Put On Your Thinking Cap: National security course is an educational experience like no other
A Reserve Components National Security Course student asks Dr. Dan Kuehl a question during his lecture on information and national security. Kuehl is director of the Information Strategies Concentration Program at the National Defense University, Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C. (Coast Guard YN1 Sagrario Medrano)
by Maj. Sharon Kibiloski
Air Force Reserve Command
3/28/2012 - Citizen Airman/Apr 2012 -- It's a chilly morning on Fort Lesley J. McNair, a historic military post situated at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers in Washington, D.C. In a National Defense University classroom, several students in business suits pore over a world map and debate courses of action for their given problem.
"Direct military action? I'm not sure that's the best option. There's got to be something else we can do," said Air Force Col. Vito Addabbo, an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Global Operations Directorate at U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.
"How about assisting their military instead? We could place a special forces team there to provide them with advice and guidance," said Army Lt. Col. Chris Gerdes, staff officer in the Office of the Provost Marshal General, Headquarters Department of the Army.
Addabbo and Gerdes are attending the Reserve Components National Security Course, a two-week joint course for senior officers and senior noncommissioned officers designed to lay a foundation for future joint command management and staff responsibilities in multinational, intergovernmental and joint national security settings.
By emphasizing joint roles, requirements, missions and operations, the RCNSC awards graduates two points in the joint qualification system.
"The course offers a framework for thinking about problems strategically," said Navy Cmdr. Mike Mullen, director of the Joint Reserve Affairs Center, the NDU special component responsible for administering the course. "We bring together reservists from all services -- and even partner nations -- to focus on teaching them how to think. ... not what to think."
Conducted three times a year for about 350 total students, the RCNSC is an educational experience like no other for most members of the reserve components.
Academic Content and Philosophy
Using a unique lecture and small group format, students learn about and discuss a vast array of national security topics in an environment free from military rank and attribution.
Course topics are pulled from a variety of disciplines and range from military strategy to economics to interagency processes to regional studies.
While these enduring subjects make up a bulk of the coursework, current topics such as the effects of the Arab Spring and lessons in development and foreign aid add to the distinctive curriculum. Lectures are taught by faculty from several of the prestigious colleges and centers within the university, including the National War College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
"I love teaching at RCNSC because reservists have such broad backgrounds," said Dr. Alan Gropman, a recently retired distinguished professor of national security policy at ICAF who is now an adjunct professor at George Mason University. "In addition to military expertise, reservists have broad experience in industry and all parts of our government. They ask very sophisticated questions."
Mark Foulon, professor of business and industry at ICAF, agrees.
"RCNSC students live in a world beyond the military," he said. "If I tell them something that they don't agree with, they will not hesitate to call me on it!"
RCNSC is open to reserve senior officers (usually O-5 and O-6) and reserve senior NCOs (E-8 and E-9) of all services. To provide for a more open learning environment unencumbered by rank, students wear civilian business attire for the duration of the course. Adherence to a "non-attribution policy," meaning nothing said during the course can later be attributed directly or indirectly without permission, allows for more candid and beneficial discussions.
This type of collaborative environment better lends itself to learning, according to RCNSC senior staff.
"We want people to think about what answers are out there -- what's in the realm of the possible," said Air Force Col. Carol Reece, RCNSC senior seminar leader and a regional emergency preparedness officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "There's no spoon-feeding here. ... we want students to think and contribute without rank in any way."
Chief Master Sgt. Desriann Stevens found the environment very helpful.
"The freedom to be able to speak and share ideas without worrying about rank has impacted my learning tremendously in a good way," Stevens said. As a member of the active Guard and Reserve, Stevens is superintendent for policy integration in the Office of Air Force Reserve at the Pentagon.
While originally only for officers, senior NCOs have been taking part in RCNSC as part of their professional development for several years.
"Opening the course to enlisted reservists has been great for a couple of reasons," said Senior Master Sgt. Dominick Landolfi, superintendent for the RCNSC and a course graduate. "First, as senior NCOs, you are the voice of the enlisted, and that is a valuable perspective to have represented in discussions. And second, the course really broadens the perspective of the senior enlisted, forcing them to think globally, beyond their work centers."
Days at RCNSC are divided almost equally between large group lectures -- complete with question-and-answer interactions with the professors -- and small group seminars where students can discuss the material together with the help of a seminar leader.
The cadre of seminar leaders is comprised of prior students who are specifically interviewed and chosen for their facilitation skills and passion for the subjects, Reece said.
Col. Wade Smith, a first-time seminar leader during the January 2012 course, sees his role ranging from facilitator to referee, if need be.
"I try to set the right tone for interaction in the seminar sessions," he said. "Seminar leaders aren't just lecturers. We need to facilitate the conversation by pushing it in different directions, without being too directive, while still keeping the focus. It's an interesting balance."
