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Cheyenne Mountain: America's underground watch tower
By Andy Walton
NEAR COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado -- Just outside Colorado Springs lies one of Hollywood's favorite Cold War icons. The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center is the post where U.S. and Canadian militaries watch their borders for airborne objects that might be the first wave of an enemy attack.
At the entrance, a sign proclaims, "Inside the mountain is a no-hat, no-salute zone." The officer sitting in the Command Center, usually a colonel, reports directly to a four-star general. The mountain is stripped of many military niceties, streamlined to spread vital information. It is an unusual post, staffed by mixed crews from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, and the Canadian armed forces.
In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was developing bombers and missiles with intercontinental range. The North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) began planning for a more secure site; it was then housed above ground, at what is now the U.S. Olympic training center.
Cheyenne Mountain, in the front range of the Rockies, won out. The mountain is near the center of the North American continent, in an area with very little earthquake activity, and in a good location to receive logistical support from the nearby Air Force Academy and Fort Carson.
The Operations Center itself lies along one side of a main tunnel bored almost a mile through the solid granite heart of the mountain. The tunnel is designed to route the worst of a blast's shock wave out the other end, past the two 25-ton blast doors that mark one wall.
The center was designed to withstand up to a 30 megaton blast within 1 nautical mile. But with the power and accuracy of more modern weapons, U.S. Army Capt. Jeff Dean concedes, "it's questionable whether we would be able to survive" a direct hit from an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Much of the underground complex looks more like it belongs in a ship than a mountain fortress -- floors and walls are metal plate, with flexible connections designed to bend rather than break.
Eyes on the sky
The Command Center is the heart of the complex, where information from all of Cheyenne Mountain's centers is processed and passed on to military and civilian decision-makers. It is small compared to the massive "war rooms" in films like "Dr. Strangelove" and "WarGames," but the end of the Cold War has not reduced the volume or importance of the data it handles.
"Any time any nation has the capability to strike North America, there's a real threat, and we need to be concerned about that, whether it's a single missile or multiple missiles," said Col. Tom MacHamer, the leader of the Command Center's Alpha crew. "As more nations gain the capability to threaten us directly or indirectly, that's of great concern to us."
Six centers feed information to the Command Center: Intelligence, Systems, Weather, Battle Management, Missile Warning and Space Control. The Missile Warning Center is the single mission most identified with NORAD; it is also the one operational center that was not on the press tour.
As the nature of the threat has evolved, the capabilities of NORAD have also shifted; missile tracking has changed its focus to shorter-range missiles, which are held by far more nations than those with ICBMs.
"We are now dealing with a world which is a little bit less stable than in the days of the bipolar, two-superpower arena," MacHamer said.
The Battle Management Center, in operation only since early 1998, is staffed by three people under ordinary circumstances. In the event of an increased alert status, this room full of office cubicles would be filled with personnel from all branches of the military.
One ongoing mission of the Battle Management Center is to coordinate "air sovereignty" efforts, monitoring every aircraft that enters U.S. or Canadian airspace -- some 2.5 million a year. NORAD is asked to investigate aircraft that do not file flight plans, contact ground controllers or identify themselves with transponders.
In the post-Cold War era, NORAD's aircraft-tracking mission has included monitoring drug-smuggling flights, as well as flights by the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue.
Directing space traffic
The central mission of the Space Control Center is to monitor some 8,200 orbital objects; in theory, every man-made object in Earth orbit larger than about 10 centimeters (4 inches) long. The original fear was that a satellite falling to Earth at the end of its life might be mistaken for an incoming missile.
The center now predicts a 30 minute window when an object's orbit will begin to decay, and passes that information on to the U.S. military or to other nations to avoid such a misunderstanding. "If it looks like that 30 minute window is going to come over Russia, we will notify Russia, also, through our State Department," said U.S. Navy Capt. Brian Smith.
The Space Control Center also gives information about orbiting objects to NASA and other space agencies in an effort to avoid space collisions. During shuttle missions, the center plots "a theoretical box around the shuttle" that measures 10 by 10 by 50 km (6 by 6 by 30 miles), Smith said.
"We project that forward 36 hours into the future, and if anything comes inside that box that we're tracking, we have a direct line to the Mission Control Center down in Houston," Smith said.
"We also perform the same mission for Mir, and we will be doing the same mission for the International Space Station," he added. Shuttles have altered course seven times because of an object Space Control was tracking, Smith said.
Prepared for war
In the bowels of the complex, all comparisons to an ordinary office building are quickly forgotten. The complex is designed to house its staff in complete physical isolation, with enough food, water and fuel to last 30 days. Air, brought in from the outside, is filtered to remove radioactive, chemical or biological hazards.
Throughout the ceilings of the complex, some 113,000 bolts, measuring 6 to 32 feet (1 to 5 meters) in length, are drilled into the rock; two non-commissioned officers are employed to tighten those bolts full-time. The bolts add structural strength to the inside of the mountain, making up for all the tons of rock that were removed.
Like the connections between floor segments, the connections between hose and pipe segments are designed to be flexible. The entire complex is mounted on huge springs, designed to absorb the shock of an earthquake or an explosion.
While Cheyenne Mountain's mission has changed, the government has no plans to close the complex. A 1995 audit found the unique site offered cost advantages. Surrounded by granite, it requires less security than an above-ground installation. Heating costs nothing -- the complex is heated by its computers. One thing that has not changed is a surprising policy: except for a few years in the 1980s, the site has been periodically opened for public tours since 1967.