“What assumptions did you consider in your exercise scenario?”
This was the first of a series of questions Brigadier General William Murphy, mobilization assistant to the commander of United States Strategic Command, posed to the nine undergraduate and graduate students sitting in front of him recently at USSTRATCOM headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
Ethan Czapla, a senior political science and history major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, responded promptly: “We thoroughly researched each country within our scenario so we could understand their capabilities now and anticipate capabilities in the future to make our tabletop exercise as realistic as possible.”
“The world today presents a unique set of deterrence challenges. Strategic deterrence is not a static concept, and research must take into account a wider array of variables than in years past,” Murphy said. “I am appreciative of the work NRSI does for strategic deterrence and our national security. The research these young professionals presented is setting the stage for the future of deterrence. We are taking their novel thoughts, concepts and work and implementing them into our discussions and future plans. We need people like these future leaders in our Strategic Command enterprise.”
Briefing Murphy for 30 minutes about their projects was the culminating experience for the interns who had worked for 10 weeks to not only learn and understand critical parts of the command’s mission, but to deliver products that could move forward in development.
“I’ve learned that deterrence is a psychological game more than anything — it’s an extraordinarily dynamic and complex art that is becoming increasingly difficult in the global landscape,” said Grace Sandretti, a junior international studies and global security major and Army ROTC at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I’ve also learned there is a great misconception about what USSTRATCOM aims to accomplish. Peace and deterrence are their main goals, and USSTRATCOM is truly a cornerstone of U.S. national security.”
Working in two cohorts, the interns completed two research efforts that benefit USSTRATCOM interests.
Cohort 1 researched the implications of leveraged resource employment in military planning systems using graph databases in support of Air Force Life Cycle Management Center interests.
Using Neo4J graph database software, the interns modeled resource distribution in a scenario of multiple natural disasters over an expansive area where the individual disasters created complex logistical challenges. They considered types of disasters, types of equipment, FEMA zones, personnel, supplies and vehicles.
Through their database model, the interns were able to determine equipment proximity to zones, better visualize equipment location and mobilization, and create useful visuals when viewing different situations over the course of a 5-day scenario.
“I have learned about all the ways technology is integrated into our strategic deterrence, and how strategic deterrence extends so much further than just nuclear weapons, especially in the cyberspace,” said Max Sievenpiper, sophomore supply chain management and computer science major in the Raikes School at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “This experience has helped me discover the possibilities of working alongside the DOD in the tech sphere, including with government contractors. I have also narrowed my focus in my major — towards backend and database development.”
Cohort 2 designed a tabletop exercise to investigate allied viewpoints and reactions concerning non-strategic nuclear weapons employment in a potential China-Taiwan conflict.
Considering questions such as, “What factors influence an ally’s willingness to participate?” the students developed a road to war, first move, second move, and third move in a forthcoming National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) tabletop exercise. Their delivered product is intended to walk Pacific allies through a possible conflict where the Chinese employ low-yield nuclear weapons to gauge allied participation and decision making.
“I knew I wanted to end up in the national security realm, and this internship just solidified that for me,” Sandretti said. “I’ve gained a better understanding of U.S. strategic spaces, institutions, and the opportunities within them. There seems to be an unlimited variety of career paths in the national security sphere, which makes me excited for my future career.”
In addition to the product deliverables that NSRI will carry forward, the interns themselves gained valuable mission perspective, professional development and leadership skills.
“I think this internship is important for students because of the important real-world context that is covered,” said Jared Dingman, senior psychology and economics major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I am significantly more aware of the variety of important issues in our defense sector after being exposed to military discourse and studying some current issues regarding defense.
“I have also obtained extremely valuable skills from this internship that I plan to take with me for the rest of my professional career. Perhaps the most important skill is confidence — after consistently interacting with experts and Ph.D. professionals, I feel far more comfortable expressing my thoughts.”
This is the sixth year NSRI has designed and delivered this experience to high-achieving undergraduate and graduate students. The aim is to provide knowledge, skills, professional development and mentorship to the next generation of the national security workforce, a call explicitly highlighted in the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS).
“The NDS states that the DOD needs to radically improve and accelerate the ability to identify, recruit and leverage talent in order for the strategy to be successful,” said Maj. Gen., USAF (Ret.) Rick Evans, NSRI executive director. “That is what this program has always set out to do, and I am proud every year to witness each of the students dig in, step up and deliver important work and impressive results.
“We also appreciate USSTRATCOM leadership’s engagement in this effort — it is incredibly motivating for these students to have the opportunity to brief. They did a great job again this year.”