The US military is getting ready to move into a new, $1.3 billion command center for conducting nuclear war.
The Command and Control Facility at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska boasts upgraded electrical power, cooling and networking infrastructure for sophisticated communications systems connecting planners to missile silos, nuclear-armed bombers, ballistic-missile submarines, and other nuclear forces all over the world.
The C2F, as it's known, is also shielded from the computer-frying electromagnetic pulses that result from atomic blasts. Some of the most important parts of the building are below ground level.
However, the facility is unlikely to survive very long during a full-scale nuclear war.
US Strategic Command, which oversees America's nuclear arsenal, was supposed to move its 3,500 headquarters personnel into the C2F starting in 2016. But the US Army Corps of Engineers ran into serious problems while building the 900,000-square-foot facility.
The design changed and shrank mid-construction. Flooding and mold required expensive rework. Fixes and changes added tens of millions of dollars to the facility's final cost. "There were some really very questionable decisions about how to do the contracting and how to do design," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told BH News Service in late 2017.
Now after seven years of work, the high-tech facility is just two months from being complete, Omaha TV station KETV7 reported in early July. Strategic Command should be able to take over the building from the Corps of Engineers in September and begin the lengthy, expensive process of installing the classified electronics for controlling America's nuclear arsenal.
Read more: Experts: America Doesn't Need All These Nukes
At present, Strategic Command works out of a smaller building at Offutt dating to 1957, when the Air Force alone oversaw America's nuclear forces. Strategic Command stood up in 1992 in order to consolidate Air Force and Navy nuclear control, but stayed in the same, increasingly crowded and outdated building.
The old building's inadequacy became more apparent when Strategic Command took control of the military's cyberwarfare duties in 2011. The annual cost of maintaining the command's headquarters quadrupled to more than $600 million between 2001 and 2013, according to a 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office.
"We've basically hit the limits of the capabilities of the building in terms of power, space to wire, the flexibility to change to missions and therefore it drove the need to turn to a new project," Maj. Gen. Rick Evans, Strategic Command's program manager for the C2F, told KETV7.
The Pentagon's February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the first overall assessment of US atomic forces in eight years, warned about "aging system components" within the Pentagon's nuclear command infrastructure. Strategic Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"It was definitely time to replace it," Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me in reference to the old Strategic Command building.
The C2F should make it easier to oversee possible nuclear war. "The improvement is probably mainly in simply having a newer facility that is more efficient and hopefully user-friendly than the old one," Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, told me.
With its shielded electronics and underground levels, the C2F and at least some of its occupants might survive the initial blasts in a nuclear war. "But I doubt it would last long in a later exchange," Kristensen said. "A couple of direct hits with high-yield warheads would likely shake the underground structure to pieces."
During the Cold War, the military built underground bunkers as back-ups to the Offutt headquarters, most notably the sprawling complex deep inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. In recent years, the Pentagon has vacated the expensive, inconvenient, and hard-to-upgrade bunkers.
"Nuclear command and control today is less dependent on super-secure underground facilities, but in a flatter architecture than makes use of numerous redundant and dispersed facilities," Kristensen said. "So an adversary could blow up Offutt, but by that time the national command leadership would be long gone and it wouldn’t prevent [Strategic Command] from retaliating or continuing the fight, if one can imagine that in a nuclear war."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.