Colorado Springs – Duties at the Colorado Springs-area military post, touted as America’s safest spot, are moving to Peterson.
The military is relegating its newly renovated airspace and missile defense complex in Cheyenne Mountain to standby status – clouding the future of a Cold War nerve center touted as the most secure spot in America.
The green-jumpsuited sentries who electronically scan the skies from deep inside this granite cocoon southwest of Colorado Springs – built in the 1960s to withstand Soviet nuclear blasts – now are to blend into broader homeland defense operations under prairie skies at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.
“I can’t be in two places at one time,” said Adm. Tim Keating, commander of both U.S. Northern Command, set up in 2002 to fight terrorism, and North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Both NORAD and Northcom have their headquarters at Peterson.
U.S. strategists created the mountain complex to prevent nuclear missile and bomber attacks. But today the government’s best intelligence “leads us to believe a missile attack from China or Russia is very unlikely,” Keating said in an interview this week.
The emergence of varied terrorist threats such as suicide bombers “is what recommends to us that we don’t need to maintain Cheyenne Mountain in a 24/7 status. We can put it on ‘warm standby,”‘ Keating said.
Just how warm depends on money to maintain the complex, military officials said. Keating said his goal is to be able to fire up the complex in an hour.
Keating today is scheduled to announce the decision he made after consulting with military chiefs in Washington. He’ll move 230 surveillance crewmembers and an undetermined number of about 700 support staffers – as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The time frame: within two years.
About 1,100 people now work in the mountain. Military leaders promised there’d be no net job loss from the move.
Whether money can be saved is uncertain, Keating said. Mountain operations cost taxpayers $250 million a year.
Budgets at first may increase, officials said, depending on how much money is available to maintain mountain facilities, but in the future could decrease.
The move itself will cost “tens of millions of dollars,” said Air Force Col. Lou Christensen, deputy director of operations.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government began a $467 million modernization of the mountain facility. A recent congressional probe found cost overruns – modernizers spent more than $700 million, and the work isn’t done.
Moving surveillance crews out marks a twist in nearly 50 years of secretive activity at the mountain. Blasting a 4 1/2-acre cavern about 60 feet high was the first of many engineering feats that led to construction of 15 free-standing buildings mounted on 1,319 springs, which allow a 12-inch sway. The total cost, $142 million, raised eyebrows back then.
Since the mid-1960s, joint U.S.-Canadian crews in the mountain have guarded North America, poised to send warnings that could initiate nuclear missile launches. Strategists long were locked into notions of superpower security through “mutually assured destruction.”
Now military analysts ponder strategic implications of a move that reflects a growing concern with terrorism by small groups against a military superpower.
While odds of a nuclear missile attack now seem slim, “take it 15 years down the road,” said John Pike, director of Global Security, a Washington think tank. “Maybe the Chinese will try to take us on. They might start blowing up military targets. And though currently we’re not concerned about the Russians, that may change. What would be required to get back into that mountain?”
The decision to move surveillance crews out followed an internal study launched in February. The study explored consolidation of two overlapping surveillance operations – the one in the mountain and the new homeland defense center at Peterson, about 12 miles from the mountain at the eastern edge of Colorado Springs.
There, homeland defense surveillance crews surrounded by wall-sized video screens try to detect and track threats – with access to the same data available inside the mountain.
These crews track threats as varied as U.S.-bound ships carrying unidentified cargo and suspicious cars idling around power plants.
Today, protecting America is increasingly complicated, said Army Col. Tom Muir, who directs the new center and helped run the internal study. “Is Hezbollah going to attack the United States?” he asked.
During the 9/11 attacks, the NORAD commander at the time, Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, was caught shuttling from headquarters at Peterson to the mountain command post and couldn’t receive telephone calls as senior officials weighed how to respond.
Consolidating surveillance operations is aimed at “strengthening the command center here,” Muir said. “This is an efficiency move.”
Canadian defense partners who helped run mountain operations also sit at the new surveillance center. It has been renamed N2C2, short for NORAD-Northcom Command Center.
“I have found, over the course of several pretty extensive, rigorous exercises, that I’m able to get as good or better situational awareness in the command center … at Peterson,” Keating said.
Besides NORAD and Northcom, other military forces work in the mountain today. An Air Force Space Command squadron of 100 people tracks space debris and satellites. U.S. missile command crews and intelligence teams from the National Reconnaissance Office and other agencies also are there – all supported by 700 cooks, a barber, medics, recreational center staff, engineers, guards and others.
Air Force Space Command, too, is looking into moving its operations out of the mountain to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – raising the prospect of a virtually empty mountain.
Keating said he and other commanders have talked about this. “I’m aware of the plans” that would move a majority of remaining forces out, he said. Yet “we appreciate the importance of Cheyenne Mountain. That is exactly why we are going to maintain it … in the event we would need it.
“This is not Step One that will lead, inevitably and inexorably, to closing Cheyenne Mountain.”
One possibility: using the mountain as a second seat for the U.S. government in a crisis. Keating said he knew of no discussions on this, but he characterized that option as reasonable.