COLORADO SPRINGS | The transfer of strategic North American aerospace defense systems from inside the hardened complex of Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain to the basement of a glass office building has not reduced the security of the system, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command says.
Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., head of Northcom, said he is confident that the system can be protected from disruptions caused by natural disaster, mistake or attack.
Much of the Cheyenne Mountain complex, located about 10 miles away from the new operations center on Peterson Air Force Base, is being closed down, and many of its functions, including missile launch warning and space tracking, moved to other locations.
The decision to move out of the Cold War mountain complex, which was built beneath solid rock to harden it against a nuclear blast, was initially a cost-saving measure begun in the mid-2000s.
Critics, including some members of Congress and defense officials, said the move of key functions to the Northcom basement on Peterson Air Force Base endangers U.S. national security because the key strategic missile and aircraft monitoring could be more easily disrupted, for example, by an attack from a hijacked commercial aircraft from nearby Colorado Springs Airport.
Gen. Renuart defended the move out of the mountain, although he noted that the plans and decision were made before he assumed command of Northcom, as well as the U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in March 2007.
“The ability for us to provide very high-quality, high-fidelity command and control of all the pieces of homeland defense, homeland security and civil support, fit together best in one place,” Gen. Renuart said.
“The physics problem in the mountain is you can’t put them all there.”
The decision, made by former Northcom chief Adm. Timothy Keating, to consolidate the Northcom functions at Peterson “was the right one,” Gen. Renuart said.
The general said that the value of the hardened facility at Cheyenne Mountain is still significant and that it serves as a backup command center for the Northcom facility at Peterson.
He said Cheyenne Mountain is no longer capable of surviving a sophisticated, highly accurate and layered strategic nuclear missile attack, “but it does give us very credible capability against certain threats and those threats are still alive and viable out there.”
Cheyenne Mountain can still be used as a command post in the event of a missile attack, or a natural disaster such as a large-scale earthquake or tornado that could damage Northcom headquarters, Gen. Renuart said.
“Having that alternate command center up there, fully equipped, fully functional, in a bit small fashion than we use here on a day-to-day basis is important,” he said.
Gen. Renuart said Northcom just finished an exercise called Ardent Sentry, with a simulated magnitude-4.8 earthquake that disrupted communications and fiber optic links at Peterson.
In response, Northcom carried out a continuity of operations exercise that involved moving key headquarter functions from Peterson to Cheyenne Mountain, as well to other facilities on Peterson Air Force Base, Gen. Renuart said.
The shift in functions worked and allowed the exercise to operate at full capability, Gen. Renuart said, noting that the command then conducted an exercise involving a simulated terrorist attack on a nuclear missile silo, where security officials posing as mock terrorists sought to make off with nuclear material.
An internal document obtained by The Washington Times this spring states that a recent security evaluation identified “numerous security vulnerabilities” at the Peterson operations center of NORAD.
The move from Cheyenne Mountain to Peterson was completed last year and the security evaluation by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) stated that Peterson was “not designed to house” the NORAD facility. In noted that its close proximity to runways poses a threat of airborne attack or a vehicle bomb.
The DTRA report suggested spending about $200 million for security improvements at Northcom’s Building Two, where the operations center is now located, and to Peterson Air Force Base. Those improvements will provide the minimum security now available at Cheyenne Mountain.
A 2008 report bythe Government Accountability Office also identified security vulnerabilities caused by moving out of the mountain to Peterson.
NORAD and Northcom are responsible for monitoring the space and sky over the United States and providing warning information to warfighters and political leaders.
Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, has raised questions about Northcom and said he has been assured by military leaders that Cheyenne Mountain will remain a backup facility for the foreseeable future.