COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – We were deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, buried beneath thousands of feet of solid granite designed to protect us from nuclear holocaust.
On the big-screen TV monitors at the front of the Command Center, a missile launched from the Korean peninsula arced its way across the Pacific Ocean toward a target in the United States. In this simulated exercise, American and Canadian officers of NORAD – the North American Aerospace Defense Command – used satellites to identify the infrared plume of the missile as it was launched. Using complex mathematical models, they quickly calculated the rocket’s trajectory and began notifying the president, the Canadian prime minister and American commanders in chief.
Then we watched the missile, perfectly tracked by astonishingly sophisticated satellite and computer technology, plunge into the heart of America.
“Uh, when did we intercept it?” asked a disbelieving member of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference that was touring NORAD at the subterranean fortress outside Colorado Springs, Colo.
After a pregnant moment of silence, the gritty truth was told:
That, of course, is why former President Ronald Reagan came up with his famous “star wars” initiative, a gauntlet that has been picked up by President George W. Bush, who, similarly, wants the United States to develop some sort of missile shield.
The unsettling reality is that the world’s remaining superpower has only one defense against an intercontinental ballistic missile attack: fear of massive, unforgiving retaliation.
Monitoring hostile rocketry is a prime responsibility of NORAD, but not its only role. The joint Canadian-U.S. effort operates a ring of radar sites around the boundaries of North America monitoring all incoming air traffic as well. Nearly 900 unidentified planes enter North American air space each year, drawing NORAD’s watchful eye.
The Space Control Center inside Cheyenne Mountain also keeps an eye on all man-made objects orbiting the Earth. There are more than 8,000 satellites and pieces of space junk circling up there, and within a range of 660 miles above the planet, the center can spot an object as small as 10 square centimeters – about the size of a large bolt. At 22,300 miles above the earth’s surface, where geosynchronous satellites live, the center can spot stuff as small as a volleyball.
Construction of this fortress began in 1961 and was completed in just six years. The idea was to build a bunker inside a mountain that could withstand atomic attack by Soviet bombers.
Air Force spokesmen admit that with the advanced nuclear weaponry of today, not even the miles of rock shielding NORAD would save it from a direct hit. It makes dandy protection from sniper fire, though.
Barbed wire and guarded checkpoints block the entrance to the facility at the end of a narrow road that snakes up the side of the mountain. By the time we were admitted, we were sporting two extra sets of ID badges.
Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center is actually a series of tunnels and wide spaces carved out of solid rock. Massive steel blast doors guard the interior entrance. Inside are 15 buildings, a dozen of which are three stories high, built out of plate steel by Navy shipbuilders and resting on 1,319 springs weighing nearly a ton each. If the Russkies had dropped the Big One, the theory was that the buildings would bounce around while the exterior of the mountain absorbed the brunt of the nuclear blast. It’s an engineering marvel and an anachronism rolled into one.
Inside the mountain the culture is purple, which is military-speak for multiservice. Representatives from the various American armed services work side by side with their Canadian counterparts. This is a prime example of interservice – indeed, international – cooperation. But the flavor is definitely Air Force as about two-thirds of the personnel are either uniformed or civilian members of that service.
Our journey to Cheyenne Mountain was the last stop of an eight-day tour of U.S. military services. The previous day had been spent at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.
Eglin is the nation’s largest air base, claiming vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico for its bombing range. The Air Armament Center at Eglin reports to Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Eglin also is home to the 33rd Fighter Wing, and on a bright blue-sky morning we were bused to the runway to watch an F-15 Eagle demonstration. Daytonians familiar with the United States Air and Trade Show would have felt right at home.
Loudspeakers mounted along the tarmac blared out “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down as the powerful jet fighter rose into the sky.
If I go crazy, will you still call me Superman . . .
“Ladies and gentlemen, watch as the F-15 swoops into the sky and rockets straight up into the air.”
. . . If I’m alive and well, will you be there holding my hand . . .
“The pilot will now execute a perfect four-point roll.”
. . . I’ll keep you by my side with my superhuman might . . .
“Now for an inverted pass across the field.”
. . . Kryptonite.
“Next, the pilot . . .”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have to stop the demonstration because a piece of the tail just fell off…”
The technical term, we were told, was “delamination,” but the upshot was that the pilot had to land in a hurry and the Air Force scrambled to find another F-15 with all of its parts still laminated.
Conveniently, this helped underscore a point we’ve heard many times: Our fleet of aircraft is aging and as these birds get older, they have more maintenance problems.
Nearly 60 percent of the Army National Guard’s helicopters are grounded for lack of spare parts. Last week, the General Accounting Office reported that at least 154,000 times a year, military mechanics cannibalize pieces from one aircraft to fix another because of the lack of spares. This costs a million extra hours of work a year, leaves aircraft unfit to fly and demoralizes mechanics, the report said.
In one example cited by Neal Curtin, GAO director of defense issues, about 400 pieces had been removed from one plane to repair others and the aircraft eventually had to be trucked to a maintenance depot to be entirely rebuilt.
Not only is that wasteful, the report said, it is unsafe.
The GAO findings mirror results of an extensive investigation into the cause of military plane crashes published by the Dayton Daily News in 1999 that concluded, among other things, “that hundreds of in-flight emergencies and accidents – some deadly – can be traced to parts installed improperly, engines overhauled incorrectly and other mistakes by mechanics or the people supervising them.”
But if that leads you to fear that the Air Force is falling apart, consider this: Since the end of World War II “there hasn’t been a bomb dropped on U.S. troops,” according to Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, commander of the Air Force Armament Center. That’s what they mean by “air superiority.”
It could also be noted that there haven’t been any enemy bombs dropped on our houses. Or our mountains, for that matter, which brings us back to our last stop on the tour.
You enter and leave Cheyenne Mountain in buses that rumble along a tunnel nearly a mile deep into solid rock. As we emerged and began our trip down the mountain, a staff member ambled through our bus selling official NORAD souvenir coins for five bucks apiece.
Throughout our eight-day tour of the military we had been collecting coins like this. Officers and even high-ranking non-coms pass them out to friends like business cards. If you’re at a bar and someone flashes his coin, you have to buy the drinks if you can’t match him. If you can, he buys.
Having spent the day inside a mountain learning how America defends itself from the emerging threat of foreign nations such as China and Korea, I was eager to add a NORAD coin to my growing collection.
It came in a clear plastic bag on the outside of which were stamped these words:
“MADE IN CHINA.”