Navy Admiral Timothy J. Keating, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, vows that, more than three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the facility still plays a crucial defense role.
He made his remarks March 4, during a brief tour of NORAD's heart, a newly refurbished, $14-million control room that lies deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, west of Colorado Springs.
Inside, soldiers man computer stations while screens showed ground-based radar and satellites tracking objects as they move through air and space -- including, every Christmas, Santa Claus making his way around the globe.
During last week's tour, military officials, congressional aides, reporters and others examined the equipment.
"We've got it right here," Keating assured. "This is state-of-the-art. We're not going to come back in a month and say, 'Oh Jimminy.'"
NORAD first opened in 1966 as a response to the Soviet Union's launch nine years earlier of Sputnik I, a soccer-ball of a satellite that ushered in the Space Age, and with it, a countdown to the end to the days when nuclear strategy would rely on heavy bombers alone. Fears of missile attacks followed and NORAD was set up to track them.
Threat from the interior
That mission remains.
But since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, NORAD now has an additional responsibility, Keating said.
He said the control room is more capable of tracking terrorist activity. It includes a station that receives Federal Aviation Administration data -- flight plans and access to 50 FAA radars and 20 air-traffic control stations. NORAD can even tune into commercial airline radios and listen to chatter about unruly passengers.
The 9/11 investigation detailed disorder at NORAD, concluding fighter jets had not been sent in time to intercept the four hijacked commercial airliners that attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
"On 9/11, we learned that the threat could come also from the interior of North America," said Maj. Gen. Angus Watt, NORAD's director of operations.
Since then, U.S. and Canadian fighter pilots have trained for the possibility of shooting down civilian aircraft and have run 40,000 domestic air patrols through NORAD.
City inside a mountain
The United States and Canada, which possesses strategic radar stations near the North Pole, are partners in NORAD. The two nations share information and a presence at the installation through a bi-national agreement.
Although the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, NORAD still watches for nuclear missiles headed our way.
The March 4 tour offered a rare glimpse at NORAD's technology. Post 9/11 public tours were eliminated and few civilians have ever set foot in the control room.
After providing serial numbers for their cameras for unspecified security reasons, reporters were whisked on a bus past machine-gun-toting guards and swirling razor wire. From there, the bus entered a horseshoe-shaped tunnel meant to funnel a nuclear blast away from NORAD's "city" of buildings inside the mountain.
On foot, reporters followed soldiers through 25-ton baffled steel doors, up a metal staircase and through a series of doors.
Officials gathered inside a dimly lit room called the "battle cab," or battle cabin. A small brass band played two national anthems. Guests enjoyed cake and peach punch.
Feng Shui in the battle cab
In the event of a nuclear or terrorist attack Keating would use the battle cab to communicate with the president and other high-ranking officials.
Two thick panes of glass that can retain smoke separate the battle cab from the control room.
Navy Capt. Patrick Mills said the new control room, refurbished by Lockheed Martin over the last 18 months, was important from an ergonomic standpoint. The old control room was just 540 square feet and was noisy because of buzzing equipment.
It made talking across the room difficult, Mills said.
"From a fatigue standpoint, it would wear you down," he said.
The new control room is double the size of the old one.
A large television set blared inside. The TV is needed to help NORAD keep watch, said Maj. Douglas Martin of the Canadian Army.
"We have our eyes on everything," he said.