An executive jet filled with fuel and explosives suddenly veers off its approach to a runway at Colorado Springs Municipal Airport.
Its terrorist pilot is on a suicide mission.
His target is a glass-front office building on Peterson Air Force Base.
It's not just any building. It is the new headquarters of North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, as well as U.S. Northern Command.
Operators in the office building, charged with preventing just such an attack, detect the plane's motives.
But they have, at best, 10 seconds to react too little time.
The plane smashes into the building, and the early-warning systems go down, disrupting the flow of critical information to the president and temporarily crippling the nation's ability to respond to any other attacks.
This fearsome scenario, outlined by a former high-ranking military officer intimately familiar with the security situation, is possible if operations at Cheyenne Mountain are moved to what's known as Peterson Building 2.
Some aspects of the move already are underway; commanders say a full transition could happen within a year.
Recently retired U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado Springs is among those with grave concerns. Noting the building's close proximity to roads, he invokes the 1995 bombing of a government building in Oklahoma.
"If you can do what you can do in Oklahoma City with some fertilizer, imagine what you can do with some of the high-tech weapons now," says Hefley, who, as Republican chairman of the House military readiness subcommittee, sought answers to myriad questions without success.
Months later, his replacement on the subcommittee, Democratic Rep. Solomon Ortiz, continues to ask why operations should be moved out of a mountain hailed as the world's best bunker.
"We've been asking questions regarding costs, cost-savings and security implications," says Cathy Travis, a spokeswoman for Ortiz. "Where we're standing right now, the subcommittee has gotten zero answers."
In response to such concerns, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, has almost completed a probe that could halt the process.
Meanwhile, one former officer says the move from the mountain appears partly driven by turf wars between commanders.
The same former officer also alleges that even while NORAD/NorthCom's former commander, Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, cited financial reasons for pushing for the change last year, investigators were revealing that the government had already poured more than $700 million into a largely unsuccessful effort to upgrade the mountain's capabilities $240 million more than planned.
It was a "foregone conclusion" that studies should support moving out of the mountain, says the former officer, who helped perform Keating's research.
"They were looking for the evidence to back it up," the former officer says. "There was no way to say, "No, we're not going to do this.'"
Despite the voices of dissent, and Keating's March departure to take charge of a command in Hawaii, the move out of the mountain shows no signs of slowing.
In addition to the proposed transfer of air warning and missile correlation functions to Peterson, some missile and space operations are slated to go to Schriever and Vandenberg Air Force bases, in Colorado Springs and California, respectively.
NorthCom's Army Col. Tom Muir, speaking in a recent interview in Building 2's basement, reiterates Keating's statement that the plan is "beneficial to improve combat efficiency and effectiveness" and "will save us money."
Muir maintains that the mountain just isn't as useful as it was during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and United States came near the brink of Armageddon.
"Cheyenne Mountain was built for a different time," Muir says.
When Cheyenne Mountain opened in 1966, it was dubbed the safest place to be on Earth during a nuclear attack.
The hollowed-out granite mountain that protects the small military city inside was a vast improvement over NORAD's prior location, in a building on the former Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
Gen. Earle E. Partridge, NORAD's commander at the time, feared "one man with a well-aimed bazooka shot" could immobilize the Ent building, according to the New York Times four decades ago.
Today, military commanders still beam when talking about Cheyenne Mountain.
It houses the "best command center in the world," where potential air, missile and space threats to North America and troops abroad are discerned around the clock, says Cheyenne Mountain's retiring director, Navy Capt. Johnny Green. He describes his role as "almost a sacred honor."
Beyond guarded fences crowned by spirals of razor wire, the complex's tunnel mouth sits. Troops in different types of camouflage here display American or Canadian flag patches on their uniforms, a reminder of the bi-national, U.S.-Canada mission meant to protect North America.
On this spring day, a bus carries personnel and two Independent representatives into the bustle inside.
Still in the horseshoe-shaped tunnel, the procession exits the bus. An imposing 25-ton steel door, guarded by a soldier cradling an automatic machine gun, is open. An identical door is visible several feet beyond. During an attack, these doors would close, funneling a nuclear blast's force past them and out the other side of the tunnel.
