CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, Colo. (Reuters) - The U.S. military will move its secure command center from deep inside Cheyenne Mountain even as Russia revives military maneuvers that led America to burrow under the rock almost 50 years ago.
Construction on a new command center 12 miles away at Peterson Air Force Base is well under way despite security concerns that have driven some lawmakers to consider halting funding for the transition.
The move will shift more than 100 people responsible for detecting attacks on North America from a facility that sits under 2,000 feet of granite to a basement in an office building on the base that officials concede offers lower protection.
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, the U.S. commander responsible for homeland defense and protecting North American air space, says the switch is worth the risk of leaving a facility built to withstand the indirect effects of a multi-megaton nuclear blast.
It will combine operations now divided between Cheyenne and Peterson, helping the commander to receive information and respond to crises or attacks more quickly, Renuart said. It will not, however, save money as the military promised, congressional investigators have shown.
Renuart said the plan was the best way to make the most of resources currently split between the two Colorado locations.
“We can’t accommodate all of that integrated command and control capability in the mountain,” he said. “And so it makes sense to have that put in place where we can get the best unity of all of that effort, and that really is down here at Peterson.”
He said using communications technologies to link the two centers was no substitute for having everyone in one place.
But those arguments, offered repeatedly by defense officials for more than a year, come against a backdrop of tension between Washington and Moscow and Russia’s decision to resume long-range bomber missions common during the Cold War.
Russia, angered by U.S. plans to place missile defense assets in Eastern Europe, said the flights were resumed on a permanent basis due to security threats. In recent weeks, those flights have come near Alaska and Guam, a U.S. territory.
Those actions, coupled with China’s increasing military capabilities and concerns about the intentions of North Korea and Iran, have led some officials at Cheyenne to oppose the move out of the mountain.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harm to their careers, they say the new command center at Peterson cannot be protected from nuclear, chemical or biological attack and its systems will not be sufficiently hardened against an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast overhead.
A former senior defense official who led Pentagon efforts to close unneeded military bases said Cheyenne is one of just three facilities the United States should never close.
“Given the uncertainty of the future threat and the value of protected operation sites, that move seems to be excessively risky,” said David Berteau, now a consultant with Washington firm Clark & Weinstock.
Renuart characterized both Russia and China as partners and said Iran and North Korea were not yet capable of a precise strike in the middle of North America.
“You don’t necessarily want to live in the mountain just because it’s possible that that country may develop (capability),” he said of Pyongyang and Tehran.
But Col. Andre Dupuis, a Canadian officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Cheyenne-based U.S.-Canadian operation commanded by Renuart, bristled at a suggestion that North America does not face the threat Cheyenne was built to defend against. He said Russia may not intend to harm the United States but certainly has the capability.
“Threat is capability and intent,” Dupuis said. “They (the Russians) have a very useful, capable, powerful armed forces and they would be silly not to use them in whatever ways that are in their best national interests.”
“They have capability. I don’t believe they have intent,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean we ignore them then because there could be a threat.”