High-tech home toured: Third Army's headquarters being outfitted with top-secret technology

The Third Army's new headquarters in Sumter is equipped with blast-resistant windows, 42 conference rooms, a 200-seat auditorium and a two-story command center with nearly 100 computerized work stations.

TIM DOMINICK

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE -- The Third Army's $100 million headquarters on this South Carolina Air Force Base is being outfitted with the most top-secret, state-of-the-art communications gear possible so commanders may respond at a moment's notice to the needs of the 200,000 American personnel stretched across the Middle East, Northern Africa and parts of Asia, its top general said Friday.

"Not only do we have state-of-the-art technology here but also the room to get together to do face-to-face, arm-to-arm work," said Lt. Gen. William Webster. "This is a 24/7 facility. It will support us well."

The command supports U.S. forces in a 20-nation region, and relies on constant communications with forces ranging from those fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to support for military-to-military operations in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kazakhstan.

Its move to Shaw Air Force Base in central South Carolina from Fort McPherson in Atlanta was ordered in the Pentagon's 2005 round of base closures. It puts the Army closer to commanders of the Ninth Air Force, which is responsible for the same geographic region's air forces.

"This is the end of the beginning," said retired Maj. Gen. Major General William L. "Dutch" Holland, who commanded the Ninth Air Force and now supports civil-military relations in the region. He said the cooperation between the two military branches will be greatly enhanced by the move. "It's wonderful to see it all come to fruition."

Webster said the Third Army command at Fort McPherson had started work in buildings erected as truck repair warehouses in 1918.

Although they have secure communications in their present headquarters, Webster said the new surroundings will be an inspiration to his soldiers.

The ribbon cutting ceremony was marked by the unveiling of a portrait of the Third Army's former commander, the legendary Gen. George S. Patton. The headquarters is called "Patton Hall" in honor of the World War II commander and is replete with historical memorabilia, such as glass cases of war-time newspapers, huge military logistical planning books and wartime uniforms.

Soaring atriums stream natural light onto carpeted halls with comfy conference chairs outfitted with mini-desks for computers.

Soldiers unused to such surroundings might find the workplace a bit odd, said Col. Jerry O'Hara, command spokesman.

"We can live in the dirt if we have to," he observed.

The glittering, two-story building is ringed with blast-resistant windows, has 42 conference rooms, a 200-seat auditorium and a two-story command center that was being outfitted with 96 computerized work stations, all facing a wall of supports for about 30 computer or video screens. It has 7.5 acres of office space, and the complex's 50-acre site includes motor pools, exercise areas and maintenance facilities to support 1,500 workers.

"It's like NASA's mission control," O'Hara said as he took reporters on a tour. Once the secure communications equipment is installed, no such tours will be allowed, he said.

Webster said his Air Force hosts, the Navy crews that oversaw the contracting and construction, and Army planners had "accomplished an amazing feat of engineering and construction" in getting the building ready within a two year span.

And it was accomplished while the Third Army oversaw the shift of troops and supplies from Iraq to Afghanistan, an effort the Army has called its largest logistical operation since World War II.