Cheyenne Mountain Retired

Cheyenne Mountain was the United States' underground command post, designed to survive a direct hit from a nuclear warhead. It's a Cold War relic -- built in the 1960s -- and retiring the site is probably a good idea. But this paragraph gives me pause:

Keating said the new control room, in contrast, could be damaged if a terrorist commandeered a jumbo jet and somehow knew exactly where to crash it. But "how unlikely is that? We think very," Keating said.

I agree that this is an unlikely terrorist target, but still.

Posted on October 25, 2006 at 4:35 PM • 46 Comments

Comments

BLPOctober 25, 2006 4:52 PM

Well, it's an unlikely terrorist target, but what about NK? Just because the Russians aren't aiming nukes at us doesn't mean nobody is.

I'm glad they're keeping it on "warm standby" rather than shutting it down and installing Space Mountain inside.

mattOctober 25, 2006 5:44 PM

@BLP:

North Korea does not have access to any delivery systems that could reach Colorado.

AnonymousOctober 25, 2006 5:49 PM

nonetheless, if we got into a shooting war (heaven forbid) with someone who did (there are a fairly large number of nations who can effectively deliver ordinance anywhere in our country, we'd potentially have a problem. I'm sure it's all redundent to the n'th degree, and highly secret, but still... the point of Cheyenne mountain was to avoid having to take advantage of this redundancy.

BrettOctober 25, 2006 5:56 PM

Well, this obviously calls for a high-tech solution whereby all jets of sufficient size to cause damage to the center be equipped with an automatic course-changing program and a receiver that will pick up the beacon and veer away without causing any damage. But the beacon would have to be encrypted and on a special hopping range of frequencies to prevent people from using it as a way of detecting the location. But encryption systems adapt over time, so this one will have to be adaptable, possibly artifically intelligent. Yes, and all pilots are going to have to be trained to recognize the signal itself and how to react to it, so that calls for increased education among pilots for not crashing into the site. And foreign pilots will have to get a special license to land in US airspace now, so that they too receive this training. And as long as we're appropriating funds for this, why don't we tack on some spending on hardening the site's defenses. We could put some parts of it underground, or build a mountain-like facade over it, with imported trees and wildlife so nobody would suspect its location. And lasers! We need lasers!

AnonymousOctober 25, 2006 6:07 PM

"I agree that this is an unlikely terrorist target, but still."

Cannot disagree with that. However, a "control room" implies more enemy than a ragged band of insurgents. An inexact nuke or two could surely do as much damage as an exact jumbo jet.

They must be rattling the chain to set the mongrels barking.

HeathOctober 25, 2006 6:19 PM

Interesting that they retire Cheyenne Mountain during the last season of Stargate SG-1. Maybe more truth in TV than originally thought?

Stephen John SmoogenOctober 25, 2006 6:55 PM

While I thought the wording was odd.. I actually realized that it was the first risk assesment about a terrorist threat I had heard that was pretty accurate versus "We need to build Mission Command #2 under the deepest mountain range on the off chance that terrorists are able to get an old H-bomb, load it into an outfitted cesna, and fly it into Cheyenne Mountain.

Ben KOctober 25, 2006 7:11 PM

They won't be able to use it for other science fiction any more either. In Heinlein's "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress", (1966), he has the lunar separatists bombing Cheyenne Mountain from orbit with big rocks. After a number of salvos, the computer advises that they probably shouldn't hit it anymore. When asked why, the reply is "Because its not there any longer."

So much for cultural icons.

No nameOctober 25, 2006 7:31 PM

This reminds me of my visit to Scotland's secret nuclear bunker (no this is not a joke - http://www.secretbunker.co.uk/explore_the_bunker.asp). The bunker was decommissioned some years ago and is now a tourist attraction. There were exhibits explaining the likely consequences of a cold war atomic attack. My father, who has visited Belsen, said it was one of the most depressing places he had ever been. Obviously, the bunker I visited is very small and weak when compared to Cheyenne Mountain but the tourist guide explained that when it was designed, ICBMs could not be aimed reliably (e.g. 5 miles off target was to be expected) and the chances of survival for bunker occupants was rather good. I hope someday, visitors will be allowed into Cheyenne Mountain. I think these bunkers have a special atmosphere that you just cannot get without being there.

