Trump Said He Found The Greatest Room He'd Ever Seen Deep In The Pentagon, Here's What He Meant
The 45th President of this great nation was on quite a roll yesterday during an exchange with the press that was part of a public portion of a cabinet meeting at the White House. There were some very interesting statements to unpack, to say the least, from a disjointed lesson on Russia’s failed excursion in Afghanistan to questionable proclamations regarding ex-Defense Secretary James Mattis’s tenure in Trump’s administration. But one part was especially interesting. Trump described a meeting with a large group of the military’s leadership in an ‘incredible’ technology-packed room at the Pentagon. What he was very likely describing is the seldom talked about and even less photographed National Military Command Center (NMCC).
“When I became President, I had a meeting at the Pentagon with lots of generals. They were like from a movie. Better looking than Tom Cruise and stronger. And I had more generals than I’ve ever seen, and we were at the bottom of this incredible room. I said ‘this is greatest room I’ve ever seen.’ I saw more computer boards than I think that they make today.”
You can watch his statement for yourself in the video below at time index 18:45:
Considering Donald Trump’s penchant for absolutely over-the-top ballrooms and living spaces, calling a bunker buried dozens of feet below the Pentagon “the greatest room I have ever seen” is really something. But it isn’t surprising that the NMCC would be highly impressive to Trump or anyone else that has no idea it even exists.
Basically, this facility was designed as a highly secure and command and control complex that serves as the nerve center and brain of the Pentagon, and by default, of the Department of Defense’s sprawling National Military Command System (NMCS) as a whole. This is the facility that contains the war rooms that have been notoriously over-hyped by Hollywood over the decades, including the iconic set used in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
The War Room set in Dr. Strangelove.
The NMCC is a product of the early nuclear age. It was built out of the Joint War Room that preceded it during the Kennedy Administration. Till this very day, the facility directly supports the National Command Authority and its ability to rapidly order-up nuclear attacks. As such, the amazing communications capabilities the facility has at its disposal are really its greatest asset.
Beyond connecting the National Command Authority during a crisis, the NMCC also issues the Emergency Action Messages (EAMS) that go out to bomber units, nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and ICBM missile silos scattered throughout the central United States, as well as the command and control aircraft that also support these delivery systems and the National Military Command System overall. These EAMs can quickly start or avert the end of the world as we know it.
In addition, early warning and command and control nodes scattered around the globe are also linked into the NMCC, allowing it to share a common situational ‘picture’ with other command centers, and most importantly, with Strategic Command’s bunker at its headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. This makes it possible for fast-moving events, like potential enemy missile attacks, to be reacted to in a coordinated manner even though the principals involved with deciding how to respond may be separated by thousands of miles. As such, its existence serves as a key cornerstone of America’s nuclear deterrent.
Beyond its Cold War-esque nuclear role, the NMCC also has many other functions. These include monitoring world events in real time and consolidating important and actionable intelligence and conveying that intelligence to commanders in near real-time for potential exploitation or just to provide enhanced situational awareness. This also works hand-in-hand with the facility’s crisis management capabilities. The NMCC is primarily where the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs would run the Pentagon during a major emergency that could last for a prolonged period of time. In this sense, it actually has a wartime tactical command and control capability, as well.
But really, when we talk about the NMCC, it isn’t just one main war room, it is a labyrinth of rooms spread out over a number of levels buried below the Pentagon. A handful of primary areas are known to exist. These include the Current Actions Center (CAC), which provides command and control of ongoing military activities and monitoring of worldwide events in real time. This facility has much in common with today’s tactical operations centers and combined air operations centers overseas.
The CAC circa 1970s and 1980s. Just imagine what it looks like now in the information age!
The Joint Chiefs Of Staff Conference Room is known more commonly by its nickname, “The Tank.” This extremely secure vault of a meeting space, basically a moderately decorated Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF), is used by the military’s top leadership to openly discuss highly classified and sensitive subjects, which can include wartime decisions. No notes are taken in this room and no recordings are made of what is discussed within its four walls. This is literally a safe space for the top rungs of the Pentagon’s military leadership to hash out the services’ most pressing issues.
