Military to Idle NORAD Compound

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By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006

COLORADO SPRINGS, July 28 -- Facing new enemies in a different kind of war, the Pentagon said Friday that it plans to move out of the famous war room that was built beneath a mountain here in the 1960s with enough concrete to survive a Soviet missile strike.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) will transfer surveillance operations from Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, an iconic Cold War venue depicted in such movies as "War Games" and "The Sum of All Fears," to an office building a dozen miles away at Peterson Air Force Base.

The Cheyenne Mountain war room, nesting more than 1,000 feet under the mountain and protected by iron blast doors weighing 30 tons apiece, is to be placed in a status the military calls "warm standby," which means it could be reopened in hours if a need arose.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Defense Department has spent about $700 million to upgrade early-warning systems at the Cheyenne Mountain center. A report this month by the Government Accountability Office said the upgrade has been "fraught with cost increases, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls."

Despite that upgrade, Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command, created a group in February to consider moving the NORAD surveillance operation to Peterson. The study recommended the shift for operational and budget reasons, the Northern Command said in a statement Friday.

NORAD officials emphasized that the same surveillance work will be carried out, but without the enormous protective shield of iron, earth and concrete provided at Cheyenne Mountain. The military concluded that it no longer needed to be concerned about an intercontinental nuclear missile.

"Moving the missions from a hardened facility to Peterson AFB does not change the level of security," Keating told reporters Friday. "An assessment is underway to ensure that the security level is commensurate with threats."

"A missile attack from China or Russia is very unlikely," Keating said, according to a transcript of a recent interview with the Denver Post.

With a minimal threat of bunker-busting missiles from overseas, the military decided that the convenience of locating its surveillance operations in one place was more valuable than the protection Cheyenne Mountain offered.

The commander of NORAD works from Peterson Air Force Base, and the trip to Cheyenne Mountain can be time-consuming if traffic is bad. On Sept. 11, 2001, Colorado newspapers have reported, the commander spent 45 minutes on the road between his office at Peterson and his communications center under the mountain while the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were taking place. The Cheyenne Mountain center, at the eastern foot of the Rockies near the base of Pikes Peak, was constructed underground in the mid-1960s.

Fearing nuclear attacks at the time, the United States built sites such as the Cheyenne Mountain complex. The Navy prepared a floating White House aboard the communications cruiser USS Northampton, in case the president needed to be evacuated from U.S. soil. Another protective bunker was created near White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., for members of Congress.

Eventually, the complex beneath Cheyenne Mountain grew to 15 underground buildings, centering on the war room that was equipped to track missiles, long-range bombers and objects in space. U.S. and Canadian military personnel have staffed the room round the clock since 1966, roughly 200 at a time.

With the creation of the U.S. Northern Command in 2002, the center began helping civilian authorities track domestic flights. The Cheyenne Mountain center also tracked the brief flight this month of the new North Korean missile, the Taepo Dong 2.

The famous war room is supported by 1,300 large shock absorbers designed to protect people and equipment inside from a nearby nuclear strike. Enormous vaulted doors at the complex, made of 40 inches of baffled steel, were rarely closed. The last reported closure of the doors was on Sept. 11, 2001, when officials feared that a plane would hit Cheyenne Mountain.

NORAD and Northern Command officials assured Colorado Springs authorities that the transfer would not eliminate any local jobs. Some operations will remain at the Cheyenne Mountain site, Keating said.

"Cheyenne Mountain is not going away," Keating told reporters Friday. "There will be a small number of people that will remain at Cheyenne Mountain to maintain the facility in the event we need to stand up for either a real world threat or for exercises. Day-to-day NORAD-North Com operations will occur from Peterson Air Force Base."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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