I'd guess that the risk of a terrorist attack on the new command centre is indeed low and what would the terrorists get from this compared to other more "spectacular" atrocities anyway? On the other hand, the risk of foreign intelligence agencies pinpointing the command centre is surely real. I expect that there is another bunker somewhere or a plan B.

RogerOctober 25, 2006 8:16 PM

@Anonymous at 5:49 pm:
> there are a fairly large number of nations who can effectively deliver ordinance anywhere in our country

No there aren't. There are 4, none of which are currently hostile.

If we go through all the countries known to possess ICBM, IRBM, SLBM or strategic bombers, cross out the ones which do not have the range to reach the US at all, the list we are left with is : USA, UK, France, Russia, and PRC [1]. Of those, apart from the US itself, two are allies and one now has a cordial relationship. PRC has rather cooler relations but is not an enemy at present, and is massively "outgunned" by the US in terms of nuclear weapon range, accuracy and power.

Countries with ICBMs under development possibly include India (rumoured, and likely only with the range to give full coverage of China), and definitely include North Korea. NK's Taepodong-1 program is considered by most observers to have been a dismal failure. The Taepodong-2 program has so far had one test launch (which failed), and is estimated to have a potential range of 4500 km (insufficient to hit the US) and payload of < 500 kg at that range (probably too low for a first gen nuke). NK has not yet demonstrated any ability at all with ICBM re-entry vehicles or guidance systems, and there one nuclear test to date appears to have been a fizzle, so while it is important ot keep and eye on them it will be at least many years before they are able to target midwestern US with nuclear weapons from ICBMs.

AnonymousOctober 25, 2006 9:11 PM

No name said:

"I think these bunkers have a special atmosphere that you just cannot get without being there."

Indeed. Amazing, in fact. Quite breath taking to stand where General's stood to look at the huge World map on glass. These places are pretty serious business.

andrewOctober 25, 2006 9:58 PM

"and somehow knew exactly where to crash it."

Anyone else reminded of the oh-so-convenient exhaust port in the Deathstar? ANyone? It just happened to be the one place that a small bomb could do criticla damage? What, you would have me believe the engineers never saw Star Wars I? Thay are much more likely to have never seen a naked woman! This is what happens when a perfectly simple design problem is taken up by gov't officials. Jesus wept.

VOctober 25, 2006 10:26 PM

This is completely obvious. When a nuclear bomb explodes, one of the effects is a wave of extreme heat. This heat would seal the doors of NORAD, and would actually strenthen the structure against further attack. However, a 777 does not produce such intense heat, and thus can crash in.

Wrong end of the stickOctober 25, 2006 10:49 PM

@BLP: "Well, it's an unlikely terrorist target, but what about NK?"

I agree .. North Korea is a pretty unlikely target, but there you go ... thems Terrists ios mighty unpre-dic-table, huh!

"Just because the Russians aren't aiming nukes at us doesn't mean nobody is."

Oh. :(

BenOctober 26, 2006 12:28 AM

aikimark: Current theory is that this is actually a coverup for Stargate Command taking up even more of Cheyenne Mountain than they were before.

Similar to that article in Popular Science a while back about Area 51 being closed.

I didn't tell you.

koenOctober 26, 2006 1:35 AM

Well likelyhood, impact and frequency is fortune telling. I am not capable of doing it and I doubt US commanders are.

AntoninOctober 26, 2006 5:01 AM

But still what? If "terrorists manage to fly jumbo jet into secret control room even though they have no idea where it is located" isn't a movie plot scenario, then what is? :)

In any case, the whole story is most likely just disinformation, anyway. *dons tinfoil hat*

PaeniteoOctober 26, 2006 5:33 AM

The point is: Where would be the problem if a terrorist crashes the air defense HQ?
Unless an attack from a foreign nation is imminent, it would not really make much difference - particularly as I assume the military will get something else up and working in no time (airborne command post or the like).

bobOctober 26, 2006 6:52 AM

In Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle's "Footfall", they refer to people who have been inside NORAD (ie have seen the elephant) as referring to it as having been Inside (verbally capitalized).

I believe it would have been a better idea to scale it down and modernize it, retain its bomb-proof HQ functions and reduce the "city inside a mountain" stuff.

Similar to the concept of a mothballed battleship making a GREAT fleet command-and-control ship (add electronics, supplies, stars, remove 2 turrets) since other than a nuke, there is no modern weapon that can seriously damage one.

EricOctober 26, 2006 7:35 AM

In the DVD commentary to the movie War Games, they mention that they'd spoken to NORAD staff, who said that Cheyenne Mountain was full of tiny, dark rooms--nothing as impressive as the popular image.

