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From Oppenheimer to Today: SSP’s Young Leaders Push for Advocacy, Mentorship in the Nuclear Enterprise

23 May 2024

From Shelby Thompson

LAS VEGAS – Young professionals from Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) gave voice to perspectives from the newest members of the nuclear enterprise during the Strategic Deterrent Coalition Symposium NextGen Nuclear Enterprise Professions DOD Perspective Panel May 9.
Delaney Burlingame, SSP New Employee Onboarding Workshop program manager, and Lt. Cmdr. Kaitlyn Bower, SSP deputy branch head for Reentry Systems, reflected on their unique career pathways; called for senior leaders within the nuclear enterprise to increase mentoring of new professionals; and advocated for the U.S. strategic deterrent across DOD and industry.

“As an engineering duty officer I have had a lot of great opportunities to mentor with senior leaders, both internal to SSP and with industry partners,” said Bower about her job at SSP, the Navy command that provides cradle-to-grave lifecycle support for the sea-based leg of the nation’s nuclear triad.

“[Mentoring] has been pivotal to my career, helping me move forward and learn from others who have come before me.”

SSP is committed to providing world-class training, education, and mentorship to the workforce, a priority that is underlined by SSP leadership.

“What we do is as vital as it is difficult,” said Vice Adm. Johnny R. Wolfe Jr. Director, SSP.

“In order to successfully execute our mission in support of the Navy and the nation, we must recruit and retain talented people from all corners of our nation.”

Burlingame added leaders should prioritize meeting new team members and recognize the importance of giving them a direct line of sight to the mission early on in their careers.

“I work in a position that trains new employees, and we really need our leaders to take the time to meet new staff members,” said Burlingame, adding it is crucial for leaders to emphasize to employees the criticality of the strategic deterrence mission they support.  

Six DOD young professionals joined Burlingame and Bower on the panel, each providing insight into their experiences working the missions of each leg of the nation’s nuclear triad. Throughout the panel, a common theme emerged highlighting the need for leadership to encourage more junior members of the enterprise to become leaders themselves, take ownership of successes, and be accountable for setbacks within their areas of responsibility.

In keeping with the Strategic Deterrent Coalition’s role as a nonprofit, nonpartisan community-based organization formed to support the nuclear triad by providing educational information on the importance to the U.S. of maintaining safe, secure, and effective deterrence, the NextGen panel came on the heels of a robust discussion on the impact of director Christopher Nolan’s 2023 hit film ‘Oppenheimer,’ and the importance of understanding the history of strategic deterrence as the world enters a new nuclear age.

“During the Cold War we knew who the enemy was,” Col. Keith J. Butler, the commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base said during the Special Presentation National Nuclear Security Administration Oppenheimer Review Panel.

Brig. Gen. Alan Carr (USAF, Ret.) held a unique perspective on the subject as the Los Alamos National Laboratory historian. Carr drew on his experience from the past and highlighted how shared understanding between nations with nuclear capabilities is a vital piece of the strategic deterrence mission now and into the future.

The treaties that we have with Russia right now in various forms and our various levels of cooperation – we don’t have any of that with China […] What that turns into is a lack of transparency, a lack of understanding of nations’ capabilities and will on the global stage when it comes to strategic deterrence.”

Carr reflected on how today’s nuclear enterprise workforce continues to honor and build on Oppenheimer’s legacy.

"There is a great responsibility that goes along with this work and there always has been,” he said. “[Oppenheimer] believed, on the one side, in the potential dangers of this new era… But Oppenheimer also looked forward with hope because the great powers have been held at bay by deterrence and other forms of keeping the peace have emerged.”

SSP continues to uphold its responsibility to the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad, sustaining the Trident II D5 strategic weapon system (SWS), while developing the Trident II D5 Life Extension 2 (D5LE2) SWS. Bower and Burlingame linked the urgency that Oppenheimer’s team had in the 1940s to the sense of urgency that SSP’s leaders work to instill in the workforce at every level —led by Vice Adm. Wolfe.  
“It’s a very exciting time for us at SSP as we move into all of the modernization programs while sustaining the D5LE program,” said Bower. “Advocacy for the strategic deterrent is pivotal to our success, especially as we move forward with such massive modernization programs.”

Bower’s sentiment was echoed by SSP’s Chief Engineer Dr. Steven Van Dyk (SES) during a separate panel with Maj. Gen. Jason R. Armagost, the Commander of the Eighth Air Force, and commander of the Joint-Global Strike Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.  During his remarks, he compared the urgency that spread throughout the nuclear enterprise in the 1940s; during the last wave of large modernization overhaul at the height of the Cold War in the1980s; and presently, with the energy he sees in today’s workforce.

“We’re working hard to regenerate that feeling you had in the 1980s when you talk about what we needed to do for nuclear modernization,” said Van Dyk.  “We want to make sure everyone [all generations within the workforce] understands their support to the warfighter and how they fit into sea-based strategic deterrence,”

A common phrase at SSP is ‘Nuclear is hard,’—and serves as a reminder that the work SSP and the rest of the nuclear enterprise does was challenging in the 1940s and is challenging today. SSP’s panelists drew an undeniable link between the scientific heights of the 1940s to their organization’s present-day push to continue the standard of technical excellence; meet the warfighter’s needs; and provide the full spectrum of deterrence options to the nation’s leaders.

The young professionals on the panel were eager to tackle issues similar to those that previous generations grappled with, while building on the nearly eight decades of scientific knowledge gained since Oppenheimer’s breakthrough.

“There’s a new nuclear age happening. We need to get this right,” Butler poignantly noted at the conclusion of the symposium.  

Strategic Systems Programs is the Navy command that provides cradle-to-grave lifecycle support for the sea-based leg of the nation’s nuclear triad.


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