Another US military command and control element is also now isolated in a third, undisclosed location.
The rest of NORTHCOM’s headquarters at Peterson Air Force base have also adopted extreme so-called “social distancing” measures to reduce their interaction with each other and again limit the potential spread of the virus should it make its way onto the base. “Our personnel are operating in physical zones within the [headquarters] building and no one is crossing these pre-determined zones,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Top U.S. military officials have adopted similar measures at the Pentagon and social distancing protocols are supposed to be in force across the services, though there is clear evidence that these policies have not been uniformly implemented. Steps are being made to enable personnel who can work remotely to be able to do so, but in doing so, a number of serious vulnerabilities to cyberattacks have also become apparent that now need to be mitigated.
O’Shaughnessy said that NORTHCOM specifically had been in talks with Apple about developing solutions to both expand and improve opportunities for telework. He also pointed out that certain essential functions, such as those that watchstanders perform in command and control centers, simply cannot be done remotely.
The Pentagon has actually taken steps to ensure that specialized continuity facilities such as Cheyenne Mountain are kept available for critical missions and do not get filled up with personnel from units that are simply looking for extra working space in order to meet social distancing guidelines. On Mar. 18, 2020, Derek Maurer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Defense Continuity and Mission Assurance had issued a memorandum that specifically noted that U.S. military units were not authorized to use “DoD-level alternate sites … for purely social distancing purposes” and that “access [to those sites] requires special approval from the responsible command.”
Maurer’s memo specifically mentioned another continuity site, the Raven Rock Mountain Complex (RRMC), also known simply as Site R, another huge underground city built under the Appalachian Mountains near Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. Situated near the presidential retreat at Camp David, Raven Rock, which began operations in the 1950s, has been described as an “underground Pentagon” and serves the primary backup location for senior Department of Defense personnel to operate from when necessary.
Raven Rock, together with Cheyenne Mountain and the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center, another hardened complex situated in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, represent the core trio of known U.S. continuity of government sites. A portion of the Mount Weather complex also serves as a major command center for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is also involved in the COVID-19 response efforts. You can read more about Raven Rock and these other sites in this past War Zone piece.
The Pentagon restrictions on access to these sites are also necessary to prevent COVID-19 from penetrating into them, where it could rapidly spread and render the facilities non-functional until personnel could complete what would likely be a time consuming and costly decontamination effort. “For other alternate sites, consider the impact of COVID-19 related decisions and ensure control measures are implemented to avoid site contamination,” Maurer’s memo said.
It’s the same reason why NORTHCOM and NORAD’s watchstanders are now in isolation, even from other personnel at those commands. It’s not clear how long they will remain in that state in Cheyenne mountain and at the other, unnamed alternate site. Experts have warned that COVID-19 could continue to be a serious public health crisis in the United States, with major second-order impacts, for months, if not years, to come.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” General O’Shaughnessy told those who took part in the virtual town hall, which included family members of personnel assigned to the command.
Cheyenne Mountain and other hardened or isolated sites look set to be home to watch teams from NORTHCOM and NORAD for the foreseeable future to ensure they can continue performing their vital mission of monitoring the skies and space over North American and keeping a sharp lookout for other threats to the homeland.
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