In 1991, Gen. Chuck Horner showed video footage of the bombing of “the headquarters of my counterpart,” the commander of the Iraqi Air Force. Though American forces have sometimes proved less adept at destroying mobile targets, their fixed targets do not last long. This can go badly when targeteers misidentify a building, as during the 1999 Kosovo War, but the building is still destroyed.
In 2001, an attack against one of the five sides of the Pentagon killed 125 and forced a partial evacuation. The Defense Department showed impressive resilience: Even as one side of the building collapsed, its command center kept functioning. Conflict yet continues, in part because al-Qaida has few fixed targets to destroy. Thus for three decades, America’s wars have seemed either drive-by shootings or questionable quagmires. The next war that matters may be neither.
Highly precise, long-range weapons are also available to America’s more capable enemies. In 2001, finding the Pentagon at 500 knots may have been challenging for the suicide pilot, but not today for a cruise missile. In 2019, half of Saudi Arabia’s oil refining was temporarily incapacitated by a barrage of just two dozen Iranian missiles. More ominous was the total failure of the kingdom’s air defenses to defend against or even detect the attack before the first impact.
In early 2020, the present pandemic forced a more thorough evacuation. The Pentagon’s command center has functioned, but most other activities have moved offsite, and substantially to private homes. Around the military and its contractors, remote work has expanded tenfold, to about 1 million people. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has expressed surprise at how well the arrangement has been working. Peter Ranks, his deputy chief information officer, says that productivity has not suffered.
This matches a broader reality. From San Francisco to New York City, business districts have substantially emptied. Outside Seattle, REI is attempting to sell its custom-built but never-occupied headquarters. Many firms seem little the worse. About half the American workforce is working remotely, and remote work is becoming permanent.
For the military today, reading secrets still generally requires a trip to a mostly empty office. However, the U.S. Air Force and Defense Information Systems Agency have initiated pilot programs to conduct even classified work remotely. Information security remains vexing, but unless the Defense Department wants to rely entirely on couriers, its cyber vulnerabilities will require intense attention anyway.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis recently wrote of the value of physical proximity, as “we cannot ‘Zoom’ trust.” The safety of social distancing can lead, he argued, to the disconnection of real social distance. That sounds bad, but many people have been working remotely for much of the past 20 years with manageable difficulties. As more of the world chooses to go remote, managers and social scientists will learn yet more about how to do it right.
Indeed, these difficulties must be managed because the alternative is frightening.
Today, Russia and China have masses of cruise missiles, dozens of submarines for launching them and global navigation satellite systems for guiding them. The Russians have even demonstrated how missiles can be containerized for surreptitious launch from merchant ships. Attacking fixed targets is first a matter of mission planning, and the entire world has been thoroughly mapped. It is second a matter of avoiding air defenses, and of this there is little around North America.
In that context, contemplate the possibility of not a singular attack upon the Pentagon, but one with dozens of missiles slamming into all fives sides, and down through the “bullseye” center court.
In private conversations, former defense officials keep reminding me that our war-fighting systems are too dependent on highly concentrated and easily located airfields, ports, depots and command centers. In contrast, America’s adversaries are either going mobile or deeply burying facilities. The Pentagon is neither mobile nor deeply buried.
So why have a Pentagon at all? Why maintain that highly concentrated target?
It’s certainly not for recruiting and retention. In closing the Pentagon, the military could stop rotating staff officers in and out of northern Virginia. Remote work from current stations would remove the disruptions of yet another change of station, particularly late in careers when officers’ children are often advancing through high school. It’s a slight exaggeration, but “I can’t wait to get posted to the Pentagon” probably said no sane officer ever.
It’s also not for better decision-making. In his valedictory complaint in Wired, John Kroger, the Navy’s recently departed chief of learning, described the Pentagon as “a threat to national security.” With its concentrated culture of scripted updates, hostility to analysis and mid-century office technologies, “The Building” is much of the problem. Emptying it permanently could help multiple, and hopefully better, military cultures flourish.
What would we do with an empty Pentagon? We have options. Arlington National Cemetery is running out of space. Perhaps a professional sports team will eventually want a centrally located venue. Northern Virginia could always use another park. What really matters is dispersing that concentration of leadership beyond one building in northern Virginia, lest we someday lose it all at once.
James Hasik is a senior research fellow at the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University, and a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center on Security and Strategy at The Atlantic Council.