The Emergency Conference Room (ECR) is very much a ‘war room’ as we understand the concept from Hollywood. This is where principals and their aides meet for high-level military discussions and briefings. These can include critical meetings and command and control operations during an ongoing crisis. This auditorium-like room is dominated by a huge conference table with built-in communications terminals and supported by large-scale multi-media projection.
The ECR in the 1980s.
ECR in the 1980s.
This room and the CAC are what the President was most likely talking about yesterday. It is customary for Presidents to get tours of these facilities and to get acclimated to them very early on in their first term. They are likely to continue to receive briefings at the NMCC throughout their Presidency, although this is somewhat dependent on their management style.
The NMCC has been used to brief Presidents on ongoing operations and military issues for decades. Here Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld walks with President George W. Bush towards the main entrance to the facility in 2003 just before Bush received a regular briefing.
There are many other spaces that make up the NMCC as well. These include smaller secure briefing and operations rooms, including those for each of the services, data and communications centers, and a large-scale intelligence fusion cell. The Cold War-era hotline between Washington D.C. and Moscow is also located in the NMCC.
Operations Deputy’s Conference Room in the NMCC.
The Pentagon’s elaborate command and control capabilities are duplicated multiple times over in various formats, and for good reason. The bunker isn’t likely to survive a major nuclear exchange. Really, no place is truly safe if the enemy wants to dedicate enough megatonnage to it as a target. So, during a full-force nuclear attack, when dozens of thermonuclear warheads would pummel the Pentagon, this facility’s main job would be to get the orders to counter-strike out before those warheads arrive. It is a dastardly grim thing to comprehend, but it is the nature of the deterrent’s original architecture and purpose—to execute the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) no matter what. Without potential enemies being absolutely certain that a counterstrike could occur, the deterrent’s effectiveness drops dramatically.
The primary backup operations site for the Pentagon is known as Raven Rock, or Site-R. It’s buried very deeply under a mounted near Blue Ridge Summit in Pennsylvania. This is where the DoD’s Alternate National Military Command Center (ANMCC) is located. This installation duplicates the NMCC’s capabilities as well as other Pentagon functions. It remains semi-operational at all times, ready to take over for its far higher-profile cousin should it evaporate in a nuclear strike or be forced offline in any other catastrophe.
In addition, the USAF’s four E-4B National Airborne Operation Center (NAOC) aircraft have many of the NMCC’s baseline capabilities—and in some cases additional ones as well—all shrunk into a 747-200 airframe. The Navy’s E-6B TACAMO aircraft also have some similar functions, although they are not primarily meant to fly the National Command Authority and key members of their staff during a crisis. Other U.S. military command sites can also support the DoD’s continuity of government operations during a crisis, as well.
Although we know many things about the NMCC, we really don’t have any imagery of it from the post-internet boom age. Pretty much everything available is from the mid-1990s or long before. In fact, this network news segment with Joan Lunden from the mid-1990s is the latest and best imagery I could find showing some of the NMCC’s elements:
We do know that the NMCC sprang into action as the horrible events of 9/11 unfolded and continued to operate even after American Airlines Flight 77 plowing into one of the pentagon-shaped building’s sides. Back in 2007, Colonel John Brunderman, Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions, gave a talk at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst about his experiences in the NMCC on that tragic day. It is an outstanding account not just of how things unfolded, but also of the critical capabilities the NMCC’s provides during a crisis:
Colonel Brunderman was working in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. He shared his experiences from that day with those present at the Daedalian meeting.
“We normally hear from World War II pilots and their war experience in the air, but this is a unique opportunity to hear some ground-war stories,” Lt. Col. Joseph Wolfer, 6th Airlift Squadron commander, said as he introduced Colonel Brunderman.
