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Mountain of risk

GAO draft report: Moving NORAD operations raises important cost, security issues


Building 2 at Peterson Air Force Base already houses - some NORAD operations. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Building 2 at Peterson Air Force Base already houses some NORAD operations.

Efforts to take NORAD operations out of Cheyenne Mountain are continuing, despite congressional intervention and the lack of answers to myriad questions regarding costs and risks to national security.

Most of the questions arise in a draft Government Accountability Office report obtained by the Independent.

The draft, sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates for comments before its anticipated release later this month, urges Congress to consider withholding money in order to prevent critical mountain operations from being scattered to other Air Force bases until the implications are fully understood.

It comes as sources warn the time-tested command center in the heart of the hollowed-out mountain will disintegrate amid the moves, potentially slowing the nation's ability to respond to a 9/11-style or nuclear-missile attack.

"Threats are on the horizon as they are taking apart the finest, most interactive command center in the world," a source familiar with the mountain's inner workings says, noting various concerns, including North Korea's growing missile program.

Commanders, the source says, have bought into such plans because they will have more prestige and broader control over their own personnel.

Adm. Timothy Keating, former commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and U.S. Northern Command, decided last year to move air warning and missile correlation from the mountain to the basement of an office building on Peterson Air Force Base.

The fast-paced effort would leave the mountain on "warm standby," with a skeletal crew. Two additional operations missile warning and space control also are scheduled to leave the mountain, for Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, respectively.

'An abundance of caution'

But the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, frustrated since last year in efforts to get details about costs and security, has placed a crimp in plans at least NORAD/NorthCom's.

The committee inserted language into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 that would delay any NORAD relocation and require a full report from the Pentagon regarding moving NORAD's air and missile operations to Peterson. The full House was considering the resolution as of press time.

NORAD/NorthCom spokeswoman Maj. April Cunningham, responding to questions about the committee's action via e-mail on Tuesday, said, "It is our policy not to comment on pending legislation."

However, she added that NORAD and NorthCom "continue to plan" for a transition initially scheduled to be complete by May 2008.

The House committee calls for a six-month wait once the Pentagon submits its report, and reserves an approval role for Congress, according to Cathy Travis, a spokesman for Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, chairman of the House Readiness Subcommittee.

Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, the only Coloradan on the committee, expects answers will finally come.

"The language in the authorization is pretty clear," says his spokesman, Lawrence Pacheco.

The resolution doesn't mention the move of the mountain's space-control center, manned by Air Force Space Command's 1st Space Control Squadron.

"NORAD's move that's a separate issue from our move," he said.


Yet the Vandenberg move lacks some of its needed $13 million, according to the GAO draft.

Moreover, "costs for any needed security upgrades at Vandenberg have not yet been determined, pending a security assessment that is scheduled to be completed in July 2007," according to the draft. It also notes commanders concluded a "hardened" facility, presumably a bunker like the mountain, isn't necessary to prevent attacks against the space operations.

Similarly, Strategic Command's plans to move missile warning to Schriever "have not yet been developed," according to the draft.

Easier said than done

Army Col. Tom Muir, overseeing the NORAD/NorthCom transition, has said the mountain will become a training center. He has also said troops should be able to return to conduct missions in the mountain in about one hour, should the need arise.

The 15.2-mile trip from Peterson takes about 20 to 25 minutes by vehicle on Colorado Springs streets.

Sources familiar with the mountain's security raise doubts that such a return is feasible during an emergency. The mountain would seal itself from the outside world, they say, including closing its 25-ton doors to protect from possible attacks.

Even bad weather could dramatically delay a return, sources say.

One source adds that the transitions could make it harder for Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, NORAD/NorthCom's commander since March, to assess information during an attack. Currently, Renuart receives a fully integrated risk assessment from a mountain commander in order to give the secretary of defense or president timely, critical information.

With the transitions, Renuart would receive "unassessed" information from several generals, each with their own interests, potentially hampering a response time that is measured in minutes.

Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for NORAD/NorthCom, disagrees and says that the transition will "streamline" the process of responding to threats.

"We all use the same systems to get the situational awareness we're after, and that's not going to change," Kucharek says. "We're not breaking up the functions."

As for Peterson's Building 2, the source says some critical information coming from the mountain is susceptible to interference.

Add to that concerns by former Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who has fretted a truck bomb detonated near the base could be decimating (see "Bad Move?" May 3, In the same story, a high-ranking former officer familiar with Peterson security said a corporate jet loaded up with fuel could suddenly veer off a landing approach at Colorado Springs Municipal Airport and hit the building within 10 seconds, creating chaos.

An official protection level has never been designated for the building's basement, the GAO draft found. An assessment for that is underway, but the GAO, quoting an official, noted that if funding or other constraints prevent NORAD/NorthCom from meeting requirements, the installations might have to request waivers that permit lower-than-necessary security perhaps for years.

An Air Force assessment of security that would "detect, delay, deny and neutralize a threat" at Peterson won't be done until August or September, the draft states. That assessment doesn't "specifically examine procedures" for defending against a chemical or biological attack.

And a study by Sandia National Laboratories on the Peterson transition will provide, later this month, an assessment of costs associated with protecting mountain computers that track air, missile and space events from man-made and natural threats while exploring the feasibility of moving them to Peterson, according to the draft.

But Keating, allegedly frustrated by driving between mountain and Peterson command rooms during a 2005 training exercise, pushed for the transition.

He said moving functions to Peterson would save $150 million to $200 million, according to the GAO draft, and received the backing of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a February 2006 memo.

The GAO found "no evidence" to support Keating's assertion, identifying instead at least $41.7 in one-time costs and $5.5 million in recurring costs related to the move.

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