briefings or conversations with military legal staff.

While legal training is provided, the services' ability to account for the completion of training varies, as the services' systems of record do not document all legal training that commanders complete. Specifically, for four courses in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, training completion data in the service databases were different from the records maintained by the training providers. For example, GAO found that 26 of 56 fiscal year 2019 Army commanders had taken a required course according to the system of record, while training records outside the system showed that 47 of 56 commanders had taken the course. In addition, for four training courses in the Navy and the Air Force, training completion was tracked using a different system than the training system of record. Tracking all training completion in the official systems of record could help the services ensure that commanders complete their required legal training.

GAO also found, through analyses of the legal training offered and from discussion groups and interviews with commanders and legal support staff, that perspectives varied on the general preparedness of commanders to address legal issues. In addition, GAO found that the timing, amount, and mix of legal training provided to commanders may not be meeting their needs. For example:

Dedicated legal training is generally for mid-level commanders, who may hold multiple command positions before attending the training. Commanders from all four services indicated that they would have benefited from dedicated legal training earlier in their careers.

Commanders of similar grades and legal responsibilities may not receive similar levels of legal training. For example, GAO found that, although course materials for the Army pre-command course for junior commanders were centrally developed, the time spent covering designated legal topics varied substantially by the location where the instruction took place.

Some commanders and legal support staff expressed the view that commanders would benefit from additional legal training.

The Navy has begun taking steps to improve its legal training by expanding its training requirements and curriculum, but it has not formalized these efforts through policies and procedures. The Marine Corps is also taking steps to update its legal training materials, but has not taken actions to require that a comprehensive mix of legal training be provided to commanders throughout their careers. Similarly, the Army and the Air Force conduct surveys and reviews of individual courses, but do not know if the current timing, amount, and mix of legal training is meeting the needs of commanders. Both services would benefit from undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the entire continuum of legal training provided to commanders to determine whether they are being sufficiently prepared to carry out their legal responsibilities.

Why GAO Did This Study

U.S. military commanders are entrusted with a wide range of unique legal responsibilities that are necessary to carry out their missions. As commanders operate in an increasingly complex legal and policy environment, appropriately tailored legal training can help ensure compliance with legal requirements.

House Report 115-676, accompanying a bill for the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, included a provision that GAO review the legal training commanders receive. This GAO report, examines, among other things, the extent to which the services: (1) provide legal training to commanders and account for the training received; and (2) assess legal training provided to commanders to determine whether it meets commanders' needs. GAO analyzed training and personnel documents and data from the services, interviewed agency officials, and conducted discussion groups and interviews with commanders and legal support staff from each service.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 15 recommendations, including that the services identify and address issues with training completion data; the Navy formalize its actions to expand its training; the Marine Corps require a mix of legal training; and the Army and the Air Force assess the continuum of legal training provided to commanders. The Department of Defense generally agreed with the recommendations, and described actions planned or completed for many of the recommendations, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should determine the reasons that the training completion data for ASEP-B in the system of record differs from the records maintained by the course providers; assess the underlying data issues that prevent an accurate assessment of SOLO completion rates using only data from the system of record; and take steps to address those issues to ensure that training completion data are comprehensively and accurately collected and documented in the designated system of record. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should direct training providers to use a system of record to track legal training courses such as New Flag and Senior Executive Training Symposium and the Command Leadership Seminar to ensure that training completion data are comprehensively and accurately collected and documented. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should determine the reasons that the training completion data for the Marine Corps Brigadier General Select Orientation Course in the data warehouse differs from the records maintained by the course provider, and take steps to address those issues to ensure that training completion data are comprehensively and accurately collected and documented in the designated system of record. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should determine the reasons that the training completion data for SOLO and the Senior Leader Orientation Course in the system of record differs from the records maintained by the course providers and take steps to address those issues to ensure that training completion data are comprehensively and accurately collected and documented in the designated system of record. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should ensure The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School establishes and implements guidance for conducting Level 3 surveys of dedicated legal training on a continual basis. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure the Naval Justice School establishes and implements guidance for conducting Level 3 surveys of dedicated legal training on a continual basis. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should ensure The Air Force Judge Advocate General's School establishes and implements guidance for conducting Level 3 surveys of dedicated legal training on a continual basis. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should examine the need and feasibility of conducting Level 3 surveys or other higher-level techniques for assessing training for training with blocks of legal content that would allow for commanders to provide feedback about the course some period of time after assuming command. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should examine the need and feasibility of conducting Level 3 surveys or other higher-level techniques for assessing Navy training for training with blocks of legal content that would allow for commanders to provide feedback about the course some period of time after assuming command. (Recommendation 9)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should examine the need and feasibility of conducting Level 3 surveys or other higher-level techniques for assessing training for Marine Corps training with blocks of legal content that would allow for commanders to provide feedback about the course some period of time after assuming command. (Recommendation 10)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should examine the need and feasibility of conducting Level 3 surveys or other higher-level techniques for assessing training for training with blocks of legal content that would allow for commanders to provide feedback about the course some period of time after assuming command. (Recommendation 11)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should develop policies and procedures that formalize the Navy's implementation of the legal course for junior officers and the intermediate legal course for O-4 and senior O-3 grade officers and ensure the courses are provided to all officers. (Recommendation 12)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should require a comprehensive mix of legal training to be provided to all Marine Corps commanders throughout their careers. (Recommendation 13)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should comprehensively assess the entire continuum of legal training provided to commanders throughout their careers to help ensure that they are receiving legal training at the time, in the amount, and on the mix of topics needed to prepare them for the legal responsibilities of their positions. (Recommendation 14)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should comprehensively assess the entire continuum of legal training provided to commanders throughout their careers to help ensure that they are receiving legal training at the time, in the amount, and on the mix of topics needed to prepare them for the legal responsibilities of their positions. (Recommendation 15)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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