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'It's a national asset': A first look inside StratCom's new $1.3 billion headquarters

'It's a national asset': A first look inside StratCom's new $1.3 billion headquarters

For a building whose function is prepping for what would be America’s darkest day, U.S. Strategic Command’s new $1.3 billion headquarters sure is bathed in brightness.

Light flows in through the oversized windows of the three above-ground floors of what StratCom leaders call their “Command and Control Facility.” (Or “C2F” in Strat-speak.) Employees and visitors enter through an open, airy atrium.

“The construction of the C2F is historic,” said Vice Adm. David Kriete, StratCom’s deputy commander, during an interview he described as the first meeting in his still-undecorated office. “It marks the transition from the old to the new.”

The contrast couldn’t be starker with the current StratCom headquarters a block to the east at Offutt Air Force Base.

The Gen. Curtis E. LeMay Building, constructed for the Strategic Air Command in 1957, is a large warren of dark offices and cubicles beneath low, fluorescent-lit ceilings. Windows are at a premium. It’s not a coincidence that the building is best-known for a dark war room known as “the bunker.”

The first of StratCom’s more than 3,500 military and civilian employees are expected to move into the new 916,000-square-foot building in early spring, Kriete said, 6½ years after the October 2012 groundbreaking ceremony.

StratCom’s new headquarters is among the costliest and most expensive building projects ever undertaken by the Defense Department. Its price tag is just slightly less than the bill for the Pentagon itself, which cost $83 million when it was built in 1941, equal to $1.4 billion in current dollars.

The Pentagon, though, has seven times the square footage, houses 10 times as many workers and was completed in 15 months.

Of course, modern buildings are far more complicated than their mid-20th century counterparts. StratCom’s C2F is designed to serve as the nation’s military command headquarters in even the most dire circumstances, up to and including a nuclear war.

“It’s very unique, one-of-a-kind,” Kriete said. “It’s a national asset.”

It’s been a bumpy road to get here. Soon after groundbreaking, workers for project contractor Kiewit Phelps ran into serious flooding problems at the site. Later, some of the heating and air-conditioning ductwork developed persistent mold, forcing time-consuming inspections and expensive replacement.

The project also experienced a fire, several floods and even an EF-1 tornado that passed close to the site in June 2017. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Omaha District oversaw the first phase of the project, involving construction of the building, parking lots, landscaping and much of the interior, at a cost of $617 million.

That work was $53 million over budget, and more than two years behind schedule. The Corps had planned to deliver the building on Sept. 11, 2016: the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, and the 75th anniversary of groundbreaking for the Pentagon.

The Corps handed over the building to the Air Force on Oct. 31, though Kiewit Phelps continues to work on some items that aren’t quite finished. Kiewit Phelps was selected to manage the project for the Corps.

It also is planning to replace a boiler that overheated in December and was shut down until it could be repaired or replaced.

“There’s been some minor glitches,” Kriete said. “Nothing that has substantially set us back.”

Now StratCom is engaged in Phase 2 of the project, what its leaders call the “missionization” of the new headquarters. That means outfitting it with the electronics and communications gear it needs to carry out its missions, including oversight of the nation’s space forces, missile defense, electronic warfare, and, of course, its nuclear arsenal.

This missionization phase is priced at $679 million — even more than the construction phase. It involves the installation of a communications suite robust enough to carry out StratCom’s functions even in a national emergency, and electronic and cybersecurity capabilities strong enough to withstand any attack.

The second phase is now 86 percent complete. Kriete said StratCom still hopes to move its entire staff into the new building by the end of 2019.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “We’re not going to move the command over until (the building) is mission-ready.”

When the employees do move, they’ll enter through the multistory atrium, which will feature a large mosaic of StratCom’s command emblem — featuring a hand in a gauntlet grasping lightning bolts and an olive branch — on the floor, and replicas of a pair of communications and surveillance satellites hanging from the ceiling.

The atrium also will feature a stage from which StratCom’s commander, Gen. John Hyten, or his successors can address all of their workers at once, the upstairs mezzanines, and the skywalks that connect the north and south wings of the building. Workers will eat in an adjacent cafeteria decorated with scenes of prominent Omaha-area landmarks.

Throughout the building, offices will have ceilings at least 10 feet high, 2 feet higher than in the current headquarters. The desks already have been installed, and they offer employees the option of sitting or standing. Many already are marked with the names of their future occupants.

Though the senior commanders’ offices are on the building’s top floor, Kriete said, he or Hyten can quickly get to the most important room, deep beneath the ground: the famous Global Operations Center.

The center’s “battle deck,” at slightly more than 1,000 square feet, features several semi-circular rows of computer workstations facing a video screen 9 feet high and 32 feet wide. The back row can be set off by a soundproof divider, in case information is discussed that is too sensitive for even some of the commander’s closest aides to hear.

The room connects instantly to the White House and the Pentagon. If necessary, Hyten could fight a nuclear war from there.

In the current building, Kriete said, it takes at least 5 minutes to get there, walking fast. From his new office, he can make it in 90 seconds, taking the stairs, or 30 seconds via an express elevator.

You might think it’s not often used. That’s not the case, Kriete said.

“This whole space will be manned 24/7,” he said. “Command and control: We practice that all the time.”

“We firmly believe a nuclear war should never be fought,” Kriete added. “But we want the good guys to know, and the bad guys to know; we’re really good at it.”

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“Today we are standing inside a facility that ties our legacy from the days of Strategic Air Command into the future of StratCom,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, the senior civilian Pentagon official at the ceremony. “The LeMay command-and-control facility represents a $1.3 billion investment in the future of your mission. ... It is also a show of commitment to the Offutt community, which remains the home of this mission, now and into the future.”

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