The storied history of Cheyenne Mountain

Brian D. Laslie, Ph.D. Photos by NORAD

The idea of a hardened command center is older than the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) itself. It was January 15, 1956, when Gen. Earle E. Partridge, commander in chief of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), directed his staff to begin preliminary planning for a Combat Operations Center to be located — somewhere — underground. Partridge believed his above-ground center on Ent Air Force Base, Colorado, was too small to manage the growing air defense system and was vulnerable to sabotage or attack by any number of possible, but mainly Soviet, threats.

Partridge and his staff sent preliminary requirements for an underground Combat Operations Center to the headquarters staff of the Air Force in Washington, D.C. The early design, based on a version of the Strategic Air Command headquarters, proposed an above-ground headquarters, a basement and a three-story underground Combat Operations Center.

Partridge, who was functioning as NORAD commander in April 1958, informed the Joint Chiefs of Staff that his Combat Operations Center should be remote from other prime targets and hardened to continue operating after a thermonuclear blast. He said a Rand Corp. study determined the base location should be in the Colorado Springs area in a granite mountain of the Rocky Mountains.

Partridge said this was the best solution, could be done “at reasonable cost” and should be constructed without delay. The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved locating the new NORAD Combat Operations Center inside Cheyenne Mountain, south of Colorado Springs. The site would include an air and space early warning mission.

It was not until June 1961 that a groundbreaking ceremony was held. Gen. Robert M. Lee of Air Defense Command and Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, the second commander in chief of NORAD, simultaneously set off symbolic dynamite charges. The estimated cost of the center, including construction and equipment, was set at U.S. $66 million.

A full moon lights the sky over Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A little more than a year later, excavation of the NORAD Combat Operations Center inside Cheyenne Mountain was mostly completed. It would not be finished, however, until May 1, 1964, principally due to the need to repair a geological fault in the ceiling at one of the intersections by reinforcing it with a massive concrete dome at a cost of about U.S. $2.7 million. In layman’s terms, a giant crack in the ceiling needed buttressing. Thus, a concrete dome was poured and bolted into the ceiling of the hollowed-out mountain. Today the dome can be viewed through a glass partition outside the command center.

Nearly concurrent to these efforts, construction began on interior buildings. Fifteen steel buildings were installed inside the mountain. Each building was separated from the other and mounted on giant springs to absorb shock. Today, the NORAD history office jokingly calls them the real Colorado Springs.

Finally, on April 20, 1966, Gen. Dean C. Strother, NORAD’s commander in chief, transferred NORAD operations from Ent Air Force Base to Cheyenne Mountain and declared the command center fully operational.

Once completed, the complex was entered through an access tunnel, itself a preventive measure designed to allow explosive force to flow through the tunnel without damaging internal buildings. To protect the interior command center and buildings, two large sets of blast doors were installed, capable of being closed electronically or by a hand crank, if necessary. Besides the command center, the mountain itself contained everything needed to keep the operations center functioning when sealed off. It had an infirmary, a place to shop and a gym. The operations center functioned as advertised for more than a decade, but events in the latter part of the 1970s nearly led to a catastrophe.

Two events in 1979 and 1980 indicated that exercises and day-to-day missions did not always go according to plan. Unintentionally, these two events helped cement the place of NORAD and the mountain in American pop culture. First, in November 1979, for about three minutes, a test scenario of a missile attack on North America was inadvertently transmitted to the operational side of the operations center. Test data was processed as real information, displayed on missile warning consoles in the command post, and transmitted to national command centers. About eight minutes elapsed before NORAD was confident that no strategic attack was underway. Obviously, this aroused widespread public and congressional interest. The second incident occurred eight months later in June 1980. The failure of a computer chip in the NORAD control system caused false missile warning data to be transmitted to Strategic Air Command, the National Command Center and the National Alternate Command Center. These two incidents helped inspire the 1983 film WarGames, which itself used the NORAD command center (albeit a highly fictionalized version) as the backdrop for a near-nuclear confrontation.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC) monitored events and directed air defense responses to the terrorist hijackings of commercial airliners and the subsequent crashes. The NORAD commander implemented and conducted Operation Noble Eagle, the air defense response, to the 9/11 events, from the Command Post Battle Cab in Cheyenne Mountain.

In July 2006, the command centers were moved from Cheyenne Mountain to Peterson Air Force Base. Upon completion and review of several studies and reports, Adm. Tim Keating announced the decision to relocate and combine the NORAD Command Center with the command center of U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) at the headquarters building at Peterson AFB. CMOC officially was renamed the Cheyenne Mountain Directorate and would move to a standby, alternate command center status when further transition efforts over the next year were completed. Today, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex serves as an alternate command center for NORAD and USNORTHCOM.

Dr. Brian D. Laslie is the deputy command historian for U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.