WASHINGTON -- Without fanfare, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been making gradual changes in the way they watch the world from the windowless command center inside the Pentagon.
The changes are supposed to increase efficiency and improve the flow of information throughout the complex -- with fewer people. The military chiefs consider this as much a response to recent budget cuts as an adjustment to the reduced threat of nuclear war.
In the "war room" -- actually a maze of secure communications rooms and conference areas that are usually off-limits to outsiders -- it was revealed during a recent visit that staffing has been cut by about 25 percent since 1990. The command center's five watch teams now have 20 to 22 members working each shift instead of the past complement of 29.
But there has been no change in the command center's round-the-clock activities, which include frequent contact with the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) early warning system, based inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colo. Last year, there were more than 600 "missile events" that required "threat assessment conferences" among officials at the Pentagon center, NORAD, the Strategic Air Command and Site R.
Although some "events" were nothing more than forest fires or volcanic eruptions detected by heat-seeking satellites, most were Russian missile tests or scientific and commercial space launches and rocket tests by France, Japan and other nations.
"You still get a missile event almost every day," said a senior military officer, who asserted that primary U.S. command, control and communications sites have to remain on constant alert.