SCUSA unites civilian, military leaders on present and future challenges

By Eric S. Bartelt PV Managing Editor - November 13, 2023
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Future military and civilian leaders gathered at the U.S. Military Academy to discuss current and future global issues during the 74th annual Class of 1971 Student Conference of U.S. Affairs (SCUSA), hosted by the Department of Social Sciences (SOSH), from Nov. 1-4.

This year’s SCUSA theme was “Innovation and the Future of American Foreign Policy.” Over the course of the four-day event, a diverse gathering of participants, including USMA cadets, civilian college students from the United States and abroad, and cadets from both domestic and international military academies discussed the obstacles facing American leadership in the 21st century. Topics ranged from emerging technologies to climate change, each posing significant challenges, while also discussing the dynamic of the global political, social and economic spectrum.

Fifteen roundtable discussions brought together 185 students from 92 universities across the United States, along with 15 international students, and approximately 20 cadets from domestic and international military academies. Additionally, 60 USMA cadet delegates were divided into 15 small groups with the other students to discuss varied topics from Russia and Ukraine to the Middle East conflict.

The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Secretary John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, during the SCUSA banquet. The event also included various activities including meet-and-greet dinners, a delegate mixer, and demonstrations by cadet clubs such as the Combat Weapons team, Army West Point Parachute team and an Indoor Obstacle Course Test (IOCT) demonstration providing a firsthand experience of West Point for the attending students.

To ensure the smooth organization of the conference, SOSH officers and dedicated cadets collaborated with the SCUSA staff starting two weeks after the conclusion of the previous year’s SCUSA event.

It all begins with selecting the new cadet command staff where the commander, the executive officer (XO), the sergeant major and the operations officer are chosen. There were 17 cadets who were a part of this year’s SCUSA staff.

Two cadets who were the main cogs in getting SCUSA ‘74 off the ground were Class of 2024 Cadets Zach Vernier, the SCUSA ‘74 commander, and Isabella Chirico, the SCUSA ‘74 command sergeant major.

 Vernier, last year’s SCUSA XO, manages the planning and preparation of the conference while actively recruiting cadets to participate. Once the conference begins, he oversees the operations, and his staff manages the event. Additionally, Vernier serves as the conduit between officers and cadets. Throughout the conference, SOSH instructors Maj. Daniel Coletti and Lt. Col. Sean McKnight, provided valuable assistance to Vernier during the process of the operation. 

The officers provided insight because “they’ve spent a ton of time on staff, and they bring that aspect. We don’t see a lot of staff at West Point, it’s all focused on being a platoon leader and being a company commander,” said Vernier, who mentioned a majority of time as an officer is spent on a staff.

“Maj. Coletti and Lt. Col. McKnight provided great mentorship,” Vernier, a systems engineering major, added, “The point of the conference from the staff side and cadet development side … is we get to see how a staff runs, and we get to work as a staff and produce an operation. This is a four-day conference with 200-plus people – it’s a big event. It really gives us insight on the way things need to run, and it’ll serve us better when we get to the Army.”

Vernier’s right-hand person is Chirico, who he considers his “enforcer.”

“She makes sure that it’s happening the way it needs to happen, and makes sure standards are met and she’s there checking on everything,” Vernier said. “We’re a team. This conference wouldn’t happen without her. The same goes with the XO and the S-3 (operations). (Class of 2025 Cadet) Summer Mirigliano is the XO and her job is to manage the staff.

“I’m here to make decisions and provide direction while she’s there to execute and organize staff,” Vernier added. “(Mirigliano) and Isabela Chirico are the ones who make the conference happen.”

During the beginning of the process, they start thinking about a theme for the coming year’s conference.

“We move into figuring out what our theme should be,” Vernier said. “Should it be a broad topic, or should we be more specific this year? What does the staff find interesting? We worked through that for a few weeks.”

Conducting several meetings, cadets collaborated with officers who provided while various theme options for the conference. All the suggestions were sent to the SOSH Department Head, Col. Suzanne Nielsen, who then approved the theme and roundtable discussion topics. But how did the cadets choose innovation and the future of foreign policy as the main theme of the conference?

“We talked a lot about what was impacting the world right now, and the impacts all came from rapid technological change. Deep fakes – nobody saw them coming. Drones on the Ukrainian battlefield – nobody saw them coming,” Vernier said. “Cyberattacks – nobody saw them coming. That’s not just warfare. I mean deep fakes, that’s policy and social media – that’s state level. 

