The Army is designing a new course to prepare newly promoted master sergeants for the next step in their careers.

The course, tentatively named the Master Leader Course, will be a new addition to the Army's noncommissioned officer education system, which already includes the Warrior Leader Course, Advanced Leader Course and Senior Leader Course. Officials hope to run a pilot course in fall 2015.

"There has been fairly consistent feedback that there's a gap of knowledge in our E-8 population, whether they're master sergeants or serving as first sergeants," said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese, the commandant of the Army Sergeants Major Academy.

The academy, at Fort Bliss, Texas, is responsible for establishing the soon-to-be Master Leader Course, which will be a skill level 5 program, Defreese said.

"We have six skill levels now," he said. "It used to be E-8 and E-9 were skill level 5. When we moved some of those tasks to the E-9 level, we never really codified what the critical tasks for skill level 5 are."

Master sergeants were the one level of soldiers with no dedicated education course, said Aubrey Butts, director of the Institute for NCO Professional Development.

"They go to SLC and then to the Sergeants Major Academy," Butts said. "There's this long gap between their education and trying to figure out what they need and why they need it."

After 13 years of war, the Army must concentrate on building an "Army of preparation," Butts said, "making sure we have the right leaders in the right place at the right time with the right knowledge."

The Sergeants Major Academy is in the analysis phase of building the course, Defreese said. This is the first phase, and it will be followed by design, development, improvement and evaluation.

To start, the academy conducted several focus groups with sergeants first class, master sergeants and first sergeants, he said. These NCOs were asked to rate more than 320 critical tasks based upon importance, Defreese said.

Officials, with help from INCOPD, then followed up with a critical task site selection board that included the top NCOs for Forces Command, Training and Doctrine Command, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, along with battalion and company commanders and senior sergeants major from across the force.

These leaders were brought in to "do the same thing the focus groups did, evaluate and rank the critical tasks we think an E-8 should have," Defreese said.

"We also had discussions with those senior leaders on what we think an E-8 should possess as far as attributes and skills and knowledge," he said. "That just finished [Oct. 22] and we're analyzing the results."

Early findings show many leaders agree the course should include training in areas such as writing, briefing senior leaders, operations management, training management, mission command, doctrine, critical thinking, operating in a joint environment, problem solving and staff integration, Defreese said.

"These are some of the things, across the board, that the focus ground and critical task site selection board were pretty unanimous we need to put in this course," he said. "How we do it, we're not there yet."

A lot of work remains to be done before the course is ready, Defreese said.

This includes determining the curriculum, how long the course should be, and how much should be conducted online versus a classroom, he said.

On average, it takes 450 hours of work to develop one hour of online instruction; it takes about 60 hours to develop one hour of face-to-face instruction, Defreese said.

"It's a constant cycle," he said. "Every time you go into something, you constantly, analyze, design and refine."

The course will be part of the Army's "lifelong learning model," Defreese said.

"Our goal is to make sure that we're teaching skills at the right place," he said.