Thursday, May 10, 2018

NORAD celebrates its 60th — a look inside "America's Fortress"

Posted By on Thu, May 10, 2018 at 6:27 PM

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
NORAD celebrates its 60th this year, and all military parties involved at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station allowed the media "behind the blast doors" for a rare, limited tour on Thursday, May 10.

When I say all parties involved, I mean it quickly gets confusing to say who's toiling inside the mountain, between the U.S. forces on site, Canadian allies, and other unnamed groups (for security reasons). The 721st Mission Support Group is technically who hosted us at the alternate strategic command center; remember that in 2008 Peterson Air Force Base took on the primary command center, as it offers much more space for some 1,200 or so daily workers.

Still, the legacy and lore of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex is what continues to captivate people, many of whom are fond of the facility's role in the 1983 film WarGames.

NORAD and USNORTHCOM stand as the sole binational command center in the world (NORAD being composed of both U.S. and Canadian staff; USNORTHCOM being just U.S. military).

"It's the most secure facility in the world, we like to say," says Steve Rose, 721st Mission Support Group Deputy Director, our tour guide.

Built during the Cold War to withstand a nuclear blast, it's located 2,000 feet deep in Cheyenne Mountain, under solid granite — through a tunnel that's 3/10's of a mile long before it winds its way to 23-ton blast doors. Inside, a connected complex of 15 buildings (none touching the granite) sit on springs to absorb earthquake-like shockwaves, and the buildings are encased in navy-grade steel — "the gold standard for EMP (electromagnetic pulse) criteria."

The government opted to locate the base in Colorado Springs because of its distance inland from the coast, where in theory Soviet subs could be lurking nearby and strike coastal cities with little time for reaction. Here, the doors could be closed within 45 seconds while a missile travelled overland. Fun fact: Rose says originally the military wanted to place the facility under Blodgett Peak, near the Air Force Academy, but its rock was too soft compared to the solid granite. (This base is located just above Fort Carson, instead.)

Royal Canadian Air Force Colonel Travis Morehen, NORAD and USNORTHCOM Command Center Director, explains the multifold role of the facility, which you can also read about in the below fact sheet, as everything from monitoring aircraft over North America to assisting in fighting wildfires and responding to other natural disasters, to detecting missile threats and responding defensively to them. Oh, and don't forget the annual Christmas time tracking of Santa.  "It's impressive when you walk through that tunnel," says Morehen. "It's amazing what we do here."

Or at Peterson. Just the evening prior to our tour, Morehen describes a busy shift — a phone cradled to each ear usually, with a third in the hand of an assistant nearby — during which a flight had to be diverted because an unruly passenger, and, of course, because missiles fired during the current conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria.

"Most Americans are surprised at how involved Canada is in defending the U.S.," he says, describing the command center as "the brain of the human nervous system." Basically, it collects data from international sensor sites and passes it to the command staff for the decisions on what to do in response.

Related to the flight traffic alone, Morehen says a few flights must be intercepted weekly (not physically, but hailed for contact), tending to accidentally stray into restricted air space. Usually, that's around President Trump. The first time as POTUS that Trump visited Mar-a-Lago, a regular haunt to the expense of taxpayers, Morehen recalls something like six to 10 flights having to be hailed and turned around. (Back on 9/11, the call to ground all planes stemmed from NORAD.)

Morehen also wished to clear up confusion around this mountain complex being abandoned or underutilized. Just because it's redundant (not a bad thing for security), it's not idle. It's used during maintenance closures at Peterson, as well as monthly for four or so days to use the systems and familiarize new crew members; and quarterly for 10 to 14 days, for exercises, he says. It's also set in motion annually for training around a "WWIII scenario," during which staff even sleeps on site, as if sealed in for the real thing.

There's much more to NORAD than the media's granted access to this go around, including  underground reservoirs that stand ready in case of need. (Otherwise they're on the city's grid regularly.) We're told there's "triple redundancy" in virtually everything on site, from tech systems to fuel sources.

You can read more about the place on this fact sheet as well:

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