Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station once was crucial to American nuclear strategy. Featured in a dozen movies (Fail Safe, Dr. Strangelove, WarGames and more), and closed for years to all but “essential personnel,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Combat Operations Center under the mountain was the epicenter of the Cold War, the point at which a million data streams coalesced.
That era ended nearly a decade ago, but new strategic considerations have led the Air Force to begin reviving and repurposing its mountain stronghold.
The effort may have substantial and lasting impacts upon Colorado Springs, which has long benefited from our best-known military installation.
In early April, Adm. William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, said that certain significant communications assets are being duplicated and/or installed in Cheyenne Mountain in order to protect them from electromagnetic pulses.
“There is a lot of movement to put capability into Cheyenne Mountain and to be able to communicate in there,” Gortney said during a Pentagon news briefing.
The asset deployment will be carried out by Raytheon, which signed a $700 million contract to upgrade communications facilities within the mountain redoubt.
The company said that the long-term contract will “support threat warnings and assessments for the (NORAD) Cheyenne Mountain Complex.”
Small-scale electromagnetic pulses (EMP) can occur naturally in lightning storms, but the U.S. military is primarily concerned with vast pulse events created by the detonation of nuclear weapons in outer space. Such a pulse could shut down all civilian and military communications networks in the continental United States.
Ten years ago, the United States EMP Commission concluded that the civilian communications infrastructure of the United States and much of the military infrastructure were less well protected against EMP than during the Cold War.
“Because of the very nature of the way that Cheyenne Mountain is built, it’s EMP-hardened,” Gortney said. “It wasn’t designed to be that way, but the way it was constructed makes it that way. My primary concern was whether we [would] have the space inside the mountain for everybody that wants to move in there. We do have that capability.”
It’s clear that the mountain’s role in national defense is more significant than in the recent past, but will it ever regain its once-iconic status?
That depends upon military budgets, which are in turn influenced by ongoing threat assessments by defense planners.
“In the Cold War, Cheyenne Mountain was our Gibraltar,” said Dr. James Smith, director of the U.S. Air Force Institute for National Security Studies at the Air Force Academy. “The Soviet Union knew that they could not be sure of taking out Cheyenne Mountain in a first strike, and that we could respond to an attack. It made deterrence credible — it was the essence of mutual assured destruction (MAD).”
“There is a lot of movement to put capability into Cheyenne Mountain and to be able to communicate in there.”
– Adm. William Gortney
[/pullquote]In an interview with Smith and his colleague Deron Jackson, director of the U.S. Air Force Institute for National Security Studies, also at the Air Force Academy, both agreed that nuclear threat assessments have changed in recent years.
“At the end of the Cold War there was kind of a ‘no threats’ euphoria,” said Jackson.
That has changed in recent years as North Korea and Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons and Iran threatened to do so. And while none of the new players yet appear to have the ability to miniaturize a nuclear device, much less launch it at the United States, strategic deterrence remains important.
“Post-Cold War deterrence has come a long way,” said Jackson. “We tailor deterrence to the specific threat. Rationality may be very different for North Korea, but there is a fundamental consistency to their decision-making: survival of the regime.”
History in the mountain
There are places that loom large in the annals of war, and in our collective imagination, places where no battles are fought, no shots fired and where the loudest noise is the muted hum of powerful computer systems.
Think of the War Room at the Pentagon, the White House Situation Room, the mysterious “undisclosed location” to which Vice President Dick Cheney retreated during 9/11 … and Cheyenne Mountain.
Built in the early 1960s, Cheyenne Mountain was designed to provide a secure location, safe from nuclear attack, where sophisticated computer systems would watch for incoming missiles, ready to notify the president when a nuclear attack was imminent.
Ten years ago, having concluded that the mountain was no longer a particularly useful, the Air Force began to mothball Cheyenne Mountain by putting it on “warm shutdown” — the military equivalent of boxing up stuff that you no longer need, but aren’t ready to throw away.
In 2007, Northcom/NORAD public affairs director Michael Kucharek was amused by suggestions that the mountain should be repurposed as a tourist attraction, but predicted that it would never happen.
“Cheyenne Mountain really does play an important role,” he said. “It gives us that ultimate hardened facility, if we ever have that need. It’ll remain a designated alternate command and control center. … Cheyenne Mountain is not going away.”
Boom or blip
While homeland threats still exist, Smith and Jackson agreed the current burst of activity in Cheyenne Mountain is not likely to be economically significant.
“Barring a crisis, I think what they’re doing now is just a prudent refurbishing,” said Smith. “Cheyenne Mountain is a national resource, both physically and for EMP.”
It makes sense, they agreed, to preserve, update and expand the mountain’s capability, though none of the potential rogue actors possesses a currently deliverable nuclear arsenal. And even if they do 20 years hence, the mountain likely would remain invulnerable.
“North Korea does not yet have the precision or yield [to mount a successful attack],” said Jackson, “but at some point in time it’s reasonable to suppose they can get to a third-generation capability [such as the U.S. had in the early 1960s].”