The last time the doors were closed was during the tragic chaos of 9/11 when terrorists crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
If a hijacked jetliner hit Cheyenne Mountain, says Maj. Thomas F. Veale, a spokesman for the mountain, the personnel working inside probably wouldn't feel so much as a tremor.
Inside the doors, and a parking lot with spaces reserved for top commanders, the first of the complex's 15 steel buildings juts upward until its view is obscured by hollowed rock.
The dynamite-carved walls, supported by more than 100,000, 32-foot-long bolts drilled directly into the mountain, are designed to resist implosion.
The buildings, many three stories tall, sit independently on a total of 1,319 half-ton springs, meant to absorb shockwaves.
The complex has its own natural water source within the mountain, as well as generators to provide emergency electricity. There is a food reserve, a medical center and even a barbershop.
Construction started in 1958, and the mountain soon became an iconic symbol in the United States' arms race with the Soviet Union. But while the Soviet threat remained for almost another quarter-century, Cheyenne Mountain's impermeable reputation didn't. The advent of more precise, stronger intercontinental ballistic missiles changed the military playing field within a few years.
"If you fire a 10-megaton warhead at that mountain, it would have vaporized the whole complex," explains retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen, a prominent defense expert and CEO/founder of The Institute for Homeland Security.
"It's kind of a myth that Cheyenne Mountain was always secure," he adds.
Not long after the Soviet Union crumbled in the early 1990s, allaying for some the fears of an all-out nuclear war, government inspectors floated the idea of shutting down the mountain, says Arthur Gallegos, an assistant director for the GAO in Denver.
"It was quickly and forcefully shot down," Gallegos says. "It was broached, and then the hammer came down from the Defense Department, which said: "You guys are nuts. You guys are thinking something so terrible and so off the wall that it would never be considered.'"
That's why Gallegos was stunned to hear of Keating's plans a year ago to place the mountain on "warm standby" and move operations to Peterson. That would leave only a small staff charged with keeping it possible to return operations to the mountain, and also with providing a training ground for personnel, according to Muir.
Keating declined comment for this story.
So did his successor, NORAD/NorthCom commander Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart. However, in a recent statement to the Independent, Renuart said he planned to "learn more" about the transition "in the days and weeks ahead," noting cooperation with Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command.
Ironically, some experts say the threats of today nuclear terrorists with "garage" facilities and "rogue" countries with limited nuclear capabilities make Cheyenne Mountain more attractive now than in the recent past. Crude nuclear weapons, perhaps installed in an aircraft steered into a target, are more akin to the kind the mountain was designed to survive.
Last year, the feeling in the mountain was "pretty tense," Green says, as the command center watched North Korea launch test missiles on the Fourth of July, a move that heightened fears that the communist country's rockets could one day strike U.S. soil.
Such threats have led the Pentagon to reassert the need for bunkers elsewhere, says John Pike, a leading expert on defense policy and director of Global Security in Alexandria, Va.
He points to Site R, or Raven Rock, the mysterious "alternate Pentagon" that in 1951 was dug inside Raven Rock mountain near Waynesboro, Pa. For decades, its existence was a closely guarded secret, unknown even by local residents. In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union collapsed, staff at the site was cut back on the theory that the bunker wasn't as necessary.
"Some people thought that [Site R] was a Cold War relic," Pike says. "After Sept. 11, they suddenly decided it was not such a bad idea after all."
Terrorism isn't the only new threat that Cheyenne Mountain is well-equipped to deal with it also would be a good place to stay during a flu pandemic. World health officials have warned that millions could die if certain bird-flu strains mutate, setting the stage for a possible breakdown in civil order as government services grind to a halt, market shelves go bare and gas pumps run dry.
The mountain bunker is easily closed to the outside and can operate largely autonomously, safeguarding specialized crews from infection.
The imposing arrangement of Cheyenne Mountain checkpoints makes the descent into Peterson Air Force Base's Building 2, by comparison, anticlimactic.
After signing and obtaining visitors' credentials from a guard at a desk, the Independent reporter and photographer are escorted through doors opened by a code typed into a keypad.