Smith is the mobilization assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for contracting in his Air Force Reserve capacity and a Federal Aviation Administration flight test engineer in Atlanta when he is not on duty.
Learning about all of the components impacting national security in a joint environment, even things such as the structure of the U.S. electrical grid, has been eye-opening, Addabbo said. In his civilian career, Addabbo is an American Airlines pilot flying the Boeing 777 aircraft.
"Interaction with the other services has really been my favorite part of the course," he said. "During our discussions, we've discovered that we are all fighting the same battles in our services. ... we may just come at it a bit differently."
As preparation to attend RCNSC, students are required to write and bring with them a 500-word essay giving a viewpoint on one of several questions. The questions, ranging from the U.S. strategy toward China to the impact of the country's debt on national security, are meant to be thought-provoking and get the students ready to delve into strategic subjects they may not have dealt with before, Reece said.
Toward the end of the course, students share their essays with each other and discuss if, given the chance to do the assignment again, they would write anything differently. Most students say they would.
"I wrote about our strategic interest in Afghanistan post-Bin Laden," Stevens said. "After being in this course, I've definitely changed my thoughts a bit. I've got so much more knowledge to add now."
Applying the Concepts
To complement the lectures and seminars, RCNSC students have the opportunity to apply what they are learning in several venues, including a strategic policy exercise, a visit to Capitol Hill and an optional tour of Gettysburg National Military Park.
"These opportunities reinforce the principles of strategic thinking and take into account many different learning styles," Mullen said. "Some people learn by listening, some are more visual learners, and others need hands-on experiences in order to absorb the material."
The "Gulf Gambol" exercise, created by the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at NDU, provides a "hands-on" introduction to national security policy and strategy formulation.
The problem is designed to require students to assess the security challenge to U.S. national interests, determine appropriate policy to protect those interests, incorporate key concerns of members of the interagency community, consider opportunities and limitations, and ultimately develop a strategy that draws on a range of instruments of national power.
"Most of us are used to looking at problems from the tactical and operational level," Addabbo said. "When we were presented with this problem, we had to think strategically and not get bogged down in just how many battalions and wings we'll need. That was a bit out of our comfort zone."
During the exercise, students are assigned roles to play. Most are positions outside of the Department of Defense, such as in the Departments of State, Agriculture and Commerce.
"Part of the value of the exercise was just to see how hard it really is to account for everyone's equities when trying to develop a solution to a problem in a very time-constrained environment," Stevens said.
Taking advantage of the location in Washington, a highlight of the course is Capitol Hill Day. The day begins with briefings from a member of Congress, congressional staffers and other experts on the legislative process. Students then spend the afternoon on the Hill touring the Capitol -- with special access to both the House and Senate galleries -- or meeting with legislators from their home states and districts.
Building on the strategic geography course topic, students have the chance to tour the battlegrounds of Gettysburg with Dr. Paul Severance, a professor of military strategy and warfare at ICAF. Severance is an expert in the Civil War and provides a unique look at how geography played an important role in wars of the past just as it still does today.
Putting on a course of this magnitude requires an extensive and motivated support staff. RCNSC boasts a cadre of hand-selected people who ensure the smooth operation of the course. From in-processing students to providing technical support to seminars and lectures, the team of fellow Guard and Reserve members manages it all.
Enlisted Guard and Reserve members interested in becoming part of the RCNSC support staff can contact Master Sgt. Cynthia King, NCO in charge of the Joint Reserve Affairs Center, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to Apply to Attend
* Course is targeted at O-5s and O-6s (O-4s are allowed to apply and attend).
* Application and selection is made through the Reserve School Selection Board, which meets twice a year, usually in January and July.
* Invitation to apply goes out from the Air Reserve Personnel Center with applications due 30 days before a board convenes.
* Must meet all readiness requirements to apply.
* For more information, visit the Reserve School Selection Board page on the Air Force Personnel Services website at https://gum-crm.csd.disa.mil/app/answers/detail/a_id/14251/p/16,17/c/549.
* Course is targeted at E-8s and E-9s.
* Application and selection is made through the Enlisted Development Education Board, which meets once a year.
* Invitation to apply goes out in the May timeframe from the Air Reserve Personnel Center with applications due in early September.
* Members must have completed the Community College of the Air Force, have at least three years retainability and meet readiness requirements.
* For information, contact Chief Master Sgt. Ingrid Floyd, chief of enlisted force development at Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command, DSN 497-0252 or commercial 478-327-0252.
(Kibiloski is the mobilization assistant to the chief of public affairs at the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Office in San Antonio, Texas, and is a 2011 graduate of the Reserve Components National Security Course.)