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NORAD & The Cheyenne Mountain Complex

This mountain contains a secret. Cheyenne Mountain, located in El Paso County in Colorado is the site of one of the most secretive and yet well known military installations in the country. It was a place that electrified the imagination during the Cold War, as the spectre of a Soviet attack loomed over the United States. It was an attack that never materialised, but if it had, it would have been the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) inside the Cheyenne Mountain Complex that would have heard about it first.

NORAD is no longer primarily based in Cheyenne Mountain. They now operate out of Peterson Airforce Base close by, with the mountain complex held as its backup. NORAD provides the United States and Canada with an early warning system for its aerospace while maintaining air superiority along its borders. Should any foreign missile or unknown aeroplane approach, NORAD is alerted which then triggers defensive protocols, which I will go into later.

The military command complex buried deep inside Cheyenne Mountain has become the stuff of legend. Countless movies and TV shows that deal with the end of the world include it, and despite it being completely off-limits to most civilians, its uses are now far from secretive.

NORAD

Think of NORAD like a gigantic shield. A combination of radars, aircraft and weapons systems form the basis of this enormous defensive set up.

NORAD was established, and activated, on 12th September 1957 at Ent Airforce Base, which once lay close to Colorado Springs – near to the Cheyenne Complex. The NORAD agreement had been reached between the United States and Canada some four months earlier to provide a defensive strategy against any potential Soviet attack, be that with long-range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles – and even in the event of a nuclear strike. This was done through a series of large computers known as the Semi-Automatic Ground System (SAGE). By compiling information from multiple radar sites, SAGE, which was used between the late 1950s and 1980s, was able to compile a unified image of the entire area and direct an appropriate response. SAGE was based on the Dowding system which had been the first ground-controlled interception system used on a large scale covering the UK during World War II. It had more than proven its worth and is credited in no small part for Britain’s successful stubborn resistance during the Battle of Britain.

Cheyenne

Cheyenne Mountain was not the first mountain that the U.S had been chipping away at. In 1957 the U.S government began construction of a hardened bunker within Bare Mountain in Massachusetts. Known as the “Notch”, the bunker was designed to withstand a nuclear blast and from where governmental staff could direct a response.

Cheyenne Mountain from sky

On 18th May 1961, nearly 2000 miles away, construction began to build a similar facility inside Cheyenne Mountain, in which NORAD would be based. This area was chosen for several reasons. Colorado is a considerable distance from both coasts, meaning a missile attack would take longer, while this particular zone in Colorado was the most seismically sound area in the state. The government was also looking for a tough, no-nonsense piece of granite with as few veins (small cracks) as possible, making it much harder to break apart in a blast. What they found at Cheyenne was ideal. The entire process fell under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers, but work was principally carried out by Utah Construction & Mining Company.

NORAD’s Combat Operations Center went fully operational on 20th April 1966, but it wasn’t the only system and command centre that would be accommodated deep inside the mountain. The Space Defense Center and the Combat Operations Center became fully operational on 6th February 1967, costing an estimated $142.4 million (around $1.1 billion today). Between May and October 1966, the NORAD Attack Warning System, Combat Operations Command, and Delta I computer system, responsible for monitoring movement in space all became operational. By January 4, 1967, the National Civil Defense Warning Center had also joined the complex.

As I mentioned earlier, NORAD, and indeed most of the other systems are no longer based in Cheyenne Mountain. In 2006, NORAD migrated the short distance to Peterson Air Force base and the following year Cheyenne was officially designated as an “alternate command centre”. At its peak, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex accommodated 1,800–2,000 personnel, but today only around 200 remain part of the skeleton crew which maintains the complex on a “warm standby” basis – meaning only as needed.  

Layout

The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was constructed 610 meters (2,000ft) under the thick granite of the mountain, around a mile from the front door. I’m sure the military doesn’t use the term front door, but I’m sure you know what I mean. In case you are wondering, employees need to park outside the complex then take a bus down the corridor – it’s not the kind of place that you can just wander around. The main corridor that runs through the complex has both a north and south portal, but curves to avoid the gold mines at nearby Divide, Colorado.

There are 13 three-storey buildings and 2 two-storey buildings within the complex, which covers around 5 acres of land – roughly the size of 4 American football fields. Most of the buildings are built just 18 inches from the rocks walls and have been designed to withstand movement of any kind, be it an earthquake or an explosion, with the use of more than 1,000 giant springs and flexible pipe connectors placed beneath the buildings. In theory, this system should prevent the buildings within the complex from shifting more than 25mm (1 inch) in the event of a disaster.

It is also the only high-altitude  Department of Defense facility that could sustain an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which could come from a nuclear device or small portable devices. The buildings within the complex were built of Navy-grade steel which reflects impulses while also shielding the equipment inside.

The complex has been designed to be much more than just office space and a command centre. In the event of an unimaginable disaster, those inside the Cheyenne Mountain Complex could well be called on to direct the country’s response – and that could take time. There are beds and suites available for staff and high-ranking officers. It also has a medical facility, a shop, a cafeteria, a chapel and a gym. But one thing there isn’t a lot of are windows – because, well, what exactly are you going to look at?

The bunker is designed to withstand a 30 megaton nuclear explosion detonated as close as 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) away – that’s around 2,000 times as powerful as what was dropped on Hiroshima. Inside are sets of truly titanic blast doors, which themselves can keep a 25-ton blast wave at bay. Most assume that these beasts are located on the main corridor, but actually, they protect a side corridor that leads to the office complex. If a blast was to hit the Cheyenne Mountain it would carry along the main corridor, gradually decreasing in strength until only about 20% of the original force would hit the blast door.