Downstairs, past a maze of cubicles and their resident starched-shirted workers, a long hallway ends at a door with a strange-looking lock. There is no guard with a machine gun, and no razor wire in front of the basement's joint operations center. There's merely a security expert who screens the visitors, at times holding the door open with his foot.
President George W. Bush sat in a chair here in September 2005 as commanders tracked Hurricane Rita and coordinated response after it ravaged Texas and Louisiana.
The gray-haired, gravelly voiced Muir, dressed in camouflage, lauds this room, filled with computer terminals, a phone linking top U.S. military leaders, and giant screens that on this day are tracking federal response to flooding on the East Coast.
It was because of the vast communication network here that terrorism quickly was ruled out as a possible motive for the recent shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University.
"Very quickly, we have to characterize that threat assess if it is terrorist or non-terrorist," Muir says. "There is a dialogue between us and the Pentagon, the secretary of defense, and, indeed if necessary, the president of the United States, in regard to "What to do about it.'"
NorthCom conducts operations meant to deter, prevent and thwart threats to the United States and its territories and interests. Muir speaks of monitoring "domains" that include the skies, lands and seas. NorthCom is on watch for incoming missiles, objects entering from space and even attacks to cyber-highways.
"What Cheyenne Mountain will bring to us are those functions that we don't have: missile warning [and] missile correlation," Muir says.
While operations are able to "remote" from the mountain, giving personnel in Building 2 the same information as those in the mountain, Muir adds that it would be better to have people coordinate in a single room. Green also notes that Building 2 has "much more real estate" than Cheyenne Mountain.
Still, Green has said it was the roughly 15.2-mile, 20- to 25-minute drive from the mountain to Peterson that spawned Keating's idea.
The admiral often traveled between the two sites. During a past major training exercise, he spent a lot of time on a cell phone instead of in a control room. Also, Keating's predecessor, former NORAD commander Gen. Ed Eberhart, lost touch with the White House on 9/11 as he drove to the mountain.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "was very much involved in all of [the plans to move]," Green says, adding that he knows Rumsfeld and Keating had conversations.
Green assures that the transition is "not a renegade idea," and notes that Gen. Renuart "has not told us to stop."
Besides the air and missile operations expected to move to Building 2, other operations are also on their way out of the mountain. Strategic Command is set to move missile warning to Schriever Air Force Base east of Peterson. Air Force Space Command is moving its space control center, manned by the 1st Space Control Squadron, to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Some of the 140 squadron members and equipment have begun the transition and are working toward completion as of August.
Gen. Kevin Chilton of Space Command, speaking last month in a brief interview at the 23rd National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, said the move, announced late last year, remains on track. He added that some personnel would probably stay at the mountain.
"There will be some level of support there, some level of readiness that has to be maintained so that you can move back in if required," Chilton said. "That's what I'm hearing."
He did not have time to elaborate, leaving unanswered questions regarding how critical the 1st Space Control Squadron is to the mountain's missions, and how long it would take its members to return from California to the mountain should the need arise.
Taking security risks?
Muir acknowledges that a barrage of intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the hundreds maintained by Russia, would not allow a return to the mountain.
Beyond that, Muir assures Building 2 is safe. If there does turn out to be some other confirmed security risk, he says, NORAD/NorthCom's personnel and troops could hustle back to the mountain.
"In about an hour, we can be prepared to do this mission, in all domains, up in the mountain," Muir says, citing several studies that officials at NorthCom declined to provide to the Independent.
Sources with intimate knowledge about Peterson security have raised concerns about Building 2, including the possible problem of power outages.
Muir essentially dismisses the concern, stating the room has an "uninterrupted" power supply.
"Can you have some lights go out?" he asks. "I'd say that likelihood is not great, but certainly a potential."
Hefley notes that the building is visible just beyond the base's boundaries.
"There's no question that no matter what you do at Peterson, you can't have as secure a facility as you do at Cheyenne Mountain," Hefley says.
If a terrorist attack hit Building 2, operations could be halted. Even if the basement were unharmed, there would be chaos above, says Victoria Samson, research analyst for the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information. Entry to the building would be difficult, and key people could be trapped inside, she adds.
