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Sarah Kanouse, Cheyenne Mountain, 5 May 2014, Flickr

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Cheyenne Mountain Complex/NORAD

In the late 1950s, the U.S. military envisioned a hardened command and control center as protection against long-range Soviet missiles. In 1959 Cheyenne Mountain was selected to be the new home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint United States-Canada effort to provide aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and protection for North America. NORAD’s round-the-clock monitoring systems were integral to U.S. military defense planning against potential nuclear attack. From 1961-1965, the Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the excavation and construction of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex southwest of downtown Colorado Springs. The location deep within triple-peaked Cheyenne Mountain was chosen in order to protect NORAD’s computers and personnel in case of a nuclear strike.

Construction of the complex began with tunneling a mile into the mountain in 1961, and the facility opened in a fully functional capacity in 1966. Steven Saint, “The Springs' Other Mountain: There's a Lot More to Cheyenne than NORAD," The Gazette, January 8, 2002 (archived on the WaybackMachine), accessed September 12, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20150329163821/http:/www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-2722789.html.Construction of the "nerve center" cost $142 million, and required approximately 500 tons of explosives to create what was at the time believed to be the world's only known city located inside of a mountain. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex features a series of chambers cut 2000 feet below the surface into the pure granite of the mountain. Wikipedia, “Cheyenne Mountain," accessed September 12, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheyenne_Mountain#cite_note-More_than_NORAD-3.These chambers house generators, reservoirs of water and diesel fuel, and over 10 multiple-story buildings containing weapon command systems, offices, storerooms, barracks, and even a Subway sandwich counter. The buildings inside the complex are encased in steel, sealed off externally by giant blast-proof doors, and supported by over 1000 shock-absorbing springs allowing them to move independently of the mountain in an earthquake. The reservoirs, generations, and supply rooms make the complex completely self-sustaining when the 25-ton blast doors are shut. The complex inside the mountain was built to withstand biological warfare, electromagnetic blasts, shelling, natural disasters, and nuclear attacks, protecting temporarily up to 800 people from radioactive fallout. 

For years, NORAD and USNORTHCOM provided ballistic missile, air attack, and aerospace warning operations from the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which can deflect a 30-megaton nuclear detonation as close as 1.2 miles. Today, the organizations constitute approximately 5 percent of the site’s operations. Once staffed by close to 2000 personnel, the complex currently maintains about a tenth of historic personnel numbers. Since 2008, which marked the 50th anniversary of the NORAD North American partnership, key command forces and operations relocated to Peterson Air Force Base in eastern Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the NORAD-US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) Command Center was established to serve as a central collection and coordination facility for a worldwide system of sensors. North American Aerospace Command Center, “About NORAD,” accessed September 12, 2021, https://www.norad.mil/About-NORAD/.NORAD uses a network of satellites, ground-based radar, airborne radar and fighters to detect, intercept, and, if necessary, engage "air-breathing" threats. Secondary missions include support of federal drug-interdiction and maritime warning operations.

However, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex maintains communications operations, due to the site’s natural resistance to electromagnetic pulse attacks. The bunker inside the mountain now serves as a backup and training location for NORAD and houses numerous Department of Defense technological operations. In 2015 renovations began at the complex for increased communications capability. Most of the work currently completed at the site, which largely involves cyberintelligence, is performed by the Air Force Space Command, but oversight has been reorganized following the establishment of the separate Space Force in 2019. The Cheyenne Mountain Air Station is now part of the Peterson-Schriever garrison under Space Force command, and assigned to the Space Operations Command headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was last locked down as a precaution following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Today the complex is one of the most famous reminders of the Cold War in Colorado, just as NORAD served as a key icon of the Cold War in popular film and television depictions of hypothetical and actual nuclear war. Public attention has turned to tourism in the area as well as the environmental footprint of the base and its impacts on the rich natural areas of the Cheyenne Mountain. Known for its dense forest and diversity of plants and wildlife, 267 species of animals and over 208 species of plants have been identified in the base’s area. The invasive excavation of the mountain and construction of the base drastically altered the habitat of many of these species, including that of black bears, wild turkeys, mountain lions, and foxes.

Sources

Agence France-Press. “NORAD Moving Comms Gear Back to Mountain Bunker.DefenseNews, April 8, 2015. Accessed September 12, 2021.

Behar, Michael. “The Secret World of NORAD.Air & Space Magazine, August 22, 2018. Accessed April 4, 2021.

Braymen, Gail, Sgt. 1st Class, U.S. Northern Command. “NORAD, USNORTHCOM Open Integrated Command Center.” May 13, 2008. Accessed June 12, 2021.

Federation of American Scientists, “NORAD at 40 Historical Overview.” Accessed September 10, 2020.

iNaturalist. “Find Guides.” Accessed December 13, 2020.

North American Aerospace Command Center. “About NORAD.” Accessed September 12, 2021.

North American Aerospace Command Center. “NORAD History.” Accessed September 10, 2020.

Saint, Steven. “The Springs' Other Mountain: There's a Lot More to Cheyenne than NORAD." The Gazette, January 8, 2002 (archived on the WaybackMachine). Accessed September 12, 2021.

Scoles, Sarah. “A Rare Journey Into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a Super-Bunker That Can Survive Anything.” Wired, May 3, 2017. Accessed September 12, 2021.

Wikipedia. “Cheyenne Mountain.” Accessed September 12, 2021.
 
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