Nestled a half mile inside a hardened rock tunnel, the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center buzzed with excitement on July 4, 2006, as the shuttle Discovery prepared to launch.
Then, at approximately 1:30 p.m. during the final countdown at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the center’s alarms and strobes shrieked to life. Defense satellites had picked up a heat-related signature half a world away. An expert crew at the mountain quickly identified it as a missile, pinpointing its type, location and telemetry. It had been launched from North Korea and was headed east. Several more missile launches were detected including a long-range Taepodong II capable of striking the western United States” href=”/themes/?Theme=United+States”>United States.
As the missiles advanced, the op center alerted top defense officials. President Bush was just a phone call away and if contacted might have had only minutes to decide whether to engage America’s nuclear arsenal. Fortunately, the missiles fell far from U.S. shores in North Korea, the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean.
Still, the episode marked the end of an era. A few weeks later, Cheyenne Mountain’s commander, Brig. Gen. Rosanne Bailey, retired and the once highly sought command was downgraded to a “directorate.”
Critics say a decision two years ago to move the operations center of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to the basement of an office building on Peterson Air Force Base in nearby Colorado Springs and to disperse other missions at the mountain could undermine U.S. national security.
According to military and defense sources familiar with the missions and U.S. government documents obtained by The Washington Times, the move — billed as a cost-cutting measure — received insufficient government review, violated previous Pentagon directives, may have broken U.S. law and has left the United States less able to track potential threats and the operations center more vulnerable to attack.
“We see decisions like closing Cheyenne Mountain that are driven for cost purposes only, not military requirements,” said Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney. “Cheyenne Mountain should remain an active facility but cost pressures are driving combatant commanders to make riskier decisions.”
The decision to move the op center originated with Adm. Timothy Keating, in 2006 head of both NORAD and U.S. Northern Command” href=”/themes/?Theme=U.S.+Northern+Command”>U.S. Northern Command, created after 9/11 to safeguard further the U.S. homeland. Adm. Keating apparently convinced the nation’s top military leaders that moving the center would save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Other government officials tried to slow the process to ensure that safeguards would be incorporated at the new site. But they were marginalized in what critics argue was a needlessly quick campaign to place the mountain on “warm standby” while scattering critical elements of the mission to several air bases.
Adm. Keating’s mantra was “faster, quicker and cheaper,” said one military official familiar with Cheyenne Mountain’s recent transition who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “He would not let anything stand in his way.”
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of Northern Command and Norad, said in a statement Sept. 18 in response to a Government Accountability Office report on the transfer that he had told a closed-door briefing for the House Armed Services Committee that he is “committed to improving our security posture to protect our command center.”
Gen. Renuart said he decided to “exceed the baseline security requirements at our headquarters by implementing enhanced force protection measures.” He asserted that the move from the mountain would have more benefits than costs. “The operational advantages of this effort are numerous and unmistakable,” he said in the statement.
However, Gen. Bailey said in a telephone interview that she had a number of concerns.
“The reality is you can’t make a glass building as resistant to attack as you can a facility in a mountain,” she said.