On 60th Anniversary, NORAD Has Evolved to Guard Against Modern Threats

Senior Airman Ricardo Collie, a 721st Security Forces member, patrols the north gate of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex at Cheyenne Air Force Station, Colorado, January 7, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
Senior Airman Ricardo Collie, a 721st Security Forces member, patrols the north gate of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex at Cheyenne Air Force Station, Colorado, January 7, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

COLORADO SPRINGS -- Almost simultaneously Wednesday night, Iranian missiles were launched toward Israel and an unruly passenger on a Canadian airliner forced it to divert from its flight path. And that caused the phones inside NORAD's command center at Peterson Air Force Base to light up, as officials quickly assessed whether either situation was a threat to the United States or Canada.

Neither event was.

But the situation is an example of how the North American Air Defense Command has evolved beyond the Cold War.

Sixty years after it was formed in a partnership between the United States and Canada, NORAD continues to monitor the world's airspace, waters and land. It watches for terrorist attacks in rogue airplanes, foreign submarines creeping toward the North American coast, drug runners crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, hurricanes brewing in the ocean and North Korean missile tests -- even as it tracks Santa Claus circling the globe on Christmas.

And, yes, it still pays attention to Russia.

"There's a preconception out there that Cheyenne Mountain is closed. It's a Cold War relic," said Steve Rose, deputy director of Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. "But we are very busy."

NORAD opened its doors -- its 23-ton blast doors, that is -- on Thursday to the media for a rare tour inside the Cheyenne Mountain command center as part of its 60th anniversary celebration. An anniversary ceremony will be held Saturday at Peterson Air Force Base.

While NORAD now is officially headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, it's impossible to talk about it without Cheyenne Mountain entering the discussion.

Today, the old Cheyenne Mountain control room -- the one made famous by movies from "WarGames" to "Interstellar" -- serves as an alternate command center to the much larger building a few miles down the road at Peterson. Still, commanders regularly move operations to Cheyenne Mountain to prepare for situations in which military officials would need to "button up" to protect themselves from a major attack, said Royal Canadian Air Force Col. Travis Morehen, who serves as the command center's director.

NORAD was created on May 12, 1958. Canada and the U.S. feared a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union and wanted to boost their airspace defense. Engineers blasted a milelong tunnel through Cheyenne Mountain's granite. Eight years later, they opened a complex that can withstand a nuclear blast that would shake the mountain as fiercely as any earthquake could.

Today, 15 buildings occupy 115,000 square feet in the belly of the mountain. The buildings are perched on massive springs -- another feature that would help the complex survive a nuclear blast. The buildings do not touch the mountain's walls, and they are connected by hinged gang planks.

"Just like a ship at sea, these buildings would bounce on those springs and ride out the shakes," Rose said.

The mountain and NORAD have become a fixture in American pop culture, having appeared in movies such as Stanley Kubrick's satirical "Dr. Strangelove" and 1983's "WarGames," in which Matthew Broderick found a breakout role playing a teenager who hacks NORAD computers and nearly launches World War III.

"We've been blown up by aliens in 'Independence Day' -- twice," Rose said.

Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station hosts other military units, many of them secret, Rose said. That adds to the intrigue, which is embraced by those who work there. Inside the alternate NORAD control room, an alien head is on display inside a glass specimen jar.

Eight large screens surround the control walls, and those screens can be subdivided to provide even more images. Clocks show the time in eight zones. Each desk has at least four computer screens and multiple phones. NORAD commander Gen. Lori Robinson and her staff can watch through glass walls in their perch above the control room floor.

If something appears out of place, such as an unidentified airplane near Washington, D.C., the NORAD crew scrambles to figure out what it is and whether military action needs to be taken. The control room has seats for other agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We track everything that flies in North America," Morehen said.

It often is hectic, but always controlled, Morehen said. He has four telephones at his control seat. It's common for him to talk on two phones and have a staffer holding a third near his mouth, he said. But everyone follows a well-rehearsed script to prevent all from talking at once.

Decisions on multiple levels from multiple U.S. and Canadian agencies have to be made quickly.

"If an aircraft was taking off out of Washington, D.C., and it turned left instead of right, we'd have fewer minutes than you can count on your fingers to react."

When the military units aren't dealing with real-world situations, they practice for the next disaster, whether it's a terrorist attack, a missile launch or a nuclear bomb.

"We practice the worst-case scenarios," Morehen said.

This article is written by Noelle Phillips from Denver Post and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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