New Army Operations Center is leaders' eyes and ears on the world
ARLINGTON, Va. — Movies about the military usually include a place like the new Army Operations Center: a place where leaders loaded with medals have access to global events conveyed in real time via satellite.
The real AOC isn’t filled with generals in dress uniforms and racks of ribbons; in fact, everyone’s in battle-dress uniforms.
But it is packed with soldiers keeping track of every “significant incident” involving the Army all over the world — just like the movies.
The center’s been open for three weeks, but until recently, the Army made do in a dismal warren of rooms in a Pentagon sub-basement, crammed with equipment installed as needed.
The new, quiet facility is loaded with state-of-the-art communications systems and is fully protected against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, according to its designer, Lt. Col. Bobby Williams.
The center is part of a facility within the Pentagon where all the services have spaces for their separate operations rooms. They used to be spread “all over the building,” Williams said.
On Feb. 10, Army officials gave a rare tour of the operations center — after removing all classified materials from computer screens and desktops, of course.
The heart of the AOC is its main briefing room, which looks like a small movie theater, but with three screens instead of one.
On Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m., top officials such as Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker take a seat in the leather chairs up front and have “subject matter experts” give them a rundown.
“You have to kind of figure out the leaders,” said Brig. Gen. Jim Nuttall, the Army’s Deputy Director of Operations, Readiness and Mobilization and the soldier in charge of AOC. “We know with the vice chief (Gen. Richard Cody), we have to have excruciating detail about any aviation incidents.”
Schoomaker takes a special interest in armor issues, Nuttall said, while Harvey “will personally want to know about any up-armored Humvee accidents,” not just at the weekly briefing but as soon as they happen, Nuttall said.
Four 25-soldier Crisis Action Teams are each assigned a focus area, such as European Command issues, or logistics.
They spend their working hours at classified computers, combing through daily update reports from every brigade, task force or other deployed unit in their area of responsibility for “action items” to report to their bosses.
In the past, Nuttall said, the Army “stood up very few CATs” in response to specific, major crisis, mostly the possibility of combat action, such as the U.S. military response to Kosovo.
Today, the four teams rotate manning the CAT facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Col. Steve Ward, a National Guardsman from Pennsylvania who is now on active duty as a CAT leader.
The volume of information that needs to be “sifted through” is huge, Ward said.
For example, during 24 hours on Feb. 9, the Iraq watch officer collected “250 significant incidents” in Iraq, including a demonstration, a soldier who was fired on, indirect fire directed at a unit, and “an escalation of force at a traffic point,” Ward said.
Col. Kent Abernathy, a National Guardsman from Indiana who is another one of the CAT team chiefs, likened the AOC job to working in a hospital emergency room.
“We joke that if you have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), this is probably the best place to work.”