Apparently, even NORAD would quite happy to have a big room with electronic maps of the world on the wall. :-)

ScotOctober 26, 2006 7:45 AM

I am not sure I am a big fan of mothballing what is probably the most impregnable military command and control center in the world. In my opinion, there is more to Cheyenne Mountain than simply a high-tech control center...it stands (well, stood) as a symbol of American military might. It was THE place that the bad guys probably could never touch (rocks from space not withstanding) and assured some continuity of control over US forces globally.

Anything that is out in the open is going to be a target. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but surely in the future. I agree with Bob above...it should be modernized (allowing scaledown of the functions) and remain a completely active part of the overall defense structure. We spent a lot of money putting it there, it would be a terrible waste to make it into a tourist attraction.

Cheyenne Mountain MotelOctober 26, 2006 8:20 AM

Just like Air Force Flight Test Center, Detachment 3 is on warm standby.

PeteOctober 26, 2006 8:20 AM

@BLP: "but what about NK?"

Robert Kaplan wrote an interesting article about North Korea in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly - http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200610/kaplan-korea

Gives an interesting perspective about NK's main focus - he suggests that it isn't US. I was particularly impressed with his observation about South Korea's priorities for NK - almost cynical but so true:

"... sacrifice is not a word that voters in free and prosperous societies tend to like. If voters in Western-style democracies are good at anything, it’s rationalizing their own selfishness ..."

AnonymousOctober 26, 2006 8:57 AM

I'm amazed at the number of readers that insist on keeping Cheyenne Mountain in service.

The only reason for Cheyenne Mountain to exist was to continue war after a crippling first strike. (The meaning of "war" after an all-out nuclear exchange is another story.)

At the moment, the probability of the US being hit by hundreds of nukes is zero. No other country but Russia ever had a perceived first strike capability (the ability to deliver a significant number of nukes with little warning, by launching from Cuba or submarines). Even without the comforts of Cheyenne Mountain, the US has enough overkill capability to retalitate.

Let Cheyenne Mountain become a cold war museum and a reminder of MAD doctrine insanities.

havvokOctober 26, 2006 9:22 AM

@Scot

Having a single high-priority nerve centre such as Cheyenne mountain made sense in 1960s when telecommunications and high speed communications were alot let ubiquitous.

I suspect that having numerous warm sites around the US with the similar capabilities to Cheyenne Mountain would offer the same coverage and capabilities while costing tax payers alot less.

havvokOctober 26, 2006 9:24 AM

er.. less not let. and with similar capabilities.. english has evaded me this morning.

bobOctober 26, 2006 9:46 AM

@Anonymous: Actually I would think it would only take one, delivered near the building on Peterson AFB, to be considered a significant number.

A nuke doesnt HAVE to ride on a space vehicle, a blue Chevy Colorado 2WD with an inkjet printed license plate that said "USG 06K2154" would work just fine.

bobOctober 26, 2006 9:57 AM

Its ironic, the people who invented the internet (DoD) as a way to have survivable, distributed communications back in the cold war, now pack control of all their C4I worldwide into Scott AFB.

Take out a building at SAFB and the whole DoD warfighting infrastructure grinds quickly to a halt.

I guess they learned this from the "one big facility" strategy that won the cold war for the Soviet Union.

Because there is no way anyone hostile could destroy a building in the US.

BrettOctober 26, 2006 10:22 AM

I don't know about everyone else, but the first thing that comes to my mind is "security through obscurity" which is never a safe bet to make.

And this: "Moreover, the U.S. military says the countries that have succeeded the Soviet Union as the main threat to this country - hostile states such as North Korea and Iran - do not have the weapons to take out a command center in Colorado."
sounds too much like "underestimating your opponent."

Maybe it is all a moot point, though, as the author seems to suggest that even Cheyenne Mountain may not be secure enough against today's weapons: "Until the later years of the Cold War, when more accurate and high-yield bombs were developed, Cheyenne Mountain could probably have even withstood a direct hit."

In today's world of powerful and alternative weapons, delivery systems and ubiquitous information, maybe secure locations aren't possible and distributed, redundant systems and procedures are the best way to protect against a single point of failure.

