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Mountain battle on the Hill

Senators yet to take a stand on House effort to delay NORAD transition


Cheyenne Mountain Air Stations days might be - numbered as the active nucleus for NORADs everyday - operations.
  • Cheyenne Mountain Air Stations days might be numbered as the active nucleus for NORADs everyday operations.

If anything goes wrong, the "I told you so" crowd can certainly point their fingers. That is, if there's anyone left.

Should it prove reckless, U.S. Northern Command's push to move Cheyenne Mountain surveillance operations to a Peterson Air Force Base office building basement could yield catastrophic results.

To recap: Former U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, has fretted that terrorists could detonate a truck bomb on a street outside Peterson. A former official has warned that a corporate jet could simply veer off-path to the city's municipal airport and smash into the Peterson building in seconds.

Either scenario could wreak havoc with the nation's ability to detect and respond during an attack, even a nuclear strike.

Moreover, financial advantages to the move are hazy at best, according to the Government Accountability Office study from earlier this year.

Raising concerns

The red flags were enough for U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the House Readiness Subcommittee, to push for a delay in moving NORAD operations out of Cheyenne Mountain. Ortiz inserted a call for more study of the proposal in the defense-spending bill earlier this year.

"You don't want to move too fast, screw up and go, "Oh wow, my bad,'" says Ortiz spokeswoman Cathy Travis. "That is not what this country does."

Rep. Mark Udall, the Eldorado Springs Democrat who has Colorado's only seat on the House Armed Services Committee, stepped up next in July, issuing a strong statement saying he is unconvinced the transition is in "our national security interests."

Colorado's senators have yet to take a stand, and the Senate version of the spending bill, set to proceed in coming weeks, doesn't have a mirror to Ortiz's provision.

Sen. Ken Salazar is still considering the implications of the proposal, according to his spokesman, Cody Wertz.

Letters between the senator and NorthCom/North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) commander Gen. Gene Renuart show the senator is doing his homework.

"Some questions remain to be answered," Wertz says.

Steve Wymer, a spokesman for Sen. Wayne Allard, essentially says the same.

"Things could change over the next month," Wymer says, "but right now there is nothing in the bill."

Allard's influence

Allard is a key figure as a member of the Senate-House conference committee that will hash out differences between the two spending bills. In short, he's in a position to act or not.

At times, Allard has been publicly agitated by the plan to move NORAD. In April, his office released a letter worrying the mountain would close instead of being placed on "warm standby," as Adm. Timothy Keating, former commander of NorthCom/NORAD, has promised.

Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for NorthCom/NORAD, says via e-mail that Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is not going to be shuttered. Rather, it is set to eventually become an "alternate command center" and training facility.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne sent a July 27 letter to Allard, confirming the idea of Cheyenne Mountain evolving into an alternate command center, saying, "The Air Force understands the important National Security missions CMAFS supports, and we have no current plans to close this base."

The transition to Peterson is an "essential element for an effective response to the full spectrum of threats to the United States and Canada," Kucharek says.

"When consolidation is concluded, for the first time our nation will have a completely modern, integrated center for warning and homeland defense operations in all domains air, space, land, maritime and cyber at a single location."

However, Wynne's letter to Allard made no reference to Peterson.

Kucharek concedes that analysis remains incomplete regarding the risks of bringing air and missile tracking abilities to Peterson. NorthCom/NORAD, he says, is conducting analysis of security implications, as is Sandia National Laboratories.

"We will include the recommendations in our integration plans," Kucharek says, adding that the studies are classified and cannot be released.

The drive to the mountain from Peterson takes 20 to 25 minutes, and an official source familiar with the mountain says that's too much time to waste.

Also, a high-altitude nuclear burst over the southwestern U.S. would shut down every computer and vehicle reliant on electronics west of the Mississippi River, likely preventing personnel from reaching the mountain. There is also the possibility, of course, of weather problems.

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