“Even down to the personal level, deep fakes affect people personally,” Vernier added when taking about bots on platforms like Twitter (X). “All these things, it kept coming back to a rapid technological change that the U.S. and the world didn’t prepare for. That’s what we wanted to talk about.”

Vernier mentioned that states may use propaganda or deep fakes to get a political leader to lead their adversary’s country or to just sow discord in opposing countries.

“There are so many ways these different media tools can be used,” Vernier said. “At the grassroots level, groups that want to spread hate, it gives them a wider repertoire to spread their message. China is very good at it as they have it at a state-instituted level. The U.S. does and every other country does, but China perfected the art right now.

“For thousands of years, every country that’s been at war or has been on an adversarial path with another country – it’s called psychological operations,” he added. “Sow discord in the enemy, you’re going to do better. We just changed how we do it. Now, it’s on social media.”

Vernier has a prior enlisted background as a 12 Whiskey, Carpentry and Masonry Specialist, and being the SCUSA commander has only helped him continue to build his professional development as a future leader.

“You have to be a professional … that’s something I’ve grown into, and you have to grow into your roles (as an officer),” Vernier said. “As a staff, we move up as you start as an assistant, then a shop head or supply shop. Then senior year, you can probably be the XO, commander, sergeant major, which all have their defined roles, but you’re stepping into that role, and you own that role, which makes you better for it.”

Chirico, who is an international affairs major, loves SCUSA because it brings about serious conversations on important topics. Overall, working with Vernier has proved to be a seamless working experience in her job as the sergeant major.

“The way we work together allows us to run this well,” said Chirico, who was the SCUSA S-2 security officer last year. “We have an agreement where he would work with outside persons on getting contracts … then I would work more internal, getting staff together, making sure all of our products are good. Making sure we have plans, so that when Nov. 1 hit, we could run Nov. 1 through Nov. 4 relatively smoothly.”

Since August, they have been ramping up meetings with the Battalion Update Brief (BUB) every Monday. During the summer, Chirico created a task tracker so that every staff shop was aware of the things they needed to get done before each meeting.

“The experience of running a staff is a lot different than we get on a day-to-day basis,” Chirico said. “Every day, it’s about how you’d be as a platoon leader or how you lead subordinates. With SCUSA, there’s a final product we’re all aiming for, and we all have that final goal that we’re going toward. We have a common goal, a common thing to achieve. It’s a lot of forward thinking and planning ahead and getting tasks done.

“As sergeant major, my job is rules and standards enforcement,” the Brooklyn, New York, native added. “I was able to develop my ability to enforce standards and enforce rules and be strict … last year (as the S-2), I was a little more hesitant to make corrections. In a non-leadership role, I think that plays a big part of it. Psychologically, it’s hard to make corrections – we don’t want to mess with someone else. But, at the end of the day, we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t make that correction.”

This experience has helped build Chirico’s leadership style and she feels SCUSA has helped her build her confidence as she strives to become a second lieutenant in the Army.

“I need to be prepared by the time I graduate, to have my leadership style developed already,” said Chirico, who hopes to branch Quartermaster. “By the time I get to my unit, I can have confidence in the way that I lead and learn how to lead with the unit that I’m with.”

From the cadet leadership perspective, it is important to have this civil-military collaboration and building relationships among people who will be future leaders in the military and the government.

“Getting future leaders of the civilian side of the U.S. government … having an experience with the military, early in their career, is invaluable,” Vernier said. “I’ve talked to many mid-level and end of career civilians who said, ‘I went to SCUSA back in the day. That was my first interaction with the military and that set the stage for how I thought about it for years to come.’

“We’ve had people come who absolutely hate the military, which is fine,” Vernier added. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but I’m going to try my best to change it. If I can change one person’s mind, even an inch and get them to see that the military is probably not what they think … or at least the people who are in it probably aren’t quite what they think.

“I think that’s a part of this in bringing all these people who have totally different views that you probably don’t agree with,” Vernier concluded. “Maybe they make one point, something I didn’t think about before. Ok, I don’t agree with your stance but maybe some of it, you’ve got some points. Like we’re not going to change the world here, but we can change a couple of people’s views and maybe make them a little bit more open minded.”

Chirico said from her perspective that it is important for people to see the human side of this conference.

“I’m firmly of the opinion that a civilized conversation with someone can change, not only opinions, but it can change the preceding events,” Chirico said. “When you think military, you may think formations, uniforms and everyone is the same … but when you have a conversation with someone in the military, you realize that person is a unique human being, they have complex thoughts, ideas and opinions that can ultimately change the world for the better.

