The Landing Zone | 6.17.15
By Alan W. Dowd

Russian bombers are buzzing U.S. and NATO airspace. The Kremlin is expanding its territory and brandishing  its nuclear arsenal. Moscow and Beijing are teaming up and building up. North Korea is beating the drums of war. Hostile regimes are fielding ICBMs and nukes. In short, it appears the bad old days of the Cold War are back. If that's the bad news, the good news is that a key piece of America's Cold War arsenal is back as well: NORAD's iconic Cheyenne Mountain headquarters is open for business—again.

During the Cold War, NORAD—short for "North American Aerospace Defense Command"—played a crucial role monitoring a vast network of sensors, radars and satellites, defending the United States and Canada from Soviet bombers, and providing early warning of Soviet missile launches. NORAD has had a hand in national missile defense, theater missile defense, space defense, civilian and military space launches, and tracking hurricanes. Broadly speaking, NORAD handles aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning for North America. These missions enfold monitoring man-made objects in space, detecting and verifying inbound aerospace threats against North America, and maintaining domain awareness over U.S. and Canadian maritime approaches and maritime areas.

After the Cold War, NORAD supported efforts to interdict drug trafficking, retooled itself to monitor and track missile launches by rogue states like North Korea, and played a key role in defending the homeland against terrorism. Immediately after the first wave of attacks on 9/11, NORAD began combing the skies over North America, the Pacific and the Atlantic for erratic or hostile aircraft. In the years since, it has served as lead agency  for Operation Noble Eagle, the air-patrol mission designed to defend the United States against terrorist threats emanating from the skies.

What many Americans don't know is that the famed Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center—which became NORAD's home in 1966—was placed in a semi-dormant "warm standby" status in 2006. At that time, most of NORAD's functions—and most of its 1,100 personnel—were transferred from Cheyenne Mountain to nearby Peterson Air Force Base. The goal, asDOD materials explain,  was to "relocate and combine the NORAD Command Center with the USNORTHCOM Command Center" at Peterson. "Cheyenne Mountain would become an alternate command center rather than be maintained on a 24/7 basis," according to the NORAD historian's office.

The rationale was threefold: to cut costs, to promote efficiency and to respond to the changing threat environment. NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain, after all, was built to withstand a Soviet nuclear-missile barrage—and then coordinate America's military response. But as Adm. Timothy Keating, then-commander of NORTHCOM and NORAD, concluded in 2006,  "A missile attack from China or Russia is very unlikely."

Fast-forward nine years, and what was once "very unlikely" seems increasingly possible—whether due to mistakes or madmen.

  • Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is trying to reverse the settled outcomes of the Cold War. In doing so, he has effectively started a new Cold War.  Russia has increased military spending 108 percent since 2004. On the strength of that spending binge, Russia has unveiled plans to deploy 600 new warplanes and 400 new ICBMs. Putin has annexed parts of Ukraine and Georgia by force, reopened military bases to bolster outsized Arctic claims, violated the INF Treaty, tripled the number of Russian incursions into NATO airspace and conducted mock nuclear strikes against Poland.

  • China's military spending has mushroomed by 170 percent since 2004. The Pentagon reports  Beijing is modernizing its silo-based ICBMs, fielding road-mobile ICBM systems and deploying submarines armed with a new line of ballistic missiles that have a range of 4,600 miles. Like Russia, China is bullying its neighbors and making outlandish claims over adjacent airspace, territories and waters. To back up those claims, China is turning atolls and reefs into island bases. According to the Wall Street Journal, "China has expanded the artificial islands in the Spratly chain to as much as 2,000 acres of land, up from 500 acres last year." These instant islands will serve as airstrips, radar stations and missile sites.

  • North Korea has detonated two nuclear weapons since 2009. Pentagon brass recently assessed North Korea's nuclear-capable KN-08 ICBM to be operational. In 2013, Pyongyang announced that it was prepared to launch "a preemptive nuclear attack" against the U.S. China estimated earlier this year that Pyongyang possesses 20 nuclear warheads—and could deploy 40 by 2016.

  • The Defense Intelligence Agency warns Iran could have an ICBM capable of reaching the United States sometime this year.  With the successful launch of the Safir space vehicle in 2009, "Iran demonstrated technologies that are directly applicable to the development of ICBMs," according to the Missile Defense Agency. And Iran has constructed launch sites for long-range missiles. This is a regime, it pays to recall, that has normalized terrorism into a basic government function, that foments revolution, that threatens to wipe neighboring countries off the face of the earth, that invokes apocalyptic scenarios to justify its policies.

  • Military planners are increasingly worried about adversaries detonating a nuclear device high above the continental United States to trigger an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that would render the nation's electrical grid useless. In fact, the Iranian military has contemplated  such an attack against the U.S. homeland. According to Peter Pry,  executive director of the congressionally-authorized EMP Task Force, "North Korea has actually practiced this against the United States."

All of this explains why the Pentagon is relocating key communications assets to Cheyenne Mountain and pouring nearly $1 billion into NORAD's Cold War bunker. "Since 2013, the Pentagon has awarded contracts worth more than $850 million for work related to Cheyenne Mountain," DefenseOne reports.  In April, the Pentagon signed a $700-million contract with Raytheon to upgrade the mountain base.

"Because of the very nature of the way that Cheyenne Mountain is built, it's EMP-hardened," explains Adm. William Gortney, commander of NORTHCOM and NORAD. (The NORTHCOM commander is double-hatted as NORAD commander.) Given all the new/old threats, Gortney wonders aloud, "Are we going to have the space inside the mountain for everybody that wants to move in there?"

These moves are prudent. Indeed, it may be time for NORAD to re-relocate fully from Peterson. Citing leaked Pentagon documents, The Washington Times has reported  that "if China decided to launch a nuclear attack, a mere fraction of its arsenal would be needed to have a 99-percent assurance of destroying NORAD's mission at Peterson. However, a NORAD kept in the mountain would possess ‘up to an 85 percent chance' that ‘functions will survive.'"

With its EMP-proof skin, hardened communications gear, 25-ton blast-resistant doors, subterranean city of 15 buildings and shock-absorbent floor, NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain is simply more secure and less vulnerable than Peterson AFB—and, for that matter, virtually any other military command center on earth. It made sense to have such a facility in1966, and it still makes sense today.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.