NORAD’s hid­den bunker is shel­ter of last re­sort


USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Trevor Hughes |

The white row­boat bob­bing on an un­der­ground lake deep in­side this hol­low moun­tain isn’t the most un­usual fea­ture of Amer­ica’s most se­cure in­tel­li­gence and data cen­ter. Well, it might be. But we’ll prob­a­bly never know. That’s be­cause Cheyenne Moun­tain holds the kinds of se­crets Amer­ica won’t share with any­one lack­ing a top- se­cret se­cu­rity clear­ance. The linked caves a mile in­side are home to some of the world’s most so­phis­ti­cated satel­lite and other track­ing sys­tems.

The caves are locked be­hind 23- ton blast doors, just some of the catas­tro­phe- ready fea­tures that have cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of sci- fi buffs who some­times climb over the perime­ter fences look­ing for a fic­tional Star­gate or hid­den aliens. Tres­passers typi-

cally get ar­rested be­fore they even get near the bunker’s front doors, reached by driv­ing a mile through a tun­nel carved out of solid rock.

The bunker was orig­i­nally built to help mil­i­tary com­man­ders sur­vive a di­rect Soviet nu­clear attack, and Cheyenne Moun­tain in cen­tral Colorado still plays a key role in Amer­i­can air and space supremacy be­cause it’s vir­tu­ally im­per­vi­ous to at­tacks on the elec­tron­ics housed there. The moun­tain’s shield­ing means the mil­i­tary can re­main in con­tact with satel­lites above even if work­ers are com­pletely sealed in­side.

In other words, this is a fa­cil­ity of last re­sort, de­signed to keep run­ning no mat­ter what is hap­pen­ing out­side.


To un­der­stand the bunker’s present and fu­ture, it’s help­ful to start in the past.

“It’s a trib­ute to the fear and Amer­i­can and Canadian will that dur­ing the Cold War, they were lit­er­ally will­ing to hol­low out a moun­tain, move a moun­tain,” said U. S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for NORAD.

NORAD, or the North Amer­i­can Aerospace De­fense Com­mand, was cre­ated as a joint Amer­i­can- Canadian ef­fort to mon­i­tor the skies for bal­lis­tic mis­siles and other at­tacks. Its founders knew their head­quar­ters would be among the first tar­geted dur­ing nu­clear war.

That grim ex­pec­ta­tion is eas­ier to un­der­stand af­ter walk­ing into the echo­ing cav­erns blasted out in the 1960s. Two thou­sand feet be­low the sur­face, build­ings made of bat­tle­ship steel sit on springs iso­lat­ing them from earth­quakes that could ac­com­pany a nu­clear blast out­side. The moun­tain it­self is about 9,500 feet tall, and the tun­nel en­trance sits about 2,000 feet from the top.

Un­der­ground reser­voirs carved from rock pro­vide drink­ing and cool­ing wa­ter, while a lake of diesel fuel sits ready for the six lo­co­mo­tive- sized diesel gen­er­a­tors ca­pa­ble of pow­er­ing a small city. A bank of bat­ter­ies pro­vides more backup power.

That pro­tec­tion and re­dun­dancy help the bunker carry out its largely clas­si­fied mission to help keep Amer­ica safe. NORAD and the U. S. Air Force mon­i­tor the skies over North Amer­ica for bal­lis­tic mis­siles, space de­bris and hos­tile air­craft. Though NORAD com­mis­sioned the bunker, it moved the bulk of its op­er­a­tions to nearby Peter­son Air Force Base in 2006.

NORAD main­tains a small con­tin­u­ous pres­ence in­side the un­der­ground com­plex and rou­tinely prac­tices op­er­at­ing from there. In a cri­sis, its lead­ers would retreat to the bunker for safety and se­cu­rity.

The re­main­ing 70% of the com­plex is used by the Air Force for a va­ri­ety of clas­si­fied mis­sions. Th­ese days, the blast doors re­main open most of the time. They were shut dur­ing 9/ 11 and are closed and opened daily to en­sure they still work. The bunker re­mains a hedged bet against a nu­clear attack, en­sur­ing crit­i­cal com­mand and sur­veil­lance sys­tems keep run­ning dur­ing a worst- case sce­nario.

Af­ter a se­ries of news ar­ti­cles this year wrongly said NORAD was mov­ing back into the moun­tain, of­fi­cials with the Air Force’s 721st Mission Sup­port Group granted a USA TO­DAY jour­nal­ist an un­usu­ally ex­ten­sive be­hindthe- scenes tour. Photograph­y was tightly re­stricted, and most build­ings in­side the com­plex re­mained off- lim­its.

