Leaving Cheyenne Mountain | The Nation


Leaving Cheyenne Mountain

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It took three years just to excavate that mountain redoubt outside Colorado Springs, that cold war citadel whose two huge blast doors weighed twenty-five tons each. Within its confines, under 2,000 feet of Rocky Mountain granite, fifteen buildings were mounted on steel springs, each spring weighing nearly half a ton, so that when the Soviet nukes exploded, each building would sway but not collapse.

Copyright © 2008 William Astore. A version of this article also appears on Tomdispatch.com.

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William J. Astore
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate...

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When it became operational in 1966, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex was the ultimate bomb shelter. Its 200 or so crew members were believed to have a 70 percent likelihood of surviving a five-megaton blast with a three-mile circular error of probability, even if the surrounding countryside became an irradiated wasteland. Today, more than four decades later, the complex remains an important command center, though in 2006 the military announced that it would now serve primarily as a backup facility (on "warm standby," in military jargon).

From 1985 to 1988, in the waning years of the cold war, as a young Air Force lieutenant, my job took me inside that mountain citadel. The approach to it wasn't in any way awesome, since the mountain, at the south end of the Front Range, is overshadowed by Pike's Peak. Except for all the communication antennas blinking red at night, you'd hardly know it was the site of a major command center for nuclear war. Yet each time I drove up its access road, its solid granite bulk made an impression; so, too, did the security fence topped by cameras and razor wire, the police toting M-16s and the massive access tunnel, bored out of solid rock and paved for vehicular traffic that still leads inside the mountain to the actual command center.

Like cereal-box atomic decoder rings and "duck and cover" exercises, the complex is a relic of the cold war era. I entered on a bus that, though painted Air Force blue, was similar to the ones I had taken in grade school. On a few nights I left work after the last bus had taken off and had to hike the third of a mile out of the tunnel, a claustrophobic and often bone-chilling experience in the windy and wintry Rockies--until, that is, you emerged into a starry night above, with the lights of the city twinkling below.

Of that mountain, meant to corral and contain our nuclear fears, what struck most first-time visitors were the steel-reinforced blast doors, more than ten feet high and several feet thick. They were supposed to seal the complex, protecting it from a nuclear strike. Then there were the enormous springs (1,319 in all) on which each of the fifteen buildings inside the mountain rest. I liked to think of them as giant (if immobile) Slinkies. As visitors got their bearings, they were sometimes disconcerted by the bolts embedded in the granite walls and ceiling. These held wire mesh, meant to stabilize the rock and protect against falling shards. Exposed pipes and cables gave the mountain a style that might be termed "early industrial chic"--one you sometimes see echoed today in high-end lofts and dance clubs.

The blast doors were usually open--except, of course, during "exercises," when the mountain "buttoned up" its self-contained world. Along with enough food and other provisions to weather any initial rounds of earthly devastation, the mountain also had four freshwater reservoirs, each with a holding capacity of 1.5 million gallons. The inside joke was that the complex, technically an Air Force station, had its very own navy--the rowboats used to cross the reservoirs (though, sad to say, I never used one). Today, when I think of them, the River Styx and Charon come to mind.

Images of the underworld were then, and remain, all too appropriate. By the time I was inside Cheyenne Mountain, we knew it was vulnerable to a new generation of high-yield, highly accurate Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In case of a full-fledged nuclear war, as a popular poster of the 1970s put it, we had no doubt that we could "bend over and kiss your ass goodbye."

The citadel that had been built to ensure official survival during a planetary holocaust was, by then, sure to be among the initial targets struck by those ICBMs--perhaps a dozen or more warheads--to ensure a "first-strike kill." Our job was simply to detect the coming nuclear attack by the Soviets and act quickly enough to coordinate a retaliatory strike--to ensure that the Soviet part of the planet went down--before we were obliterated, along with Colorado Springs (a "target-rich" city that includes Fort Carson to the south, Peterson Air Force Base to the east and the US Air Force Academy to the north).

Launched over the North Pole from missile fields in the USSR, those Soviet ICBMs would explode over American cities in thirty minutes. Reacting before they hit placed a premium on decisions based on computers and early-warning satellites. Due to the hair-trigger nature of such a scenario, human errors and system malfunctions were inevitable. One false alarm came on November 9, 1979, when a technician mistakenly loaded a training tape that simulated a full-scale Soviet missile attack. Two false alarms followed less than a year later, on June 3 and June 6, 1980, and were eventually traced, according to an official Air Force release, to a defective integrated circuit, a silicon chip that cost less than $100. In each case, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) alerted ICBM crews and scrambled air crews to nuclear-armed B-52s, which were warming up engines for takeoff before the alarms were rescinded.

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