Friday, July 28, 2006

Dropping Our Guard?

Military to put Cheyenne Mountain on standby

DenverPost - The military is relegating its newly renovated airspace and missile defense complex in Cheyenne Mountain to standby status - clouding the future of a Cold War nerve center touted as the most secure spot in America.

The green-jumpsuited sentries who electronically scan the skies from deep inside this granite cocoon southwest of Colorado Springs - built in the 1960s to withstand Soviet nuclear blasts - now are to blend into broader homeland defense operations under prairie skies at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.

"I can't be in two places at one time," said Adm. Tim Keating, commander of both U.S. Northern Command, set up in 2002 to fight terrorism, and North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Both NORAD and Northcom have their headquarters at Peterson.

U.S. strategists created the mountain complex to prevent nuclear missile and bomber attacks. But today the government's best intelligence "leads us to believe a missile attack from China or Russia is very unlikely," Keating said in an interview this week.

The emergence of varied terrorist threats such as suicide bombers "is what recommends to us that we don't need to maintain Cheyenne Mountain in a 24/7 status. We can put it on 'warm standby,"' Keating said.

Just how warm depends on money to maintain the complex, military officials said. Keating said his goal is to be able to fire up the complex in an hour.

Keating today is scheduled to announce the decision he made after consulting with military chiefs in Washington. He'll move 230 surveillance crewmembers and an undetermined number of about 700 support staffers - as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The time frame: within two years.

Now military analysts ponder strategic implications of a move that reflects a growing concern with terrorism by small groups against a military superpower.

While odds of a nuclear missile attack now seem slim, "take it 15 years down the road," said John Pike, director of Global Security, a Washington think tank. "Maybe the Chinese will try to take us on. They might start blowing up military targets. And though currently we're not concerned about the Russians, that may change. What would be required to get back into that mountain?".

The decision to move surveillance crews out followed an internal study launched in February. The study explored consolidation of two overlapping surveillance operations - the one in the mountain and the new homeland defense center at Peterson, about 12 miles from the mountain at the eastern edge of Colorado Springs.

There, homeland defense surveillance crews surrounded by wall-sized video screens try to detect and track threats - with access to the same data available inside the mountain.

These crews track threats as varied as U.S.-bound ships carrying unidentified cargo and suspicious cars idling around power plants.

Today, protecting America is increasingly complicated, said Army Col. Tom Muir, who directs the new center and helped run the internal study. "Is Hezbollah going to attack the United States?" he asked.

During the 9/11 attacks, the NORAD commander at the time, Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, was caught shuttling from headquarters at Peterson to the mountain command post and couldn't receive telephone calls as senior officials weighed how to respond.