Things to know: ‘The most secure facility in the world’

A quarter-century has passed since the end of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the former Soviet Union, but the famous U.S. military command center inside Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain is still alive, tracking new threats from new enemies.

The U.S. blasted a warren of tunnels out of the mountain’s hard granite in the 1960 s so officers of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, could survive a nuclear attack.

Although NORAD called off its “nuclear watch” in 1992 after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Cheyenne Mountain is still teeming with electronics and personnel watching for terrorist attacks and cyber assaults as well as missiles.

Saturday is the 60 th anniversary of NORAD, a unique bi-national command created by the U.S. and Canada to protect the skies over both nations. To mark the occasion, NORAD offered a tour of Cheyenne Mountain on Thursday.

Five things to know about the complex 😛 TAGEND


The bunker lies 2,000 feet( 610 meters) under Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs, Colorado. It can be sealed off by two giant blast doorways made of concrete and steel, each 31/2 feet( 1 meter) thick and weighing 23 U.S. tons( 21 metric tons ).

“We like to say it’s the most secure facility in the world, ” told Steve Rose, deputy director of the base.

The heart of the complex is a grid of six tunnels up to 40 feet( 12 meters) broad and three tales high. They hold 15 connected houses made of steel plates, riding on massive coil springs to assimilate the shock of a nuclear blast or earthquake. The granite and steel also protect electronics from destructive heartbeats of electro-magnetic energy that nuclear detonations produce.

Asked whether Cheyenne Mountain is vulnerable to more powerful modern nuclear warhead, Rose answered indirectly: “I don’t think we would be open if it was, ” he said.


The military put NORAD in Colorado because it is near the center of the continent, far from Soviet bomber bases and weapon launchers, said Brian Laslie, NORAD’s deputy historian.

The first command center was at the now-decommissioned Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. By the early 1960 s, it was clear Ent would not survive a nuclear attack, so work began on burrowing into the mountain, Laslie said.

The room is amazingly small, about 40 feet( 12 meters) square. Eight big video screens line the walls. Soft lighting, muted colours and sound-muffling surfaces give the room a hushed, somber feel.


In 2008, the military opened a bigger command centre at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, telling Cheyenne Mountain was costly to run and that the primary menaces at the time, North Korea and Iran, did not have weapons capable of reaching Colorado.

Cheyenne Mountain became the alternate command center, but operations regularly return there for a few days at a time to make sure the room and its staff are ready in the event of a crisis.

Rose, the base deputy director, rejected the notion that Cheyenne Mountain is a relic.

“Couldn’t be farther from the truth, ” he told , noting the mountain is fully occupied by a permanent NORAD contingent as well as commands for cyber, intelligence and space surveillance. “A lot of the other areas I can’t talking here, ” he added.


After the Soviet Union collapsed, “NORAD had a bit of a slump as far as the focus of the mission, ” told Royal Canadian Air Force Col. Travis Morehen, a senior command centre officer. The 9/11 terrorist attacks abruptly changed that.

Before 9/11, NORAD watched merely for external menaces. After the terrorists turned domestic aircrafts into weapons, NORAD began peering inward as well, monitoring civilian air traffic for potential threats.

NORAD regularly launches fighter jets to intercept private aircraft that stray into restricted airspace, including areas where the president is traveling. It is usually a civilian who didn’t read official notifications, Morehen said.


In 1979 and 1980, NORAD computer flaws made false alarms about incoming missiles. Each period, the problem was detected quickly.

Cheyenne Mountain is an alluring defining for science fiction. It was depicted in the 1983 “WarGames” movie, among others, and in the “Stargate” TV series.

It takes 45 seconds for built-in hydraulic machinery to close the blast doors. If the hydraulics fail, two people can close them by hand. One door usually remained shut at all times during the Cold War. Since then , commandants ordered them shut only once, on 9/11.

NORAD is known world-wide for its “NORAD Tracks Santa” operation, fielding bellows from children on Christmas Eve asking where Santa is. The operation has always been run out of Ent or Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, never Cheyenne Mountain, told Laslie, the NORAD historian.


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