Rob SheinOctober 26, 2006 10:33 AM

Let's all try to remember the kind of nuclear exchange that was envisioned when Cheyenne was built/needed. NK has nukes, sure, but they don't have THOUSANDS of nukes. They don't have the ability to blanket our country so totally with blasts that the only way to preserve a command and control capability is to have an uber-bunker that can't be blown up. Even if they put all their nukes in cargo vans, and hit us in different places with them (including the new site), they wouldn't achieve the kind of total disruption of our military that Cheyenne was built to forestall. Ultimately, it came down to being able to ensure that we could hit back, credibly, and thus preserve the delicate balance of Mutually Assured Destruction. With North Korea, there is no question here; they cannot assure our destruction with nukes, but we can assure theirs. Thus, no need for Cheyenne to counter them.

RvnPhnxOctober 26, 2006 12:54 PM

Interesting to read all of the FUD of various flavors here.
In any case, it is my pet theory that they don't need the mountian anymore because somebody finally figured out how to kindly tell JOSHUA to retire.....

Anonymous CowardOctober 26, 2006 3:14 PM

"It was from Peterson where the military was able to scramble fighter planes 10 minutes after a small plane crashed into a New York City high-rise last week."

As you see, retiring the old command center did not impair at all our ability to make costly useless mistakes. Life goes on.

Two questions:

(1) when are they going to give the mountain back to the Cheyenne?

(2) how come that only eggs and fighter jets are ever scrambled?

thorOctober 26, 2006 6:11 PM

Mothballing...? Not exactly... Cheyanne Mountain is being kept as "hot" backup, staffed at 80% of full (but other) personnel, I read. (Presumably now totally taken over by Stargate Command :) ...)

Besides, what of the new undermountain facility supposedly recently built some years back, 40-50km away, for Northern Command? There was a spate of vague articles about it about when NC was made more public, saying it was a modern version of the original. Then quiet.

solinymOctober 26, 2006 10:57 PM

In this day and age, I think a secret, better yet a *mobile* *secret* command center, or better yet, centers, makes much more sense. Anything that can be located can be destroyed, infiltrated, surveilled, etc. The most secure bunker isn't as survivable as being nowhere in particular.

Airplanes, eighteen wheelers, and maybe some RVs, some stationary unmarked buildings, some conventional but hidden FEMA bunkers... taking out a quorum would be significantly more difficult. Attacks against one aren't necessarily feasible against the other... diversity in defense.

RogerOctober 27, 2006 12:21 AM

While Peterson AFB is obviously more vulnerable than Cheyenne mountain, let's not exaggerate the vulnerability. It is about 4 km across, and contains hundreds of buildings, including dozens of quite large buildings. Neither a hijacked airliner nor a conventional truck bomb is likely to be able to disable the facility. Oh, and unlike the Grand Coulee Dam, Peterson DOES have air defences; your hijacked airliner would be unlikely to get close.

Further, assuming it is of sturdy ferroconcrete construction and EMP hardened, even a small truck borne nuke might not destroy it unless it was able to penetrate well past the base perimeter; a 2000 m stand-off gives you plenty of wiggle room! At 5 psi overpressure, most buildings are severely damaged or collapse, but well constructed (but not bunkered) reinforced concrete structures do not, and may survive up to 10 psi. To generate 5 psi at 2000 m requires a 100 kT thermonuclear device which is a fairly powerful device [1].

And in any case, destroying this centre is not a decapitation strike; other command posts exist.

@Anonymous Coward:
> when are they going to give the mountain back to the Cheyenne?

They're not. For one thing, Cheyenne only arrived in the area in the mid-19th century, as a result of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Before them were Comanche and Apache from the mid-18th century, and originally the Ute (dating back to at least the 11-th century).

Also, the DoD doesn't own the whole mountain, which also has parks, a zoo, and a resort hotel on the foothills. But mainly, the facility is not being closed, it's being left in a maintenance mode from which it can be reactivated if it ever becomes necessary (i.e. PRC begins a nuclear arms race).
___
1. Apart from the "Big Five", no other nation has ever tested a weapon this powerful; the largest independently confirmed yield being 25 kT by India (new testers always claim more than is confirmed...). All Big 5 states have had much larger tests, but 100 kT is the peak yield available to the UK, & 2nd largest available to France. PRC peak yield is not known but they have not had a test of 100 kT or over for more than a decade.

DonMay 21, 2007 8:44 PM

probably a cover up like everything else they try and put it on tv so people don't think anything is there like the area 51 thing is posted everywhere and there really is a military base called that

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..