The Chinese spy balloon that floated across North America earlier this year was a stark reminder of the security threats facing the U.S. Although the balloon itself posed no danger – and was ultimately shot down after its week-long journey – the episode offered an unsettling example of foreign adversaries hovering over the homeland.
As the enormous balloon traversed the continent, national security professionals studying at USC worked to understand the policy and engineering challenges in global defense. The eight-month USC SHIELD Executive Program in Global and Space Deterrence wrapped up in April with students presenting their capstone projects, which analyzed real-world problems from missile defense command in Guam to weapons in outer space.
“The importance of missile defense has increased here dramatically over the past few years,” said Jessica Kessinger, a senior director at Raytheon Missiles and Defense who participated in the program.
The USC SHIELD program, completing its second year, is a partnership among the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a non-profit that seeks to generate support for continued testing and development of missile defense systems. With the goal of bridging bureaucratic gaps between policy and engineering innovations, the program brings together professionals in government, military and industry. USC SHIELD touches on a wide range of policy and engineering topics, including international diplomacy, artificial intelligence and the history of missile defense.
The diverse professional backgrounds within the cohort allows students to not only learn from professors, but from each other, too. For example, Kessinger worked with Brigadier General Jeff Smyth of the Royal Canadian Air Force for a capstone project about protecting the Arctic. They identified infrastructure obstacles in the region, and proposed solutions such as expanding airfields and using satellites to improve communications.
As a military officer, Smyth usually has only a formal relationship with people in the private sector, but chatting with industry leaders in an academic environment gave him insight into what contractors are thinking and working on. As a Canadian, Smyth also learned about the U.S. government and military, from how projects are funded to how decision makers are influenced.
“Bringing a different viewpoint of the world, different experience, different understanding of how things work, I think is valuable for my American counterparts in the course,” Smyth said. “It’s valuable for me to get a different perspective as well.”
“Some of the deepest learning is happening within the cohort,” said Candace House Teixeira, associate dean of Corporate Engagement and Programs at USC Viterbi. “The students in the program are very high level. They are experts, teaching each other and leading conversations in each session.”
Capstone projects provided some sobering assessments of the capabilities – and limitations – of U.S. missile defense. For example, one group detailed how competing countries like Russia and China made their weapons difficult to detect with radar systems.
The students – Lieutenant Colonel Autumn Lopez of the National Guard Bureau, Major Jese Snyder of the United States Northern Command, and Rob Wittenauer of the Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (NC3) Enterprise Center – explored how airships known as “dirigibles” could extend missile detection ranges by elevating radars thousands of feet above ground. They cited the Chinese spy balloon in arguing for the need to regulate this “near space” area.
“Our program is about deterrence. We are about making sure that war never happens – that’s our main aim,” explained Frank Zerunyan, director of Executive Education at the USC Price School’s Bedrosian Center on Governance. “To do that, you have to know the reality. You have to know what’s real and what’s false hope.”
The capstone projects are meant to be shared with students’ supervisors, so they can be useful to military commands tackling those very problems, Zerunyan added.
“This second year has been phenomenal. We’ve been able to take the program to new heights where we’re delivering six capstones that are relevant in today’s fight for deterrence, all the way from space into the Pacific into our homeland,” said Riki Ellison, founder and CEO of the MDAA. “We’re producing something that’s very special.”
To see more photos from USC SHIELD’s capstone presentations, click here.