Yet the military could probably continue to gather the same information from elsewhere.
"The military has a lot of overlap in its missions," Samson says, adding, "I think they could jerry-rig something if they wanted to."
A former high-ranking military officer familiar with NORAD and NorthCom missions agrees, stating an attack on Building 2 would be largely "symbolic." The former officer adds, however, that the breadth of its operations make it the "next-best target to the Pentagon."
The pace of the transition and a lack of answers about critical cost and security questions have alarmed some. Hefley says efforts to obtain answers were largely ignored.
"They weren't very forthcoming," Hefley says. "They either didn't know or wouldn't tell me and our committee exactly how they planned to do this."
Finally, Hefley and Rep. Ortiz wrote a letter on Nov. 15 asking the GAO to look into Keating's claims that Cheyenne Mountain, if placed on "warm-standby status," would save taxpayers $150 million annually.
The congressmen also sought answers about the level of security that would be provided at Building 2.
"What vulnerability assessments have been conducted?" Hefley and Ortiz wrote. "What is the risk involved in losing the ability to perform command and control operations in a self-contained environment?"
Members of the committee also had anticipated a thorough Pentagon report to inquire into the plan's feasibility. It never arrived, a congressional aide says.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., is also concerned, says his chief of staff, Sean Conway.
"What I can tell you is, those concerns have been raised, discussed, and there is an ongoing dialogue to address those," Conway says.
He adds, however, the budget issues facing the mountain have concerned Allard.
"Here's the problem that the admiral had: The costs of running the mountain are becoming prohibitive," Conway says.
The announcement for the transition came as a GAO investigation report was issued last July, finding that recent efforts to modernize Cheyenne Mountain and integrate various systems had cost $707 million. That was $240 million over budget for work "fraught with cost increases, schedule delays and performance shortfalls due, in large part, to poor program management and oversight."
"They were having problems with missile systems, and then their last component and they had spent all their money was Space Mission, and that wasn't done," says Gallegos, the GAO inspector responsible for the report.
Problems were linked to an upgrade of the mountain's Combatant Commanders' Integrated Command and Control System, or CCIC2S, pronounced "kicks." The CCIC2S systems involve complex technology for the mountain's air warning, missile correlation and space tracking capabilities, which were undergoing technological upgrades.
"Since the program began in 2000, the Air Force has added, deleted and modified requirements without adequately determining the effect of these changes on resources," the GAO found.
The report recommended that the Air Force designate the CCIC2S program a major acquisition, which requires a much higher level of oversight than the Air Force provided.
The Air Force agreed with that recommendation, Gallegos says, adding that his office soon will follow up to see how the problem was addressed. He does not know if commands leaving the mountain portend abandoning the CCIC2S program.
Hefley, a longtime critic of government pork, says while the overruns associated with the upgrades at Cheyenne Mountain were regrettable, leaving the work behind would be a bigger waste.
"As the Cold War ended, we kept that up and kept putting enormous sums of money into it to keep it modernized," Hefley says. "We thought it did have a value as a secured facility. I think that value still exists. The threat is different, but there's a threat nonetheless."
Various commanders appear to have something to gain from moving out of Cheyenne Mountain.
Some sources have said Keating simply didn't relish the hassle of driving to the mountain.
"He used to say so," one former officer says.
And while a spokesman for Air Force Space Command says the move to Vandenberg is meant to "enhance mission effectiveness," the former officer says the move also gives Chilton personal control over those troops.
"There were missions that those people had in the mountain, which were in support of the integrated mission, which trumped the mission of Space Command," the former officer says. "It didn't ordinarily come up, but if it did come up, the integrated missions were going to take priority."
The GAO report, due in May, on the cost and security implications of the move, could apply the brakes.
Members of the readiness subcommittee this week are preparing to mark up next year's Defense Department appropriations. If enough members are concerned, they could force an about-face by punishing the Air Force during the process, perhaps by cutting off funds to pet projects.
Ortiz's spokeswoman notes that at the moment, "there are a number of security concerns (about leaving the mountain).
"So Rep. Ortiz is not supportive of it."