This Team Keeps the Defense Secretary Connected During Threats, Emergencies

By Katie Lange, Department of Defense

Have you ever wondered how the secretary of defense sends important messages to other leaders across the world? Does he just pick up the phone himself and say, “Hi, it’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis?”

Well, the answer is no. There’s an entire team set up to do this for him.

The Secretary of Defense Communications Office is tasked with making calls and other services happen for the secretary and deputy secretary, as well as their immediate offices and designated special emissaries.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, June 13, 2017. DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber Smith

About 20 service members work in three-member teams in the office’s Cables Branch at the Pentagon. Put simply, they serve as the communications office’s command and control support center.

“We provide comprehensive voice, video and data capabilities to the secretary and his immediate staff, regardless of their location,” said Army Lt. Col. George Randolph, SDC’s senior executive support officer.

Randolph said the mission is demanding – the Cables Branch has to be ready to work 24/7, 365 days a year – but it’s also rewarding, and every day on the job is different.

“It’s really satisfying to provide senior leaders with technical capabilities they cannot live without,” he said.

Take the launch of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, for example. The cables team is responsible for getting all important parties in touch with each other as quickly as possible.

“SDC, through the Cables Branch, is the primary communications focal point and principle liaison between the Secretary of Defense and all other agencies, including the White House, State Department and Congress,” Randolph said.

The branch has a 24-hour call center that can quickly set up phone connections through classified and unclassified systems. It’s also able to distribute messages among the DoD, Cabinet agencies, the 10 military combatant commands and Congress.

It also collaborates with the National Military Command Center, which generates emergency action messages about things like missile warnings and other emergencies to military launch control centers, nuclear submarines, reconnaissance aircraft and battlefield commanders across the world.

Personnel work in the National Military Command Center, located in the Pentagon, circa 1975. DoD photo by R. D. Ward

The SDC emanated out of the Cable Division established during Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s tenure in the early 1960s. Technology has evolved since then, but the support needed to meet constant situational demands has stayed the same.

“Over 50 years later, the underlying mission to provide dedicated communications support and enabling decision superiority for our department’s leadership has remained constant,” said SDC Deputy Director Simon Mantel.

So, next time you hear about a major emergency or incident and realize our leaders have been tuned into it from the start, know that this dedicated team has worked hard to make that communication happen!

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This Team Keeps the Defense Secretary Connected During Threats, Emergencies