By Vince Little
MONS, Belgium -- U.S. and international military officials have cut the ribbon on a state-of-the-art facility constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District that will enable the NATO special operations forces community to plan, coordinate and conduct vital missions around the globe.
Leaders from Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, 26 member nations and three non-NATO partners, and USACE gathered here Wednesday for an opening ceremony, heralding the new NATO Special Operations Headquarters as a significant achievement in engineering expertise, modernization and sustainable construction. It's expected to yield major cost savings by significantly lowering energy and water use, but the NSHQ also provides the alliance with a consolidated platform to better develop and direct all activities within its special operations forces arm.
"I believe with all my heart in special operations as an undeveloped part of the future of security and military operations," said Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the head of U.S. European Command. "This headquarters will help us with training and doctrine. It will help us connect interoperability, because in this 21st century, security is not about building walls.
"What I'm looking for from this command is that training and mentoring, a venue for ideas about doctrine and certainly equipment, and above all, to build those bridges among every nation. I look for you to be the centerpiece of our ability to connect special operations. You will be the flagship operation for this, and I would argue, in the world. … It's that kind of ability to outthink your opponent. That's where I count on you from this headquarters."
The new headquarters is necessary to complete the NATO Special Operations Forces Transformation Initiative begun under the NATO Atlantic Council after the Riga Summit in 2006. Since that inception six years ago, the organization had operated out of a temporary facility at SHAPE.
About 3,300 U.S. and international troops have gone through NSHQ training programs, education and schools in the past two years, Stavridis told the audience.
"This magnificent building shows us the art of the possible," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Kisner, the NSHQ commander. "The building is transformable -- the walls can be moved. We can reconfigure the size and shape of rooms in a matter of a few hours. Adaptability is huge for us."
Kisner praised USACE's Benelux Resident Office for helping to overcome project delays and environmental concerns while carrying out construction.
"They had the boots on the ground and boots in the mud," he said. "We all know what that means and the importance of that effort."
The new headquarters allows NATO to collaborate more efficiently by seamlessly connecting the special operations forces headquarters of all 26 member nations and three non-NATO partners. A robust operational command, control, communications, computers and intelligence system -- known as C4I -- enables effective planning and coordination of highly sensitive missions, including special operations downrange, said Col. Joar Eidheim of the Norwegian army, the NSHQ director of operations.
"This is a necessary step," he said. "We needed a building where we could collect all the nations within the alliance and our partners, so we could come together and actually do the planning and coordination of all SOF activities. This building is optimized to connect the nations … and reach out to our capitals."
Ground was broken on the $19 million construction project in November 2010. Europe District managed the endeavor through a partnership with joint venture contractors Bilfinger-Berger and Besix. A total of 116 local subcontractors and suppliers were involved.
The 23,000-square-foot facility meets strict environmental and energy savings standards. It's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver certifiable by the U.S. Green Building Council, according to Bob Sommer, the USACE Benelux regional program manager.
Among the NSHQ's environmental and energy features, planners say they anticipate a water-use reduction of more than 50 percent. It'll be achieved through modern water-management techniques, as compared to non-LEED facilities. The building also has a "green" roof to reduce stormwater runoff and provide added insulation.
About 98 percent of construction materials -- based on cost -- were sourced from within 500 miles of the project site, supporting local economies and reducing the overall carbon footprint during assembly. The building design makes use of an interior courtyard area and innovative placement of offices to maximize natural lighting, which reduces the need for artificial, overhead light sources.
"What we've tried to integrate is the most current technology. We have a complete fiber network," said Air Force Maj. Mark Workman, an NSHQ engineer who acted as a liaison between the command, USACE and the contractors. "The audiovisual systems are state-of-the-art. Each of the offices has a monitor, and all the monitors are connected to a central system. … The facility we were in is undersized.
"This will allow us to come together, work and brainstorm to create those ideas that Adm. Stavridis is asking for."
Workman said teamwork was crucial in completing the headquarters project.
"Coordination with SHAPE public works and logistics (and) integrating the utilities was tough … and required a lot of moving pieces to come together," he added. "And we had to work across multiple languages."
Three years ago, the NSHQ numbered less than 100 personnel, he said. That's expected to reach almost 300 at full capacity.
"It's all about our people and the vision," Kisner said. "This building is phenomenal. Our ability to look at the needs of security and stability is all enabled because we have this tremendous work space."