Cheyenne Mountain’s fate may lie in study contents

By PAM ZUBECK THE GAZETTE Updated: June 16, 2006 at 12:00 am • Published: June 16, 2006
A study being done by the military suggests scaling back the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, a symbol of the Cold War and the nation’s most heavily fortified military station. The analysis of the 40-year-old center, which was carved deep into the rock of Cheyenne Mountain and was designed to be a command post in the event of nuclear war, was commissioned in February by Adm. Timothy Keating, chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command, based at Peterson Air Force Base. The Cheyenne Mountain center monitors the skies, oceans and space for threats. A dramatic curtailment of its missions has never been seriously considered, said John Pike, executive director of the defense think tank GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. Pike has analyzed defense issues for 25 years. The Cheyenne Mountain base was built amid the Cold War when the United States feared a Soviet nuclear attack. Pike said today’s foes don’t pose the same threat. “Whatever the attack is, it’s not going to be a disarming first strike,” he said, adding that Cheyenne Mountain “was created to solve a problem that mercifully we no longer have.” In a statement, NORADNorthCom Public Affairs Director Michael Perini said the $100,000 study, originally slated for a June release, has been delayed by at least a month. Perini denied that the study, being conducted by the NORAD and NorthCom operations directorate, would result in closing the mountain base. “There is no talk at this point of dismantling any portion of the command center at Cheyenne Mountain,” Perini’s statement said. But it said the center could be placed on “warm standby” status, a term to be defined by the study. A former senior government official familiar with the study said “warm standby” in this case means maintaining the center but fully staffing it only when needed. The former official, who asked not to be named for fear of damaging his continuing relations with the military, said the study suggests moving 150 people, about a third of the Cheyenne Mountain workforce, to Peterson to achieve “substantial savings.” It doesn’t make sense to have two crews flanking Colorado Springs doing the same jobs, the former official said. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said that if the study proposes changing the base’s operations, he’ll want to know whether redundancy exists elsewhere, whether security at those sites matches the mountain’s and what, if any, cost savings would result. “If there’s a savings, we ought to take a look at it,” he said. A congressional source who didn’t want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said the idea of curtailing Cheyenne Mountain’s operations has circulated at the Pentagon for months due to concerns about operating costs. All service branches are being squeezed to defray the costs of the Iraq war. A detailed account of the study’s findings, provided anonymously to The Gazette, outlines plans to move Cheyenne Mountain’s missile defense and air defense missions to Peterson, missile warning to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of Strategic Command, and the space mission to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Air Force Space Command said in a statement that “plans are currently being developed to move the 1st Space Control Squadron to Vandenberg AFB to co-locate with the Joint Space Operations Center there.” It also said moving the five 11-person crews that comprise the squadron from Cheyenne Mountain would “evolve and improve their current capabilities” in tracking more than 8,500 man-made objects orbiting Earth. “At this time, however, it is uncertain when that move will take place or what the costs will be,” Space Command said, adding that the relocation study, separate from NORAD’s study, isn’t completed. The congressional source said the Pentagon “has done a terrible job” monitoring a 15-year, $1.5 billion modernization program at Cheyenne Mountain, leading the House to cut a $51 million request for project funding to $14 million in 2007. Cheyenne Mountain’s command center was revamped at a cost of $13 million in 2003 and 2004. The study is rooted in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former government official said. That day, Gen. Ralph “Ed” Eberhart, who at the time was chief of NORAD and U.S. Space Command, spent 45 minutes getting from Peterson to Cheyenne Mountain, which had communications capabilities not available at Peterson. Enroute, he lost a cellphone call with Vice President Dick Cheney, underscoring the fact that Eberhart, now retired, wasn’t at his battle station inside the mountain. A short time later, the order was given to shoot down a hijacked airliner, five minutes after the plane plunged into a Pennsylvania field. New repeater stations were installed almost immediately to fix the phone problem, and Congress began pumping money into Peterson. A Peterson building under construction for U.S. Space Command was expanded to accommodate a NORAD operations center that has since become a joint facility shared with Northern Command, the new homeland defense arm created in late 2002. U.S. Space Command became part of Strategic Command. The $51 million expansion project put under one roof NORAD and NorthCom operations that were scattered in several Peterson buildings. Another $1.5 million was recently spent to install a perimeter of pylons, steel cable, boulders and berms around the buildings, which lie within a few hundred feet of unsecured off-base roads and buildings. The congressional source said Peterson officials “have serious concern” about NORAD/NorthCom’s headquarters’ proximity to the base’s edge and want to buy property to create a buffer zone. Peterson also lies in the path of dozens of daily flights to and from the Colorado Springs Airport. Pike, the defense analyst, said there were alternatives to Cheyenne Mountain. “Rather than making it survivable under a mountain, they’ve made it survivable at several locations, some of which are known and some which may not be known,” he said. But Pike warned against mothballing the mountain, saying, “We’ve spent a lot of money developing that capability of running that kind of facility. I would not want to forget how to do that.” Christopher He`llman, military policy analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., said it may not be essential to retain the facility. “If you have other capabilities and you have that redundancy, there’s nothing that makes Cheyenne unique,” he said. “Then it boils down to how easily can you staff it, and how costly is it to operate. Those are administrative decisions, not strategic ones.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0238 or pam.zubeck@gazette.com CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN CONSTRUCTION FACTS The underground complex opened in April 1966 and was built to withstand an attack by the Soviet Union. It could not withstand a hit by a modern intercontinental ballistic missile, but is considered a stronghold against many threats. - The Army Corps of Engineers used 1.5 million pounds of dynamite to excavate about 700,000 tons of granite. - The complex has 15 buildings, 12 of which are three stories. - The complex rests on 1,319, 1,000-pound springs that allow the complex to sway up to a foot horizontally in any direction. - The tunnel is reinforced by 110,000 rock bolts six to 32 feet in length that push outward on the walls to prevent implosion or cave-in. - The two blast doors are 25 tons, 3 1/2-feet-thick baffled steel. - Roughly 800 people work inside the mountain, about 200 per shift. POSSIBLE CHANGES AT CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN OPERATIONS CENTER - The center could be placed on “warm standby,” which a source said would mean maintaining the center but fully staffing it only when needed. - The study suggests moving 150 people, about a third of the work force, to Peterson Air Force Base to eliminate repetitive jobs and achieve “substantial savings.” - One account of the study’s findings outlines plans to move the missile defense and air defense missions to Peterson, missile warning to Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., and the space mission to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. ABOUT THE STUDY The $100,000 study was ordered in February by Adm. Timothy Keating, chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command. It is being done by the NORAD and NorthCom operations directorate and should be completed this summer.
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