“Maybe I’m an idealist, but I think that anyone who comes to a conference like SCUSA and those participating as cadets or staff, we all have this idea of the future that we want to create, so with that understanding that those in the military are human beings have their unique ideas, have the perspective to change the world,” Chirico added. “Combine that with the future capabilities of those civilian delegates as well – you combine those, I really don’t think there’s anything or any challenge that we can’t tackle together. But it takes us getting to know each other for that to happen in the first place.”

Delegates communicate, debate on a better future

One of the roundtable discussions was titled, “The Threat and Promise of Innovative Technologies,” which with the rapid and accelerating evolution of technology, and it no longer allows humans the time to analyze and consider the repercussions for these innovations to our lives and society.

Jack Rhodes, a political science and electrical engineering double major senior at Duke University, took part in this roundtable that included four sessions and then a final policy paper presentation.

Rhodes discussed how he is interested in tech policy, regulation and lawmaking that goes into governing AI, cyber threats and data privacy.

“It is my senior research back at (Duke), as well as the work I was doing over the summer at the Capitol,” Rhodes said. “Going forward, I would definitely like to work in that space and how we can control these emerging threats.”

This was Rhodes’s first experience traveling to West Point, and he enjoyed every moment even though he “didn’t know what to expect” coming to the academy.

“I’ve absolutely loved it. It’s so neat to see the logistics of how all these cadets train for the military, as well as working with SCUSA and seeing all these minds coming together, both from the civilian students as well as the cadets and blending a lot of the military knowledge and civilian knowledge that we’re getting from all over the country,” Rhodes said.

From a civilian perspective, Rhodes spoke in-depth about the importance of the civil-military relations in debating the challenges of technology during the conference.

“This conference is kind of a synthesis of a lot of knowledge that I’ve gotten in different places,” Rhodes said. “Between my independent studies and senior research project, many of the classes I’ve taken as an undergrad at Duke, as well as some of my past internship experiences, it’s all coming together with the tech policy side.

“Then add being here at West Point, I feel like the defense and national security implications are being emphasized so much more, and I feel like that’s something I’ve missed out on working in the civilian side,” he added. “It’s been super cool to see the insights on national security that I can get being here working with cadets and different people at West Point.”

Within his roundtable on threat and promise of innovative technologies, Rhodes stated that the conversation on threat versus promise is there is “so much promise with these emerging technologies,” however, there is an immense “but” in his mind.

“The thing that needs to be addressed first with much of it is the threat and there’s so many international security implications going on with these technologies, specifically relating to defense,” Rhodes said. “I feel like prioritizing the military implications and the national security side of it is the first step and talking about AI or cybersecurity.”

In one of his group discussions, the delegates ranked the perceived biggest threats associated with AI, cybersecurity, date privacy, juxtaposed with exploring the substantial promises it offers and its potential for social good.

“It was really interesting to see the different perspectives from students and what people see is the biggest risk to them based on their life experiences,” Rhodes said. “Many people will say data privacy isn’t a huge concern for them and that they really don’t care about TikTok on their phone – that’s not a big concern for me. However, some of the cybersecurity stuff and kind of protecting critical infrastructure in the United States is more of a risk to them, which can be bigger for people who grew up in areas that might be at risk for flooding or more oil dependent areas, where cybersecurity kind of plays into that risk.

“Some of the promises we’ve talked about are producing better social equity, which people growing up in different communities view social equity in different ways,” Rhodes said. “It’s interesting in the way people see the eventual good of these emerging technologies.”

The biggest immediate threat, Rhodes deemed, is the disinformation based on the current capabilities of AI and the upcoming 2024 election.

“The most immediate threat is the ability to have a lot of negative influence coming from a bad place,” said Rhodes, a native of Purcellville, Virginia. “Not just domestic actors, international people can collect data on us, understand how we think and then make kind of a curated, targeted disinformation campaign that can end up being very effective and sway the election in a way that domestic society would not otherwise reflect.”

Rhodes really enjoyed the conference and the emphasis on “positive discourse” with people of extreme variation and backgrounds, particularly the civilian and military differences.

“It’s such a productive exchange with getting these very young future leaders all together in that civilians have insights from a lot of different fields, from many different institutions while that’s complemented from the military backgrounds,” Rhodes said. “I think going forward, it kind of allows us to make the decisions that will inform our career and our career decisions based on that intersection. 

