NORAD: an inside look

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Krystal Ardrey

On April 20, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station celebrated its 49th birthday. Hoping for champagne and cake, I managed to attach myself to a semi-VIP tour Tuesday of the vast manmade cavern on the eastern slope of Cheyenne Mountain.

We arrived in separate cars, assembling in a parking lot adjacent to a security gate about halfway to the portal. There, we surrendered cell phones, drivers licenses and cameras, and boarded an unremarkable little bus for the rest of the journey. Our talkative guide, Steve Rose (deputy commander of the 721st Mission Support Group) began a nonstop patter that wouldn’t cease for the next three-and-a-half hours, filling our heads with anecdotes, humorous asides and surprisingly interesting facts.

For an installation of such historic weight and current significance, CMAFS is strangely relaxed.

Houses in the comfortable neighborhoods of Broadmoor Bluffs are built up to the base’s boundaries, literally a few hundred feet from the portal.

That’s a source of minor irritation to the brass. In 2002, NORAD’s entry road was opened to limited public use, allowing emergency vehicles and Broadmoor Bluffs residents to use the road. Predictably, other users began to follow suit.

“We have cyclists, dog walkers, hikers, motorcycle racers and even drug dealers,” said Rose. “It’s a quiet road, so dealers from Cañon City come up 115, meet their customers and do the deal. That’s happened three or four times.”

Non-human external threats are also worrisome. And we’re not talking extraterrestrial invaders.

“We have 500 acres, and it’s like a wildlife preserve,” explained Rose. “We have flocks of turkeys, deer, foxes and five black bears. We have to make sure the bears don’t get in our Dumpsters. That happens a lot.”

At the portal, we saw the still-visible evidence of last summer’s damaging flooding.

“We had 12 inches of rain in four hours,” Rose recalled. “That canyon to the right was just a notch in the rock, but the water broke through and covered the road with 12 feet of mud, boulders and debris. We had to use the south portal for a while — but operations under the mountain weren’t affected.”

Inside the mountain

The bus slowly entered an arched passageway. Irregular walls of fine-grained Pikes Peak granite still bear marks of the drill holes where miners blasted the tunnel under the mountain 50 years ago. We drove on for a half-mile or so, when the tunnel curved slowly to the left, the bus pulled over and we disembarked next to the mountain’s famous blast doors.

Compared to the elaborate nickel-steel vault doors in Denver’s Equitable Bank Building, these are unimpressive — square white structures of concrete and steel. They were designed to withstand the blast wave from a 1.5-megaton nuclear device detonated 1.5 miles from the portal.

Fortunately for us, and for the world, they’ve never been tested.

We walked down another tunnel and came to the base itself. A five-acre cavern houses multiple linked three-story buildings, all seated on massive springs. Constructed of steel plates, the buildings are aptly characterized as subterranean battleships, self-sufficient worlds of their own.

Inside, the buildings might as well be particularly dismal military offices from the 1960s. No art graces the walls of the facility, and its lighting is harsh and institutional.

The effect is somewhere between nuclear submarine and Antarctic winter — you’re in a place without weather, without sunlight and without time.

We were eventually escorted into the “industrial” sector of the base. For the gearheads among us, it was great. Six enormous diesel generators, supported by massive battery banks, can power the base indefinitely in an emergency. Every system — water, power, HVAC — is triple-redundant, built to achieve “five nines,” the measure of reliability made famous by AT&T decades ago.

There’s even a lake: a still, dark pond stretching down a cavern until the roof dips below the water’s surface. So still is it that the water was invisible until our guide tossed a stone in it, breaking the spell.

Playing defense

A few years ago, it was easy to dismiss Cheyenne Mountain as an interesting artifact of the Cold War.

Things have changed.

Consider Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, North Korean attempts to develop a deliverable warhead, Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons and the fragility of Pakistan’s government.

To do so is to understand why Cheyenne Mountain was created, and why it will likely remain manned and ready for as long as the nation survives.

The strategic premise of “mutually assured destruction” is simple. You build an invulnerable retaliatory force (in our case, the strategic triad of manned bombers, land-based ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) plus a hardened command operations center (CMAFS), thus persuading opponents that no first strike could succeed.

As long as nuclear weapons endure, similar defensive strategies must be utilized.

The fortifications that are together referred to as the “Great Wall” were erected to protect China from barbarian invaders, just as the Maginot Line was created by France in the 1930s to deter German aggression. The wall worked for centuries; the line failed in 1939.

As technology changes, and information acquisition and transmission are increasingly space-based, will the mountain become irrelevant? That seems unlikely.

“There are more people working under the mountain now than there were at the height of the Cold War,” said Rose, “and we’re getting ready to accommodate two more missions.”

“What are the new missions?” one of our group asked.

“I can’t tell you that,” said the suddenly tight-lipped Rose.

At 4:47 p.m. (all right, 1647 hours!) we emerged into the sunlight and headed down the mountain.

A few hundred yards from the portal, a small flock of wild turkeys ran into the underbrush, while Colorado Springs, Fort Carson and the eastern plains spread out far below.

America the Beautiful indeed — still here, thanks in part to the men and women who spend their shifts working in those coldly institutional steel boxes. Thanks, guys, and particular thanks to Earl, who has spent 37 years working in the mountain maintaining the auxiliary generators.

Actually, 3.7 hours was enough for me.