Inside the mountain: Nuke-proof bunker repurposed
CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN AIR FORCE STATION, Colorado | This mountain fortress — designed during the Cold War to withstand all manner of attack, including nuclear — stands today still formidable, if underused, while the new site for the North American Aerospace Defense Command still remains vulnerable, more than a year after NORAD moved there.
Now housed in the basement of Building 2 at Peterson Air Force Base, NORAD faces threats ranging from truck bombs near the base to electromagnetic pulses that would disable electronic systems, according to government documents obtained by The Washington Times.
The joint U.S.-Canadian NORAD (formerly the North American Air Defense Command) was moved in 2008 from its specially designed Cheyenne Mountain home to the nearby Peterson AFB, where its mission of alerting the commander in chief to the threat of bombers has been vulnerable to attack, particularly the kind that President Obama identified as the biggest threat to the United States: nuclear terrorism.
A “secret” summary of a security evaluation by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency obtained by The Times last year stated that the Peterson location was “not designed to house” NORAD operations.
Significantly, there were vulnerabilities associated with Building 2’s proximity to an “aerial threat” from nearby Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, as well as from a vehicle bomb that could be detonated on a roadway just outside the base.
In response to questions about the vulnerabilities, NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek provided a written statement to The Times stating that security concerns were addressed: “All potential vulnerabilities identified in previous internal reports [. . . ] have been addressed, assessed and mitigated.”
The statement did not provide specifics, but conceded that an electromagnetic pulse remained an ongoing concern. The command is addressing the issue “over the next year” in a project “being designed and constructed” by Sandia National Laboratories to meet the same requirements historically in place at Cheyenne Mountain, the statement said.
Navy Adm. Timothy Keating initiated NORAD’s transition to Peterson about three years ago in an effort that he said would save money and improve operational effectiveness. However, in a report issued before the move was completed, the Government Accountability Office found no savings.
Nonetheless, NORAD continues to rely upon Cheyenne Mountain.
A smallish room there known as the Systems Center, filled with a few troops, computer equipment and display screens, receives data that is critical to NORAD’s primary mission of scouring the skies for threats. That mission’s title is Integrated Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment — a series of protocols that lead all the way to the president’s “nuclear football,” a briefcase that holds the codes to authorize missile launches.
This room, says the civilian leader here, Ron Schilling, a retired Air Force man wearing a ponytail and glasses, is the COTU That’s a nonofficial military acronym for “Center of the Universe.”
From here, information about phenomena in the skies, including possible missiles and enemy aircraft, is “pipelined” to NORAD at Peterson, several other air bases and the White House. Without the staff here, the data would be harder for the military to assess during an attack, but not impossible, Mr. Schilling said.
Officials point to an example of how the new command center at Peterson is working: On April 6, 2009, a Cessna civilian aircraft was stolen from a flight school in Thunder Bay, Canada, and flown across the U.S. border. NorthCom/NORAD command was able to “instantaneously coordinate with critical interagency and intergovernmental partners” from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the FBI, said spokesman John Cornelio.
Before consolidation, the NORAD Operations Center in Cheyenne Mountain did not provide such rapid integration with agencies linked to U.S. Northern Command, “leading to possible gaps” in the commander’s awareness, Mr. Cornelio said.
Still, another thing keeping the mountain open is its ability to adapt. New tenants have arrived recently, including the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Western regional support center about three years ago. It’s possible more agencies could move here, said Todd Wynn, deputy director of the 721st Mission Support Group, the Air Force agency that serves as the mountain’s caretaker.
Thus, taxpayer investment in the mountain complex continues. In one example, it recently was provided $1.5 million to refurbish aging blast valves that protect workers inside from an explosion outside.
There has been occasional talk since the Cold War about shutting down the mountain, but the idea never receives a serious audience.
An information slide given to The Times by Mr. Wynn perhaps explains why. It would cost taxpayers $18 billion to replicate a mountain redoubt if the military should ever need one.
“This mountain is as important or more important than ever,” he said.
Opened in 1966, the mountain complex is hardly primitive. The cavernous place protects gear of the kind highlighted in films such as “War Games” and “Stargate.” In the mid-2000s, the mountain’s sophisticated operations center received a $700 million upgrade.
Today, the equipment in the center is used mainly for training, and the complex is considered an “alternate command” center for an emergency. In all, NORAD now uses less than 30 percent of the floor space within the complex, making up about 5 percent of the daily population.
Even the mountain’s oft-referenced barbershop has been shuttered in these changing times.
But NORAD’s departure doesn’t mean the mountain complex is on track to close anytime soon. To those who work behind the scenes to keep the mountain humming along, the bunker remains indispensable.
“This place cannot be mothballed,” lead civil engineer Dino Bonaldo said during a rare extensive tour of the fortress. “We can’t replace this.”