NORAD’s hidden bunker is shelter of last resort
HOLLOWED- OUT MOUNTAIN IN COLORADO HOLDS USA’S MOST SECURE INTELLIGENCE SITE
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.
COLD WAR CREATION
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.
DATA UNDER ROCK
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.