In­side the moun­tain: Nuke-proof bunker re­pur­posed

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY MICHAEL DEYOANNA

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.”

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