- File photo
- According to a Defense Department study, the Cold War-era Cheyenne Mountain bunker remains a more secure option for surveillance operations than Peterson Air Force Base.
The Independent has obtained documents that raise new doubts concerning U.S. Northern Command's assurance of a rapid return to Cheyenne Mountain planned for "warm standby" status during an emergency.
The documents, which appear to have come from the Defense Department Program Analysis and Evaluation Office, paint a dire picture of what could happen in a sneak attack on Peterson Air Force Base. That's where personnel in the future would perform the round-the-clock air, missile and space surveillance conducted for years inside Cheyenne Mountain.
Specifically, they indicate, information systems destroyed at Peterson would leave a president without details about the scope of such an attack in the minutes when having that information would be most critical.
Those documents also show that while there'd be enough equipment left in the mountain to communicate such vital information to the president, there might not be the personnel. A "successful surprise attack" would wipe out enough people at Peterson to render the mountain's equipment "unmanned and therefore unused."
NorthCom is planning in coming months to relocate the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, air and missile surveillance mission from Cheyenne Mountain to its headquarters building at Peterson. Space and other missile personnel are also moving from the mountain to Vandenberg and Schriever Air Force bases in California and east of Peterson, respectively.
A Pentagon spokeswoman verified that information the Independent obtained represents the Defense Department's "sensitive (most likely classified)" initial analysis of NORAD plans. Last week, the spokeswoman confirmed that the Defense Department had started such an analysis, but declined to describe it further.
The documents state that the mountain "has a much higher survivability than" the building at Peterson in several scenarios, including a nuclear attack.
With Cheyenne Mountain, "it would be extremely difficult to degrade" air and missile surveillance "capabilities through terrorist or non-strategic attack." Without the mountain, "three concerted conventional or asymmetric attacks would severely degrade our situation monitoring capability" and "critically" degrade the mission's "survivability against Chinese/Iranian/North Korean" no-warning attacks, according to the documents.
A House amendment in the 2008 defense authorization bill seeks to delay the transition to Peterson until more is known about costs and security implications. The Senate, however, did not support that amendment. So unless senators in a House-Senate conference committee agree to add it to the bill they send to the president, that amendment will die.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., ranking majority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is declining to comment until the committee has made up its mind, says his spokesman, Dave Pollock.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., part of the conference committee, stated his position in an interview last week with the Independent, calling the House amendment "ill-advised" and saying he was convinced that the transition is for the "better security of the country." Sources anonymously raising national-security concerns to his office, he added, mostly appeared concerned about losing their jobs.
Yet Allard's comments came without the benefit of his having seen the new Defense Department analysis, spokesman Steve Wymer conceded in a phone interview and follow-up via e-mail.
"Unfortunately, the senator has not reviewed this report at this time, so I won't be able to provide you comments for this story," Wymer wrote in the e-mail. "I'll let you know if he has a response regarding the report when our office receives a copy and the senator is able to fully review the details."
While not standing in the way of the transition, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., has amended the defense authorization bill to require Defense Secretary Robert Gates to answer questions about the operational benefits and costs of a NORAD "relocation" to Peterson. His spokesman, Cody Wertz, did not return a call by deadline asking whether the senator had a copy of the preliminary analysis.
More than a week ago, the Independent asked NorthCom officials a series of questions about the transition. They have not yet responded.
The Defense Department analysis also states that reversing the transition "saves" about $41 million in the fiscal year ending in 2008. In contrast, while "details are currently unknown" about the costs of modifying the "current path to improve survivability [at Peterson's NorthCom building] and obtain operational efficiencies," the price would be "likely high."
And by 2020, should China launch a nuclear attack, a tiny fraction of its arsenal would be 99 percent assured of destroying the sky surveillance mission if at Peterson, the documents say. If the mountain retains the mission, there is "up to an 85 percent chance" that "functions will survive."
John Pike, a leading defense expert and director of globalsecurity.org, says NorthCom's transition from the mountain is a "little difficult to understand," given that the nation has nuclear missiles ready to launch on "hair-trigger alert."
"Where the hell do they think they'll be getting the alert from?" he says of the transition to the Peterson Building 2 basement.
Pike also is puzzled by the move of Air Force Space Command's space control to Vandenberg, since the military in the past has argued that the expensive upgrades at the mountain required space and missile tracking systems to be "co-located," to avoid confusion that space debris could be incoming munitions, or vice versa.
In all, the transition assumes that the possibility of a nuclear war is low, Pike says, even as recent controversial United States missile defense plans in Europe have prompted Russians to put nuclear-capable bombers in the skies near U.S. territory.
"Russia's take-home message is that "We're paranoid and heavily armed,'" Pike says, adding that although Cold War political differences are long over, the same military tensions persist.