Experts say the concentration of US military leadership in one building — the Pentagon — is no longer such a great idea. Credit: Handout.

In 2001, finding the Pentagon at 500 knots in a commercial airliner may have been challenging for an al-Qaeda suicide pilot — but a dedicated cruise missile of today would have no trouble finding it.

That attack 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, writes James Hasik of Defense News.

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.

Highly precise, long-range weapons are readily available to America’s enemies.

In that context, contemplate the possibility of not a singular attack upon the Pentagon, but one with missiles slamming into all fives sides, and down through the “bullseye” center court, the report said.

Russia and China have masses of cruise missiles, dozens of submarines for launching them and global navigation satellite systems for guiding them.

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, the report said.

Former defense officials keep reminding us 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.

In early 2020, the pandemic changed the way the US military conducted business.

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, the report said.

For the military today, reading secrets still generally requires a trip to a mostly empty office. However, the US Air Force and Defense Information Systems Agency have initiated pilot programs to conduct even classified work remotely.

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, the report said. 

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,” the report said.

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?

There are 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 someday America loses 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)