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Mountain Nerve Center Remains Relevant to Warfighting

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, April 24, 1998 – Beneath the pine-studded granite mass of Cheyenne Mountain lie 15 buildings as tall as three stories. They rest on 1,319 springs that weigh 1,000 pounds each and are designed to cushion the original vacuum-tube computers against the shock of an earthquake or a nuclear explosion. Rock bolts -- 115,000 of them ranging from 6 to 32 feet in length -- prevent the mountain from imploding on the vast, high-tech cavern.

DoD built the hidden fortress in the early 1960s, when the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack was frighteningly real. Inside Cheyenne Mountain were placed the computers and telephones and people who would watch for incoming missiles and notify the president if and when an attack on North America occurred.

Theirs was a doomsday scenario: In the event of such an attack, the giant double-sets of doors at either end of the access tunnel would swing shut and seal the underground command post and its inhabitants from a world possibly gone mad. Inside, there's enough food and water to sustain hundreds for 30 days. By then, so the scenario goes, the attack would be over and they could go outside to see what remained of the civilization they were charged to defend.

Thirty-three years after the complex began operations, a cold Rocky Mountain wind blows and swirls snow around the north entrance, or portal. You have to go through a security police checkpoint and radar detector to get this far. Then, you're moved by bus to the inner sanctum. Although the complex remains fully operational, in 1998, Cheyenne Mountain, the stuff of science fiction and Hollywood, is a popular tourist attraction. It is host to more than 19,000 visitors annually.

But what of its relevance to today's military? The Soviets no longer pose a viable threat. Why does DoD maintain this mysterious complex? Has the complex, in fact, remained relevant to DoD operations for the '90s and beyond?

"Absolutely," said Air Force Col. Gary Shugart, chief of staff of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. "For example, during Desert Storm, the [operations center] warned American commanders and the Israelis of each incoming Scud missile."

Space-based communications satellites the complex monitors detected targets before strikes and damage done after strikes, and they provided commanders weather information vital to combat operations planning and execution, added Marine Maj. Jolene Hollingshead. And stationary, radar-laden, hot-air balloons patrol the southern U.S. border to detect illegal drug traffickers, an increasing responsibility for DoD.

Much of what goes on inside Cheyenne Mountain is updated from 1960s operations. Some 1,250 people from all the service branches and the Canadian armed forces staff three separate elements: the North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command.

Their tasks are divided into work centers with varying responsibilities. Each resembles what you'd imagine a military operations center to look like, only smaller than Hollywood usually depicts. Bright, back-lit maps of North America, and some of the entire planet, reflect the watchful gazes of duty officers whose ranks go as high as four stars. The maps also reflect the constant flow of information brought down from satellites by tracking stations and sent by hardened microwave towers and fiber optics into the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain.

Heavy logbooks marked "Secret" and banks of telephones, including the red one that links the NORAD-U.S. Space Command commander in chief to the president, surround computer suites in the tightly packed Combined Command Center. Here, senior officers, including the CinC, Air Force Gen. Howell M. Estes III, watch, wait and worry about aircraft and missiles that could be targeted against North America. Another screen on the high walls shows the location of the president, vice president, Canadian prime minister and other senior government and military leaders. If one duty officer lifts the beige phone from his console to sound a warning, everyone here and in the work centers takes the call and responds as necessary. Somebody always is on duty inside Cheyenne Mountain.

The NORAD Battle Management Center tracks nearly 3 million aircraft a year to prevent any overflight by hostile aircraft and to detect cruise missile threats. Relevant? The center tracked 670 "unknowns" in 1997, many of them suspected drug traffickers. The center tracks these "UFOs," then turns such information over to other agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, for action.

The Missile Warning Center detects missile and rocket launches anywhere on Earth and determines whether they threaten North America or U.S. and Canadian troops stationed overseas. Relevant? Twenty nations now have the capability to launch ballistic missiles, according to Air Force Col. Tim Kelly, director of the NORAD Space Operations Center.

The Space Control Center detects, identifies, tracks and catalogs all manmade objects in space, down to the size of a six-inch bolt. Relevant? "More than 8,000 manmade objects currently orbit Earth," Hollingshead said. Most of these objects travel in near-earth orbit, at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. "A small piece striking the space shuttle at that speed would be catastrophic," she said.

Maybe operations like this could be conducted someplace else -- someplace more easily accessible, for example, than the side of a mountain some 7,100 feet above sea level. But DoD built the complex for just $142 million, and the General Accounting Office estimates it would cost $18 billion to duplicate today. It operates on an annual budget of only about $175 million, Shugart said. And with today's interests in cost efficiency, the complex operates without air conditioners or heaters! The cave's natural temperature stays between 50 and 55 degrees, while the compound's computers generate the heat required to keep building thermostats at 70 to 72 degrees.

With Global Positioning System devices becoming common in everything from Humvees to Harriers, Cheyenne Mountain sensors are as relevant as ever, Shugart said. And, should the United States follow through with plans for a ballistic missile defense system, this ageless mountain conclave will serve as its nerve center.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA bus lumbers toward the tunnel entrance to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, shuttling workers back and forth from the secretive and heavily fortified compound. Inside, photos are strictly prohibited, while some 1,250 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, civilians and Canadian armed forces personnel work in the 15-building complex. Douglas J. Gillert  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBefore any vehicles can enter the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, they must pass a rigorous security police check inside a "cage" that prevents the vehicle from moving forward or back. This pickup truck was denied further access for unknown reasons, and within a few minutes the driver sped back down the mountainside toward nearby Peterson Air Force Base to rectify the problem. Douglas J. Gillert  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageEnjoying an unusually warm spring morning, military and civilian employees walk toward their jobs at the far end of the tunnel entrance to Cheyenne Mountain. Inside, they'll enjoy office temperatures of 70-72 degrees, warmed by heat generated by the complex's computers. Douglas J. Gillert  
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