Everyone knows about NORAD, hidden deep in the caverns of Cheyenne Mountain. And we’ve all heard about Northern Command, the military’s joint operation headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base.
But top-secret activity in the Springs goes far beyond those two organizations. The area’s defense contractors generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales providing hush-hush work for the government. Just how much isn’t clear. But since the Sept. 11 attacks, the classified budget for the Pentagon has increased 48 percent — and no small percentage of that is spent in Colorado Springs.
From training intelligence operatives in Afghanistan to providing cyber security here at home, defense contractors like being in the Springs to be close to the military’s top decision-makers.
They have transformed the area into a hub for classified work of all kinds.
“We don’t have exact numbers for the region,” said Brian Binn, president of military affairs for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. “But we know there are 300 aerospace contractors in the state and we estimate there are an additional 200 defense contractors.”
In terms of payroll alone, these defense and aerospace contractors represent a $2.8 billion slice of the economy statewide, he said.
No one’s tracking how much money is spent in the Springs on classified government contracts. But the portion of government spending on classified goods and services has increased from $18.2 billion in 2002 to $26.9 billion this year, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Security-related spending — including classified and unclassified work — is expected to increase by another $45 billion in 2011.
From large companies with hundreds of employees to small offices that employ just a handful of people, these government contractors are quietly doing business all around the city. Their often non-descript offices can be found everywhere — down the street from the fast-food restaurants we frequent, in our office parks, filling the space down the hall.
The city is, of course, also home to a few top-secret military operations.
Fort Carson is home to the 10th Special Forces Group, while Peterson is the site of Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, a unit that is responsible for testing new Air Force weapons. Schriever Air Force Base is home to the command and control functions for military satellites used by war-fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the joint missile defense agency.
No one’s really talking about what they do because of the national security issues involved, but thousands of local residents hold secret or top-secret clearances.
For many, talking about their government work could be considered treason. That means they have to be guarded in what they say, even when they put out the occasional news release to promote their work. Rather than identifying whom they work for, they use phrases such as “the client,” and “the client’s interests.” And they talk about “situational awareness” and “real-time mission data.”
Getting a handle on just what these operations are up to is generally impossible. Asking their spokespeople to elaborate doesn’t yield much. And typically their presence is hard to detect, though not always. Here’s a look at three:
NEK, established in 2002, is owned and operated by former U.S. Special Forces soldiers and has more than 2,000 employees. Its headquarters is in downtown Colorado Springs, and it has offices in Fayetteville, N.C., and Reston, Va.
Going to the company’s website to find out what it does doesn’t reveal much.
“NEK’s mission is to provide our clients the highest quality Special Operations related services and capabilities possible in response to unique contracting requirements,” the website reads.
“The company combines competent, highly experienced professionals with a combination of corporate flexibility and rapid responsiveness to ensure the highest level of customer satisfaction. Our readily available services alleviate inherent governmental restrictions in order to meet foreign and domestic requirements.”
That’s vague, but NEK clearly prefers it that way.
NEK says its work covers intelligence operations, strategic studies in “irregular and unconventional warfare,” advanced skills and tactics, “special programs,” and government services.
NEK’s customers and affiliates include U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Army Special Forces Command, and Marine Special Operations Command, among others.
This agency is headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, but has a substantial presence at Peterson.
Its website is slightly more illuminating than some others — but not by much.
AFOTEC “tests and evaluates new weapons systems in realistic battlespace environments to provide decision makers with a range of accurate, balanced and timely assessments of effectiveness, suitability and mission capability. From concept development to system fielding, AFOTEC maintains an operational focus, ensuring our airmen and joint partners have effective weapon systems required to win tomorrow’s battles.”
The AFOTEC website said the division has 1,100 military and civilian contractors at six detachments.
This is one of the more transparent contractors in the Springs, but its work is just as top-secret as any other.
With offices on Platte Avenue east of Powers Boulevard, ITT Systems is an international company focusing on “systems integration, operations, sustainment, engineering, logistics, space launch and range support solutions for a wide variety of U.S. military and government agency customers,” its website says.
Its clients? A “spectrum of support services for U.S. and allied armed forces,” according to the website.
ITT officials naturally refuse to talk about their classified work, saying only that the company holds “contracts of varying classification levels with the military and other national security agencies.”
“Many of our employees have various levels of security clearance per government requirements, but beyond that, I can’t share much,” said B.J. Talley, spokesman for the company.
The Operation 6035 initiative, a jobs-creation effort, identifies the defense and aerospace industries as one of the key sectors in the region’s economy – one that deserves support and attention if it’s to grow.
In a report last year, the group suggested the defense sector seek collaboration opportunities with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The industry, it said, could benefit from commercializing technologies developed at the university.
The report also recommends a closer alliance between economic development officials and the defense industry.
None of these efforts, however, should be expected to pull back the curtains on what goes on in the region’s top-secret operations.