But the tour, given by the fa­cil­ity’s deputy direc­tor, Steven Rose, of­fered a glimpse into a world most Amer­i­cans will never see.

Cheyenne Moun­tain sits just south of Colorado Springs. Get­ting to the bunker’s fa­mous tun­nel en­trance re­quires pass­ing through two se­cu­rity check­points.

The ac­cess tun­nel goes com­pletely through the moun­tain, so if a nu­clear bomb ex­ploded out­side, the blast waves would fun­nel past the bunker en­trance, which sits at a 90- de­gree an­gle from the tun­nel. Those 23- ton doors are shaped like plugs, mean­ing any blast would tighten their seals. Hy­draulics can close the doors in about 20 sec­onds, while the guards sta­tioned in the tun­nel out­side can close them by hand in about 40 sec­onds.

Deep in­side the moun­tain, the main en­trance to the build­ings is a pro­saic of­fice door lead­ing to a war­ren of cor­ri­dors. Work­ers in­clude mil­i­tary men and women from both the USA and Canada, along with con­trac­tors.

About 350 peo­ple work in­side the bunker daily, Rose says, and about 170 stay there overnight. NORAD can move its full op­er­a­tions into the bunker dur­ing an emer­gency but nor­mally runs from nearby Peter­son, Davis said.

“There was just a recog­ni­tion that we had got­ten too big for the moun­tain,” Davis ex­plained.


Though the moun­tain still holds many se­crets, one of its best fea­tures has taken on new im­por­tance. Thanks in large part to the gran­ite un­der which it’s buried, Cheyenne Moun­tain is im­per­vi­ous to elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion. An elec­tro­mag­netic pulse, which in­vari­ably ac­com­pa­nies a nu­clear ex­plo­sion, can fry nearby elec­tron­ics, from phones and lap­tops to cam­eras, ra­dios, GPS units and even ve­hi­cles. The bunker is the coun­try’s sin­gle- best EMP- pro­tected com­plex, Rose said, and serves as the ul­ti­mate backup dur­ing a nu­clear attack.

The bunker’s se­cu­rity mea­sures have helped give it a larg­erthan- life pres­ence in Hol­ly­wood, thanks to the Ter­mi­na­tor, War

Games and In­de­pen­dence Day movies, along with last fall’s In­ter

stel­lar, and the long- run­ning scifi show Star­gate SG- 1.

Once in­side the build­ings, it’s hard to see the pro­tec­tions that make it a bunker of last re­sort. That’s by de­sign. There’s a con­ve­nience store and cafe­te­ria, along with a gym, chapel and spin class room. Most spa­ces pull dou­ble duty: The spin room can be con­verted into a med­i­cal triage bay.

Still, the car­pet and light­ing make por­tions of the fa­cil­ity look much like any other cu­bi­cle farm, even if the only “win­dow” views come from tele­vi­sions show­ing a live feed of the out­side park­ing lots.

“We try to elim­i­nate the feel­ing that you’re work­ing in a cave,” Rose said.

But a cave it is. The wa­ter reser­voirs used as a backup fa­cil­ity cool­ing sys­tem are hewn out of solid rock.

A small row­boat bobs on the sur­face of one of the reser­voirs, a boat that Rose jokes gives him the sta­tus as the deputy head of the largest un­der­ground navy in Amer­ica. Work­ers use the boat to in­spect the reser­voirs, but it also serves a more solemn pur­pose: Some of the U. S. Navy per­son­nel sta­tioned at the bunker climb aboard to re­new their en­list­ment as part of a long- stand­ing tra­di­tion to re­new at sea.

The reser­voirs let bunker op­er­ate with its doors closed for “sev­eral weeks,” Rose said.

To Rose and Davis, the bunker rep­re­sents the ul­ti­mate in Amer­i­can Cold War in­ge­nu­ity — but it’s still ready to meet the needs and chal­lenges of the mod­ern world.

“Like any­thing, the mil­i­tary has changed in 50 years, and so have we,” Rose said. “It’s the over­lap­ping of his­tory and fu­ture.”


The en­trance por­tal to the Cheyenne Moun­tain bunker is sur­rounded by se­cu­rity sys­tems.


Work­ers in­side Cheyenne Moun­tain pass through the in­ner blast doors, which seal the cav­erns off from the ac­cess tun­nel.


The bunker’s build­ings sit on springs to iso­late them from earth­quakes.

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