Cheyenne Mountain on Standby

Duties at the Colorado Springs-area military post, touted as America’s safest spot, are moving to Peterson.

Colorado Springs – The military is relegating its newly renovated
airspace and missile defense complex in Cheyenne Mountain to
standby status – clouding the future of a Cold War nerve center
touted as the most secure spot in America.

The green-jumpsuited sentries who electronically scan the skies
from deep inside this granite cocoon southwest of Colorado Springs
– built in the 1960s to withstand Soviet nuclear blasts – now are
to blend into broader homeland defense operations under prairie
skies at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.

“I can’t be in two places at one time,” said Adm. Tim Keating,
commander of both U.S. Northern Command, set up in 2002 to fight
terrorism, and North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.
Both NORAD and Northcom have their headquarters at Peterson.

U.S. strategists created the mountain complex to prevent nuclear
missile and bomber attacks. But today the government’s best
intelligence “leads us to believe a missile attack from China or
Russia is very unlikely,” Keating said in an interview this week.

The emergence of varied terrorist threats such as suicide bombers
“is what recommends to us that we don’t need to maintain Cheyenne
Mountain in a 24/7 status. We can put it on ‘warm standby,”‘
Keating said.

Just how warm depends on money to maintain the complex, military
officials said. Keating said his goal is to be able to fire up the
complex in an hour.

Keating today is scheduled to announce the decision he made after
consulting with military chiefs in Washington. He’ll move 230
surveillance crewmembers and an undetermined number of about 700
support staffers – as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The
time frame: within two years.

About 1,100 people now work in the mountain. Military leaders
promised there’d be no net job loss from the move.

Whether money can be saved is uncertain, Keating said. Mountain
operations cost taxpayers $250 million a year.

Budgets at first may increase, officials said, depending on how
much money is available to maintain mountain facilities, but in the
future could decrease.

The move itself will cost “tens of millions of dollars,” said Air
Force Col. Lou Christensen, deputy director of operations.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government began
a $467 million modernization of the mountain facility. A recent
congressional probe found cost overruns – modernizers spent more
than $700 million, and the work isn’t done.

Moving surveillance crews out marks a twist in nearly 50 years of
secretive activity at the mountain. Blasting a 4 1/2-acre cavern
about 60 feet high was the first of many engineering feats that led
to construction of 15 free-standing buildings mounted on 1,319
springs, which allow a 12-inch sway. The total cost, $142 million,
raised eyebrows back then.

Since the mid-1960s, joint U.S.-Canadian crews in the mountain have
guarded North America, poised to send warnings that could initiate
nuclear missile launches. Strategists long were locked into notions
of superpower security through “mutually assured destruction.”

Now military analysts ponder strategic implications of a move that
reflects a growing concern with terrorism by small groups against a
military superpower.

While odds of a nuclear missile attack now seem slim, “take it 15
years down the road,” said John Pike, director of Global Security,
a Washington think tank. “Maybe the Chinese will try to take us
on. They might start blowing up military targets. And though
currently we’re not concerned about the Russians, that may change.
What would be required to get back into that mountain?”

The decision to move surveillance crews out followed an internal
study launched in February. The study explored consolidation of two
overlapping surveillance operations – the one in the mountain and
the new homeland defense center at Peterson, about 12 miles from
the mountain at the eastern edge of Colorado Springs.

There, homeland defense surveillance crews surrounded by wall-sized
video screens try to detect and track threats – with access to the
same data available inside the mountain.

These crews track threats as varied as U.S.-bound ships carrying
unidentified cargo and suspicious cars idling around power plants.

Today, protecting America is increasingly complicated, said Army
Col. Tom Muir, who directs the new center and helped run the
internal study. “Is Hezbollah going to attack the United States?”
he asked.

During the 9/11 attacks, the NORAD commander at the time, Air Force
Gen. Ralph Eberhart, was caught shuttling from headquarters at
Peterson to the mountain command post and couldn’t receive
telephone calls as senior officials weighed how to respond.

