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Norad at 60: The Mission Continues to Evolve

Cheyenne Mountain Portal

Cheyenne Mountain Portal

For 60 years, NORAD has kept a watchful eye on the skies – and called Colorado Springs home.

On May 12, 1958, the U.S. and Canada formalized the NORAD Agreement, calling for a shared air defense command. While that date is being celebrated this year as NORAD's 60th anniversary, the command actually had been operational for nine months before the agreement became official, says Brian Laslie, deputy command historian for NORAD and USNORTHCOM. "The military was a little bit ahead of the power curve on that one," he says.

The agreement was a natural extension of U.S-Canadian ties reaching back to the 1940 Ogdensburg Agreement, which preceded America's entry into World War II and called for the establishment of a joint American-Canadian board to coordinate the defense of North America. As neighbors, "it only made sense for the two nations to work together," Laslie says.

"What makes NORAD different than any other military organization in the world is that it is that binational organization, two nations agreeing to work cooperatively on air defense issues."

NORAD was first located at the now-defunct Ent Air Force Base, today the site of the U.S. Olympic Training Center.  But that home was a short-lived one. Even as NORAD began operations, "the idea of a hardened shelter was already being explored," Laslie says. "As the threat of a Soviet atomic strike on America's heartland became a very real fear, the need to find a reinforced, hardened shelter kind of developed throughout the U.S. military."

That shelter was Cheyenne Mountain. The Army Corps of Engineers supervised excavation of the mountain; groundbreaking was in 1961 and the facility became fully operational as the NORAD Combat Operations Center on April 20, 1966.

Thanks to movies such as "War Games," NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain are one and the same in many people's minds, Laslie says. But in 2006, NORAD's daily operations were moved to Peterson Air Force Base as a joint command with U.S. Northern Command. Two years later, on the 50th anniversary of the NORAD agreement, the Cheyenne complex was officially designated as the NORAD and USNORTHCOM Alternate Command Center. Several other defense agencies also have a presence inside the underground bunker.

Cheyenne Mountain endures, at least in part, because of "some great engineering that went into it that is still relevant today, "says Steve Rose, deputy director of Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. If you look back at the Cold War threat of a Soviet strike, he says, "a lot of the components that went into that survivability are still valid for the threats that we face today and tomorrow." The mountain's granite walls, for example, help protect against electromagnetic pulses, which can result from a nuclear attack but also have emerged as a threat on their own.

Just as NORAD's operations have changed locations, the mission has evolved. One sign of that evolution: the name. NORAD began as the North American Air Defense Command and became the North American Aerospace Defense Command in 1981.

"What's going on there is a natural progression of our ability to monitor (threats)," Laslie says. As those threats grew from jet aircraft to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the technology evolved from ground-based radar to satellites and "the ability to monitor on a global scale."

In the 1980s, drug interdiction became part of NORAD's mission, with a role of detecting and tracking aircraft transporting drugs and reporting them to law enforcement. And after the attacks of 9/11, NORAD began Operation Noble Eagle; the ongoing air patrol mission works to defend the country against terrorist aggression from both within and outside the nation's air borders. While NORAD previously had monitored for external threats, "9/11 forced us to look internally," Laslie says.

While threats such as terrorism, a resurgent Russia and an erratic North Korea may have us thinking we live in overly complicated and threatening times, Laslie says, "I'm sure that the members of the command in the decades before us would probably say they lived in the very same times: How do we live with Soviet bombers that can fly over the United States? How do we live with intercontinental ballistic missiles that can fly over the poles?"

Still, he acknowledges today's challenges. Citing the old adage of may you live in interesting times, "we certainly perceive around here as living and operating in very interesting times," he says.

"America's Fortress"

NORAD is no longer headquartered inside Cheyenne Mountain, but the mountain complex remains an alternate command center for NORAD and about a dozen Department of Defense Agencies have a presence there.

Here are a few intriguing facts about Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station:

There are 15 structures inside the mountain. The buildings, most of them three stories tall, rest on massive springs so that they can sway but not be damaged in case of a nuclear blast or earthquake.
About 350 people work inside the mountain on a typical weekday.
Amenities include a gym, a hospital, a convenience store and a cafeteria called The Granite Inn.
Blodgett Peak was considered as a site for the station, but it had veins of soft rock that made it more susceptible to attack. "It's like having your egg pre-cracked," says Steve Rose, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station deputy director.

Rose has worked inside the mountain for years, but there still are moments, he says, "when I can't believe I work here. It's just an amazing place to work."