“A lot of times civilian leaders will make decisions with the military as an afterthought, or military leaders won’t necessarily be preparing in a sense that’s conducive to how civilian leaders will act,” he added. “We see a lot of dysfunction going on in Congress or the legislature that’s not always helping out the military in a productive way. I think it’d be really cool to see leaders coming out of this conference and coming out of this interaction who are making decisions with both civilians and the military at the forefront.”

Another member of Rhodes’s roundtable was Class of 2026 Cadet Luke Burris, a Physical Geography major, who hopes to branch Aviation much like SCUSA commander, Vernier.

Burris, who is the son of USMA 2001 graduates, said the topic of technology and the threats and promises it holds was a surprise to him from the issues brought to the table.

“There were things on the radar that I wasn’t familiar with before,” Burris said. “I think it’s directly applicable to my future as an officer as I go on after I graduate.”

Burris feels having discussions with civilian students who will be future leaders is a benefit to his and everyone’s future.

“It’s good practice for the military to maintain a good conversation with the civilian populace in order to brainstorm or get good ideas on tech because we’ve seen that civilian contractors ten to have better ideas and they can think outside the box,” Burris said. “They’re not limited in the ways that government is. A good example that we talked about yesterday with Elon Musk having the resources he does. He’s come up with solutions the government didn’t even think of, like his use of the Skylark Communication Satellite in order to get information from the Ukraine government out of the cloud and where they placed it during a Russian attack. They arguably single handedly saved the Ukraine government from falling to Russian hands, and it was a civilian who did that.”

Discussing the innovation perspective, Burris noted that many cadets were not tracking the AI landscape until last semester. He highlighted breakthroughs in AI, Chat GPT II and Chat GPT III, emphasizing, “The more it progresses, the more we didn’t know of its possibilities. I think there’s still more to be gained from AI in the future.” 

Obviously, Burris highlighted the negative consequences that can emerge from AI, drawing parallels to the way nuclear energy had both positive and starkly negative implications during the Cold War. He particularly emphasized the current scenario, highlighting the competition in the AI field with the United States’ two major adversaries, Russia and China. 

“China gains information, but we’re not sure where that’s going or how that could affect us in the future,” Burris said. “However, Russia is using a lot of aggression to cause chaos in what used to be the Soviet Union arena, and those countries now, Ukraine, for example, to also spread misinformation. We also saw that in the 2016 election.”

Shifting away from AI entirely, Burris noted the vast array of other technologies that society has only begun to explore, an aspect which is significantly important for him as a physical geography major. 

“One of the technologies we’re exploring right now in our department is Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, which is a satellite device to study terrain, and in the past, we’ve used it to discover come historical sites lost to the annuals of history,” Burris said. “We’ve discovered grave sites, stories that haven’t been told – so that can help in that area.”

On the other end of that spectrum is if the enemy uses it, technology like Google Maps, to their advantage.

“Route planning was used (through Google Maps) in order to help Ukrainians flee into Poland, and it showed places where there was traffic and congestion,” Burris said. “The Russians were actually shelling and bombing those sites where it would get maximum damage. You see enormous potential like Google Maps in trying to help Ukrainians evacuate, but also Russians hacking the system and taking advantage of it – there is a good and bad side of this.

“There’s two different directions we should go with the technology,” he added. “One is developing, and another is defending. As we go along, make sure we stay one step ahead so that we can anticipate an adversary’s use of the technology, misuse of the technology and then counter it with our own defenses.”

As Burris’ group was in the process of writing its final policy paper through its discussions, he said they wrote down the general ideas and organized them. At that point, they were outlining and brainstorming to produce one single thought process, which to that point AI was their common focus.

“Right now, the piece I’m working on is the humanitarian approach, the applications that it can have and we’re seeing it can be used to take in a lot of data, analyze it and then spit out a bunch of solutions in a much timelier manner than people are capable of,” Burris said. “The way it was explained to me is AI is good for problem-solving as in a game scenario, but not so much in theorizing … for example, a game of chess, it would be able to find infinite solutions or moves. 

“It has proved to be better than the best human chess player by just making moves that no human could have predicted or viewed before,” he added. “However, when it comes to having opinions and theories, it can be completely off the rails. Not only be unethical, but also just be wrong. It lacks a certain common sense that people have.”

For Burris, especially with this being his first experience with SCUSA, this was a wonderful experience for him to grow and learn among many different thinking individuals.

“It’s a great opportunity to talk to people form regular colleges, compare lifestyles, discuss issues that we may see our different views and stances based off a lot of these people aren’t military,” Burris said. “It’s good to have all kinds of different views and bring that together into a single discussion. It’s truly been interesting especially under the lens of innovation.”