During the Cold War, the threat level was at such a height that one door always remained closed. Those moving between would have to patiently wait for one door to be completely sealed before the other could open. It wasn’t until 1992 that the decision was made to keep both doors open permanently, and apart from daily checks, the only time they have both closed since came shortly after the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001.   

Blast valves are included throughout the complex with an array of filters that can detect or capture chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear contaminants.

A fire station sits outside the complex along with parking lots for employees. Perhaps slightly strangely when considering what is inside, there are also numerous recreational facilities outside, which include Mountain Man Park, picnic areas, a racquetball facility, softball field, sand volleyball court, basketball court and a putting green. Perhaps they wanted to add a degree of normality when constantly dealing with threats that could end the world. 

As you might imagine for an underground bunker that might have to direct a response to the end of the world, the complex doesn’t rely entirely on the national grid system. The bunker has its own power plant along with a reservoir of diesel sealed behind a closed wall, heating and cooling system, and water supply. All of this is maintained by 21st Mission Support Group, a ground-based missile warning and space control wing, which keeps all of the above operating at 99.999% reliability. No pressure there then.

21st Mission Support Group have even categorised potential threats to the complex, and beginning with the least serious, they are:

“medical emergencies, natural disasters, civil disorder, a conventional attack, an electromagnetic pulse attack, a cyber or information attack, chemical or biological or radiological attack, an improvised nuclear attack, a limited nuclear attack, [and] a general nuclear attack.” The water produced by the nearby mountain springs far outweighs what the complex ever needed and 5,700 m3 (1.5 million gallons) provides a further backup – that’s over twice the water that’s held in an Olympic swimming pool. A second reservoir holding 17,000 m3 (4.5 million gallons) is used as a heat sink, this is a thermal conductor which maintains lower temperatures inside the complex by transferring heat given off by all the computer hardware into a liquid form.

Upgrades

Cheyenne Mountain and the systems and command centres it once housed saw numerous upgrades over the years. In 1979, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex Improvements Program 427M system, a consolidated Cheyenne Mountain Upgrade program for a command centre, space, ballistic missile, and space functions became fully operational. It had been developed using new software technology and would use computers with large processing capacity. The 427M system was designed to compile several databases quickly, improve on-line display capabilities, while also greatly speeding up the processing and transmission time for mission warning information.

By the mid-1990s, a $1.7 billion ($2.8 billion today) renovation program for Cheyenne Mountain got underway. The missile warning centre would receive a $450 million ($765 million today) upgrade. In 2000, The Combatant Commander’s Integrated Command and Control System (CCIC2S) program began which would upgrade all of the mission systems within Cheyenne Mountain as part of a contract with Lockheed Martin. A part of this system to modernise the attack warning system cost $700 million ($1 billion today) between 2000 and 2005.

Cheyenne Mountain Realignment

The 18-month process to move Command Center operations to Peterson Air Force Base was complete by 13th May 2008. NORAD is now based out of a basement below the base – much less glamorous no doubt, but maybe the world has changed enough that we don’t need giant nuclear bunkers hidden inside mountains. – who knows. It costs less, and apparently, the process works much more efficiently at the Air Force base. It’s just much less cool.   

The Cheyenne Mountain Complex now uses just 30% of its available floor space and sees only 5% of its original employee numbers. It is still used for on-site training and no doubt if you ever need to stress the importance of the job, showing new employees an underground bunker will probably do the trick.

But that’s not quite the end for Cheyenne Mountain. In 2015, Admiral William E. Gortney, commander of NORAD announced a $700 million contract to move weapon systems into the bunker once again to shield them from electromagnetic pulse attack. He wasn’t exactly specific about what would be going inside, but it’s clear Cheyenne Mountain still provides the kind of overall protection that few, if any, places can.

False Alarms

We’ve done a few videos here on Mega Projects which have touched on the uncomfortable facts that the world seems to have wobbled to the brink of destruction on a frighteningly high number of times. Whether it was U.S planes crashing with nuclear weapons on board, or Soviet nuclear submarines in perilous circumstances, we’ve come closer to a nuclear accident or war more often than we would probably guess.

On three separate occasions, things have gone wrong with the NORAD system. On 9th November 1979, simple human error meant that a test tape was loaded without that little switch that says test being switched. The result was a steady stream of false warnings which eventually led to a “Continuity of Government” order, which essentially are the set of procedures for the government to carry out in the event of a catastrophic event. Command posts around the world were notified, but thankfully the situation was quickly brought under control.

On 3rd June 1980, and on 6th June 1980, a computer communications device failure sent warning messages to the U.S. Air Force command posts across the globe, informing them that a nuclear attack was underway. And just for a moment imagine the poor souls who first read that warning!

The results were a little different, Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) which focuses on the Pacific region launched their planes, along with nuclear weapons in line with protocol for such an event, however, Strategic Air Command (SAC), which primarily focused on a nuclear strike threat, did not because they felt sure it was a false alarm, a response which eventually led to SAC being criticized for not following procedures. Surely an impossible split-second human decision to make.

A New Age?

As I mentioned earlier, maybe we are no longer so fearful of nuclear war that we burrow deep inside mountains and make sure that only one of the almighty blast doors is ever open at any one time. While we still, of course, fear nuclear war, it has begun to slip out of our consciousness.

Today we think about cybercrime, fake news – and a global pandemic. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex is a wonderful fossil of a time gone by. An age when nuclear war was not just theory, but likely enough that children in U.S schools took part in drills. There’s something wonderfully James Bond-esque about the bunker, an intriguing, masterful piece of engineering, built out of the frankly horrifying concept that one day we might get angry enough that we destroy the entire planet. Places like the Cheyenne Mountain Complex are extraordinary, but they do send a little shiver up the spine. It is a testament to the absurdity of the human race, but also our unconquerable drive to survive, and fight on.

Next articleProject Babylon

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