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SMSgt. Gessica Lillich, USA

NPS Student, Defense Analysis

Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Gessica E. Lillich is a student in the Defense Analysis program at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is Lillich most recently served as the Senior Executive Assistant to the Command Senior Enlisted Leader of U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill AFB, Florida. In this capacity, she leads administrative communications in addition to planning key leader engagements, that span strategic, operational and tactical echelons of the joint force. Moreover, she serves as the conduit between the Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Combatant Command, and Theater Special Operations Command headquarters, supporting 24/7 combat operations around the globe in support of special operations.

Lillich has a diverse background which began as a Security Forces response team leader providing nuclear security for our nation. She later transitioned to the Sensor Operator role for the MQ-9 Reaper, where she amassed over 2,000 combat and combat support flight hours in direct support of forces advancing national interests across Central Command (CENTCOM) areas of responsibility. Her past assignments have included Nevada, Italy, New Mexico and a deployment to Qatar. Lillich hails from Long Beach, California, and entered active duty in 2005.

"Working closely with my naval officer counterparts, as well as Japanese and Australian Naval officers, [on NPS' first ever overseas wargame in support of COMSUBPAC] I was able to immerse myself in naval operations at Yokosuka Naval Station. This was unlike any experience of my nearly 18 year career and it was an immeasurable experience."

What brought you to NPS? How do you see the skills and knowledge you are gaining in the Defense Analysis program benefiting you in your future career?

NPS is a unique environment to not only pursue higher education while on active duty but to be surrounded by future senior leaders of our military force and international forces. The experience and opportunity to add to and glean from this institution is what has brought me to NPS. The skills and knowledge that I am gaining from the Defense Analysis program thus far will have a significant impact on my future career. As a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer, this program is preparing me to not only share the strategic outlook of my officer counterparts but prepare me to be a well-informed senior advisor as part of a leadership team.

What types of roles or opportunities do you hope to pursue after graduation?

With the diversity of my background as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft Sensor Operator and time spent in Air Force Special operations, my future role is fluid. I can have the opportunity to serve at a Theater Special Operations Command as Senior Enlisted Leader in either operations or strategic planning. I could also return to my enlisted aviation community to plan and lead future aviators. I am excited and honored to serve in whatever role I am needed.

What have been the most impactful experiences or memorable moments during your time at NPS that have shaped your perspective or enriched your education?

Currently I am in my 3rd quarter and so far it would have been my opportunity to develop and advise this institution’s first ever overseas wargame in support of COMSUBPAC, via Wargaming Operations. Working closely with my naval officer counterparts, as well as Japanese and Australian Naval officers, I was able to immerse myself in naval operations at Yokosuka Naval Station. This was unlike any experience of my nearly 18 year career and it was an immeasurable experience.

While at NPS, have you been involved in any specific research projects or practical exercises related to defense analysis or autonomous systems? What defense challenges or topics were these research projects or practical exercises focused on?

Currently I have not specified my research regarding autonomous systems as I have focused more on the strategic implications rather than the hardware required. As a career enlisted aviator for the better part of a decade, I am confident that what we fly or operate will be just as important, if not more as to how and why. I still have some time here at NPS to pursue that aspect of research while there are opportunities to research and step out of my comfort zone. Those are the projects that I am shifting my focus to at this time.

What challenges are you or would you like to address with your research while at NPS and how could it impact the DOD and SOF based on your experiences?

First as the first USAF enlisted sensor operator to attend NPS, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t state the obvious, I should be researching the next generation and future of autonomous flight. However, what I have learned so far during my time here, is frankly the future is now. Does this mean there is not more to research? Definitely not but one of the challenges facing autonomous flight, while it can and will have significant impact within SOF and the DOD, there needs to be a distinctive target for us to collectively reach, select that option and implement. I fear that while autonomy is the future of flight it is diverging the focus from the resourcing and the personnel that will still be apart of the equation.

From your experience working at AFSOC and USSOCOM, what insights have you gained into the strategic considerations and challenges of SOF? What areas of research do you think are particularly relevant for enhancing the effectiveness of SOF and how can NPS contribute to these areas?

One of most strategic considerations and challenges of SOF right now is identity. This is an inflection point of where SOF is no longer primarily air/ground/sea focused however cyber/autonomous/AI. How to merge all these capabilities together while still utilizing the specialized training that makes SOF well SOF. While the days of door kicking and hellfire strikes may not be as prevalent as it was 10 years ago, there will be a need to redefine that identify and integrate these concepts while using the last 20 years as a case study to what we can keep and frankly what will not work moving forward. The areas of research I think we could develop future concepts would first start taking a look at theater organization structure. Do geographically aligned TSOCs make sense if we are facing pacing/trans-regional threats? Maybe worth looking at it through a different lens.

Autonomy introduces new decision-making dynamics and considerations. How do you see the role of RPA sensor operators evolving in an autonomous environment, and what critical expertise and insights do they bring to the table that complement autonomous capabilities?

I think that the role of the sensor operator will evolve into active monitoring of systems. There are capabilities that have been autonomous in the sense of not requiring major calculations to effect but have always required a pilot and sensor operator to monitor. I see with proper training of systems, tactical, and operational knowledge, the sensor operator will remain to provide recommendations and employ as we have in the past.

From your perspective as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft sensor operator, what are the key advantages and considerations of transitioning toward more autonomous RPAs?

I think one of the major advantages that the RPA sensor operator has at his/her disposal is the next generation of aviators. These young men and women enthusiastic and primed to be a part of history. People will always be our greatest advantage. As we transition, that vigor, energy, and fearlessness will be necessary because as the old saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It will require fresh eyes and minds to ensure we do not fall into the trap of “this is how we’ve always done it.”

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