America's Fortress: Cheyenne Mountain, NORAD live on

Despite the common public belief that the famous facility has closed down, and that it is one and the same as NORAD, it is fully operational and packed with critical U.S. military and defense agencies.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

One of the two 25-ton blast doors that protects the main entrance to the Cheyenne Mountain complex outside of Colorado Springs, Colo. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.--If there are two things that drive the folks at the world-famous Cheyenne Mountain complex crazy, it's the widely held public perceptions that, for one, the complex has shut down altogether, and that it is synonymous with NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

After visiting as part of my Road Trip 2009 project Friday, I'm here to report that both perceptions are quite incorrect.

For one, the Cheyenne Mountain complex is very much still operational. In some ways, in fact, in a world where existential threats come not from the Soviet Union but from things like natural disasters, cyberattacks, and amorphous terrorist organizations on the hunt for nuclear weapons, it may today even be considered more important than ever.

In its heyday, during the height of the Cold War, it was seen as the nerve center from which U.S. military operations could still conduct business during a nuclear attack. But today, in the post-9/11 era, a whole new set of operational tenants, including U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Space Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Missile Defense Agency, have moved in.

Secondly, while NORAD does, and has always done, business inside the mountain, the daily operations of its command center moved in May 2008 to the nearby Peterson Air Force Base to form a combined U.S. Northern Command and NORAD command center. Today, the day-to-day NORAD mission at Cheyenne Mountain has combined with U.S. Northern Command and includes a number of missions including training.

Photos: Inside Cheyenne Mountain, America's Fortress

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"Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is owned and operated by Air Force Space Command," the NORAD Web site explains. "In fact, NORAD and (U.S. Northern Command) use just under 30 percent of the floor space within the complex and comprise approximately 5 percent of the daily population at Cheyenne Mountain."

It would be dishonest of me to not admit that when I first set about trying to arrange a visit to Cheyenne Mountain, I didn't understand the relationship between the complex and NORAD.

It wasn't fully explained to me until my arrival that my initial request to visit the command center--where all the real action takes place--couldn't be met. But I was able to spend a few hours meeting with Col. Brad Gentry, the commander of the 721st Mission Support Group, which runs Cheyenne Mountain, and taking a rare tour--rare because I was allowed to bring a camera--of the deep underground complex.

And after my visit, I have a much clearer picture of what goes on at the facility, and, my hosts hope, so will the general public.

Mission Support Group
Gentry explained that the MSG is responsible for Cheyenne Mountain's civil engineering, its security--both physical and digital--and ensuring that it remains "America's Fortress," perhaps the most impenetrable command center on Earth. Ultimately, the job is to offer the various other agencies inside the complex "five nines reliability," meaning 99.999 percent, when it comes to power, electricity, air conditioning, water, and more.

According to a fact sheet I was given, the threats that the MSG is geared up for, in descending order of likelihood, but increasing level of consequences, 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, or a general nuclear attack.

Preparing for the various kinds of nuclear attacks, however, has nothing to do with the U.S. Strategic Command's Cheyenne Mountain missile warning center, which, Gentry explained, connects with and collects data from missile sensors around the world.

Still, there is plenty of awareness about the potential for a nuclear explosion at Cheyenne Mountain, and during my tour of the infrastructure, much of that was spelled out.

Among the systems set up to protect the critical operations inside the complex from the most dire attacks are giant, 25-ton blast doors placed deep within the mountain, as well as a tunnel and portal structure designed to deflect a nuclear detonation (see video below).

There are also a network of blast valves set up to ensure safe air, redundant power generators on top of a huge battery bank, a massive diesel fuel reservoir, a 4.5 million gallon reservoir of water used as a heat sink, a system of giant springs designed to allow the 15 three-story buildings inside the mountain to shift up to an inch in any direction in case of an explosion or earthquake, and countless sections of flexible pipe connectors meant to ensure that significant shaking doesn't upset normal operations.

Throughout the Cheyenne Mountain complex, the buildings inside are perched on top of more than 1,000 of these giant springs, which are designed to allow the buildings to shift up to an inch in any direction in case of a nuclear attack or a major earthquake. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

In essence, the complex is a small city. Six hundred people work there, and as such, there's a medical center, a small store, a cafeteria, and more. Should Cheyenne Mountain be shut down for any reason--what is known in the complex's parlance as a "button up," the personnel left inside "can maintain fitness" at the gym, Gentry said.

And while top brass inside are afforded sleeping suites for use in case of a button up, lesser personnel would still be able to rest there, as the facility maintains a sizable collection of cots.

So finely tuned
When entering the complex, everyone has to go through two sets of the giant blast doors. Though they weigh 25 tons, they're "so finely tuned," Gentry said, that even just two people should be able to swing them shut or open.

At the same time, the doors lock when a series of giant pistons swing forward and into large, corresponding slots. Even the piston system has a backup, though, with levers that can be manually operated to pull open or push shut the pistons.

"People will not ever be trapped in this facility," Gentry said.

That's also true because, should every other system fail, including the blast doors, there's a small trap door inside one of the tunnels that allows people to escape. That's assuming they're not claustrophobic, Gentry joked.

The series of blast valves, meanwhile, are set up so that, should there be an attack, the air inside remains breathable. That's because the valves have sophisticated filters that can clean contaminated air, and which provide a 20-second delay between entering the mountain from the outside and making it inside the blast doors.

Indeed, said Jason Cook, the civil engineering director, the blast doors and blast valves are designed to work in conjunction to protect the complex from the worst possible scenario: a blast wave. With the single push of a button, Cook added, the filters kick in to clean the air, and the doors close. The civil engineering section of the facility even has its own blast door (see video below).

What's more, the complex is set up to shield the interior against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which can fry most electronics. Cook said that, in fact, Cheyenne Mountain is the only DOD high-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse certified underground facility. Among the protections are wall-mounted EMP filters called metallic-oxide varistors, which dampen the pulse, as well as a system that allows personnel inside to break away interior electronic systems from the external commercial power systems.

Water supply, however, is something the mountain itself takes care of. While the complex maintains a 1.5 million gallon-capacity reservoir, there's actually a natural spring within the granite that supplies more water than the base uses. That means that the reservoir stores enough water to put out any fire that could break out inside the facility, Cook said.

Out of place and time
In a story she wrote in 2008, the journalist Annalee Newitz wrote of a tour of Cheyenne Mountain she got with a group of science-fiction writers that, "Yesterday, I traveled back in time to the Cold War...The underground base has become the stuff of historical myth and science fiction legend. That's why I felt gripped by the surreal as I walked into its rough-walled cave entrance, then through a gleaming blast door, fully three feet thick and packed with huge, hydraulic pins that slid into place when the door shut."

Having been there now myself, I know what Newitz means. While our daily lives are no longer spent worrying that the Russians might someday launch nuclear missiles at us, there's little doubt that we do face the risks of serious nuclear, chemical, or biological attack.

So for me, while walking through the complex in the Obama era is certainly different than it would have been during the Reagan years, there's no doubt that Cheyenne Mountain is still a place where the worst scenarios have corresponding contingency plans and where the people charged with running it take their jobs very seriously.

Whether America needs a facility like Cheyenne Mountain is not for me to say. But being inside and seeing how the base is put together makes one appreciate the mindset of 1961, when ground first broke on the complex, when it seemed as though the worst could come at any time. Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet. But those involved have been as ready as possible all along.