There are places that loom large in the annals of war, and in our collective imagination, places where no battles are fought, no shots are fired and where the loudest noise is the muted hum of powerful computer systems.
Think of the War Room at the Pentagon, the White House Situation Room, the mysterious “undisclosed location” to which Vice President Dick Cheney retreated during the aftermath of 9/11 … and right here in our back yard — Cheyenne Mountain.
Built in the early 1960s, Cheyenne Mountain was designed to provide a secure location, safe from nuclear attack, where sophisticated computer systems would watch for incoming missiles, ready to notify the president when a nuclear attack was imminent.
The underground Combat Operations Center was built to withstand a multimegaton nuclear blast within 1.5 miles. It was designed to be self-sufficient for 30 days, to house personnel during an emergency, and protect staff against radioactive fallout and biological and chemical warfare.
The main entrance to the complex is about a third of a mile from the North Portal via a tunnel which leads to a pair of 25-ton steel blast doors. Behind them are 15 steel buildings situated in a 4.5 acre cave complex — sheltered by 2,000 feet of granite. Twelve of these buildings are three stories tall; the others are one and two stories. The buildings are supported on giant springs, originally intended to protect the vacuum-tube computers of the era from the shock waves associated with a nuclear explosion.
Featured in a dozen movies (e.g., “Fail-Safe,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Wargames”), and closed to all but “essential personnel,” the Combat Operations Center at Cheyenne Mountain was thought to be the epicenter of the Cold War, the point at which a million data streams coalesced.
There, in a vast underground cavern crisscrossed by spidery catwalks, scores of vigilant men and women monitored giant video screens which showed every object in the sky. Top-secret computer systems gave the cave-dwellers unimaginable access to real-time information.
On a raised dais sat a senior officer, his hand only inches from the red phone that would connect him instantly with the president … a call which we all prayed would never be made.
At least, that’s what we imagined, thanks to the movies. The reality is a little more prosaic, as a disappointed Phil Patton wrote in “Wired”:
“… here at the mountain, the rooms are tiny, almost claustrophobic. Wide-angle lenses have lied. Hollywood has invented and exaggerated. There is no grand war room, no single center, no mad colonel trying to start World War III. Expedia has sexier maps.
“I’m disappointed. Where is the Big Room with the Big Board? I’m not alone in this letdown. According to one story (which may be apocryphal), shortly after being elected, President Reagan asked to see the war room at Cheyenne Mountain. He had imagined something soaring and Kubrickian, and he also came away feeling cheated. It all appears not so very different from a corporate data-processing center.”
Those sophisticated computers?
“In 1980, a multiplexer chip failed in a Nova 840 computer and sent a false missile warning to the national command center. It was the second such incident in less than a year. In the first one, fake data from a war-sim(ulation) was mistaken for the real thing, and the Pentagon was notified that a Soviet missile strike was under way. It took about eight minutes to determine that the end of the world was not, in fact, at hand.”
Now-retired computer technician Paul Stolz, who worked in the mountain for 12 years, vividly remembers the false alarm.
“There was a defective chip in one of the 840s, and they called me to come up there and fix it at 4 a.m. I was working on it, and there were a couple of colonels and two or three generals hovering over me. One of the colonels cracked a joke, and the other colonel started to laugh, until the senior general turned around and said ‘If you think this is so goddamn funny, you can just get the hell out of here!’ I don’t think those colonels laughed again for a long time!”
Still, the bugs in the new system were nothing compared with the problem inherent in the DEC Vaxes of the era. An entire world war would have had to run using only 512 megabytes of RAM. Despite movie visions of dozens of little icons swimming across a big screen to menace the United States, the Cheyenne Mountain system could track only a limited number of targets without refreshing — just 50 of them overwhelmed it.
Today, Cheyenne Mountain is no longer the epicenter of anything. Distributed, multi-nodal information systems (does the word “Internet” come to mind?) have made obsolete the single central command and control center. Even the movies have caught on — remember “Terminator 3,” in which Cheyenne Mountain (relocated to California) is simply a bomb shelter full of old computer stuff? The villainous supercomputer that’s about to destroy the world doesn’t exist, except as a disembodied, self-aware network.
But, according to Stolz, Cheyenne Mountain became irrelevant once missile targeting became more precise. “When it was built, ICBM’s weren’t very accurate — but now they could just about put a nuke in the front door and vaporize the whole complex.”
Having concluded that the mountain is not presently relevant as a military installation, the Air Force is slowly mothballing the facility by putting it on “warm shutdown” — the military equivalent of boxing up stuff that you no longer need, but aren’t ready to throw away.
So here it sits, this fascinating place which so few have visited, and about which so many are curious. If ever it becomes military surplus, what should it be used for?
We asked Terry Sullivan, the CEO of Experience Colorado Springs at Pikes Peak, formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau, a simple question: would it work as a tourist attraction?
“Oh sure!” he said. “You and I could sit down and come up with 25 creative ideas in a few hours on how to market it, how to present it. There’s nothing like it in the world. There’s just an endless array of people who’d be interested — Star Trek fans, science fiction fans, former military, history buffs. You could accommodate people overnight, do computer war games — the interest level would be very, very high.”
“It’d be one of our top five attractions, properly marketed and presented — you could expect 300-400,000 visitors annually.”
And what would be the economic impact?
“Let’s see, 6 million visitors creates a $1 billion impact, so 400,000 would mean about $65 million,” Sullivan said. “And if the military just relocates all of its personnel from the mountain to Peterson, there wouldn’t be any economic loss to the community from the closure, so it’d be a great project. But you’d have to do it fairly soon, while people still remember the Cold War — in 20 years it might not attract so much interest.”
Northcom/NORAD public affairs director Michael Kucharek agrees that the mountain could be a great tourist destination.
“We get requests all the time — from Germany, from countries all over the world,” he said. “It’s such an iconic structure — people are fascinated by it. The other day we were talking about it, and we thought if they can charge 10 or 15 bucks to see Seven Falls, what would people pay to see Cheyenne Mountain?”
But, he said, it’s not going to happen.
“Cheyenne Mountain really does play an important role — it’s a very, very relevant piece of what we do. It gives us that ultimate hardened facility, if we ever have that need. It’ll remain a designated alternate command and control center, it’ll continue to be upgraded. We’ll use it for additional training. Cheyenne Mountain is not going away.”