According to Colonel Brunderman, the NMCC functions as the top of the pyramid for all command posts around the world. The NMCC staff provides continuous operation monitoring, reporting, training, maintenance management, and coordination for all communications-electronics activities and systems supporting the NMCC to ensure minimum essential National Military Command System connectivity for the Single Integrated Operational Plan execution, worldwide situation monitoring and crisis management.
“The first indication was news reports of an explosion at one of the World Trade Towers,” Colonel Brunderman said. “We saw pictures of smoke coming out of the building against a clear blue sky backdrop, and we began immediate notification of a potential terrorist attack. While doing that, we saw live coverage of the second airplane hit the tower. In an instant, the attitude and energy changed to ‘Oh my gosh, the United States is under attack.'”
On any given day there are 500 to 1,000 threat warnings, said Colonel Brunderman, but only a small percentage of those actually happen.
“It’s hard to capture and explain the fog and friction of war,” he said. “When you’re looking for things that are abnormal, a lot of things appear abnormal.”
While responding to the attacks on the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, where the NMCC is located, was attacked itself. Due to their location in the Pentagon, staff at the NMCC did not feel the impact, but Colonel Brunderman took the call notifying the NMCC that there had been an explosion at the Pentagon.
“The NMCC never evacuated,” he said. “We were given paint masks and water because the smoke had penetrated the whole building.”
Not only did Colonel Brunderman not evacuate, he ended up working 16 hours that day. The NMCC staff continued to work 12-hour shifts for the next eight months.
“One of the proudest moments I have from that day was with all the chaos; you know you train for this everyday, it was amazing to see how quickly everything switched to a different mode. Everything went pretty much as it’s supposed to.”
Although things went as practiced, there were some bumps and challenges along the way.
“You find out all sorts of stuff when you’re actually doing things rather than practicing.”
One such example was the increase in Defense Condition. DEFCONs are a very deliberate process, explained Colonel Brunderman. Normally, emerging conditions are taken into consideration and it could take days, if not weeks, to change the DEFCON. That was not the case on Sept. 11.
“The Secretary of Defense walked into the NMCC and the acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, ‘Sir, I think we need to go to DEFCON 3,'” Colonel Brunderman recalled. “The SECDEF said that he concurred and to execute. In about 30 seconds we went from peacetime to DEFCON 3.”
The attacks of Sept. 11 may have taken some people by surprise, but it is for incidents like this that the military trains and exercises the way it does.
“Overall, I think the military performed extremely well for a bolt out of the blue incident, which is what this was.”
The ECR circa the mid-1970s.
After the chaos of 9/11, it became glaringly clear that major investment into America’s aging command and control architecture was direly needed. America’s continuity of government plans and the facilities and communications capabilities that support them went through a relatively drastic overhaul.
Maybe the best examples of this are the ongoing communications upgrades to Air Force One and the entirely new and quite huge bunker built deep below the White House lawn to replace, or at least drastically augment, the decades-old and very inadequate President Emergency Operations Center (PEOC). You can read all about both of these bunkers in this past feature of mine.
It is certain that the NMCC has gone through a dramatic technological transformation compared to how we see it in the pictures and video in this post. In fact, large and elaborate top-level command control facilities are very hot acquisition items among America’s most powerful rivals in recent years. Both Russia and China have invested heavily in this space and have publicized these facilities to a fairly astonishing degree.
A news clipping from 1971 detailing plans to renovate the NMCC. The facility has been remodeled on multiple occasions, mainly due to a need to integrate new technology and to resolve deficiencies in its design.
With all this in mind, as well as the facility’s near Hollywood-like setting and atmosphere, it isn’t surprising that Trump was awed by the most powerful military on the planet’s most important facility and all the technology now packed inside of it.
One can also imagine that it would be pretty hard for any President to escape from the dark reality that they could very well find themselves in that cavernous and windowless space making plans for what comes after the imminent destruction of the country. While all the while also knowing that it’s very possible that nothing would come at all.
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