Consolidating surveillance operations is aimed at “strengthening
the command center here,” Muir said. “This is an efficiency

Canadian defense partners who helped run mountain operations also
sit at the new surveillance center. It has been renamed N2C2, short
for NORAD-Northcom Command Center.

“I have found, over the course of several pretty extensive,
rigorous exercises, that I’m able to get as good or better
situational awareness in the command center … at Peterson,”
Keating said.

Besides NORAD and Northcom, other military forces work in the
mountain today. An Air Force Space Command squadron of 100 people
tracks space debris and satellites. U.S. missile command crews and
intelligence teams from the National Reconnaissance Office and
other agencies also are there – all supported by 700 cooks, a
barber, medics, recreational center staff, engineers, guards and

Air Force Space Command, too, is looking into moving its operations
out of the mountain to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California –
raising the prospect of a virtually empty mountain.

Keating said he and other commanders have talked about this. “I’m
aware of the plans” that would move a majority of remaining forces
out, he said. Yet “we appreciate the importance of Cheyenne
Mountain. That is exactly why we are going to maintain it … in the
event we would need it.

“This is not Step One that will lead, inevitably and inexorably,
to closing Cheyenne Mountain.”

One possibility: using the mountain as a second seat for the U.S.
government in a crisis. Keating said he knew of no discussions on
this, but he characterized that option as reasonable.


Key events in Cheyenne Mountain’s history:

Early 1950s: The Cold War with the Soviet Union leads U.S.
authorities to find a place where military warning facilities could
survive a nuclear attack.

1958: The U.S. and Canada establish the North American Air Defense
Command, or NORAD, to monitor and defend North American airspace
from attack.

1959: Cheyenne Mountain is selected for the NORAD command site.

1961: Excavation and construction begin. More than 693,000 tons of
granite is removed from the mountain. Eventually, 15 buildings,
some mounted on springs, are constructed behind 25-ton blast doors,
1,400 feet inside the mountain.

1966: The NORAD Operations Center inside the mountain becomes fully

1979: A simulation of a large Soviet missile attack is mistakenly
interpreted as real by Cheyenne Mountain personnel and almost leads
to a massive launch of U.S. nuclear missiles before the error is

1981: NORAD changes its name to North American Aerospace Defense
Command. The Air Force starts computer-system upgrades at an
estimated cost of $968 million.

1983: The hit sci-fi movie “WarGames,” starring Matthew Broderick
and set at NORAD, is released. It is one of several Hollywood
productions that have used Cheyenne Mountain as a setting,
including the films “Sum of All Fears” and “Deep Impact” and
TV’s “Stargate SG-1.”

1989: NORAD begins military support of agencies fighting transport
of illegal drugs into the U.S.

1998: Computer upgrades started in 1981 are declared operational,
at a total cost of about $1.8 billion.

2000: The Air Force starts another program to modernize and
integrate Cheyenne Mountain systems.

Sept. 11, 2001: In the wake of the terrorist attacks that day, the
complex closes its blast doors for the first time in decades when
it’s suspected that a hijacked aircraft is headed for the mountain.
The doors reopen when it’s determined no such threat exists.

2001: NORAD’s mission expands to include monitoring air traffic
within North America in response to 9/11.

2002: U.S. Northern Command, or Northcom, is established to fight
terrorism at home and to lead the land, aerospace and sea defense
of the United States. It is based at nearby Peterson Air Force Base
in Colorado Springs. It carries out much of the same surveillance,
with access to all the same data, as the NORAD command post.

2004: Cheyenne Mountain is upgraded, doubling the command center’s
540 square feet. The overhaul is to accommodate the increased staff
from Northcom and the Federal Aviation Administration.

February 2006: U.S. Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of
Northcom and NORAD, tells The Denver Post he has launched an
“internal study” of whether to keep the NORAD command post at
Cheyenne Mountain.

July 2006: A report by Congress’ Government Accountability Office
says poor management has delayed needed upgrades to early-warning
systems at Cheyenne Mountain and pushed the cost more than 50
percent over budget.

Sources: Denver Post archives,,, GAO, The Associated Press,