Archive | 7.11 - Nov 1999 | Feature

Going Ballistic!

A hacker tourist explores the deep recesses of fabled Air Force stronghold Cheyenne Mountain, where the Cold War never stops.

By Phil Patton

It's a lovely day at Cheyenne Mountain. The sky is blue, the air is cool, and the threatcon level is alpha.

As threatcons go, alpha is pretty mild stuff - it's the first level up from no threat at all, and this alpha is on the wane. It started several months ago, when rumors of a terrorist threat from abroad caused a brief hubbub and a slight increase in security. Nothing too exciting happened, though: The Air Force didn't even shut down the tourist visits - and today, as I drive up the twisting blacktop into the Rockies' Front Range, everything is basically peaceful at America's most legendary Cold War military installation. Doomsday anxiety ain't what it used to be.

Buried deep inside the rock, not far from Pikes Peak and just a few miles from Colorado Springs, the Cheyenne Mountain base is home to Norad, the nuke-tracking North American Aerospace Defense operations center, and Spadoc, the Space Defense Operations Center, which keeps tabs on satellites and other objects in orbit. For more than 30 years, Cheyenne has functioned as the Fort Apache of America's early-warning system - the ultimate lookout station for death from above, and one of the very few sites that give tangible meaning to the elusive concept of nuclear deterrence.

The US has other hubs of detection and alert: the Pentagon's National Military Command Center, the White House Situation Room, and the Strategic Command - aka Stratcom - near Omaha, Nebraska, which oversees the offensive deployment of nuclear weapons. But Cheyenne Mountain, with its brooding, tunneled entryway and blastproof doors, has always loomed largest in the public imagination. It's the conning tower of Armageddon.

"Cheyenne Mountain is one of the truly mythic locales of the modern era," says John Pike, a policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists who tracks nuclear-defense issues. "It's a place where America contemplates ultimate reality and the void."

The mountain's $1.8 billion computer upgrade may be the most nightmarish ever.

By day, the mountain bristles with antennas; by night, it's dotted with red lights. But this hardware doesn't belong to the mountain - it's the rigging of privately owned TV and phone relays. Downhill from this once isolated site, Colorado Springs has sprawled outward and upward. On the 5-mile drive to the visitor center's parking lot at 7,500 feet, you pass a shopping mall with a Target store. Cheyenne Mountain has been a roadside attraction since the early '60s; about 20,000 tourists drop by every year. Visitors start out at a Park Service-style welcome center, complete with educational exhibits: core samples of the mountain's solid granite, big metal rock bolts, and a huge spring that looks like an Acme gizmo from a Road Runner cartoon. It's 4 feet long and weighs 1,000 pounds.

At the visitor center, I meet my guide, US Army captain Jeff Dean, a friendly but all-business military type who tells me about the springs. There are 15 buildings inside the 4½ acres of bunker space. The structures, built by the Navy, are like clunky ships. Rectangular boxes made of 3/4-inch rolled steel, they range in size from a small room to a small house. The boxes "float" on these springs, 1,319 of them, designed to absorb what the mountain's official literature calmly calls "the seismic event associated with an atomic blast."

The US Air Force, which runs Cheyenne Mountain, invited me here because it wants to show off its new computer system, the result of a $1.8 billion overhaul that may be the most expensive and nightmarish upgrade ever attempted. One general compared the process to changing the engines of a jet in flight. Another likened it to turning a black-and-white TV into a color one without switching the set off.

The upgrade was outrageously tough because Cheyenne Mountain was burdened with a formidable legacy problem. Its Systems Center, in charge of the complex's hardware, networks, and software, maintains more than 12 million lines of code on 34 separate systems written in 27 languages. The site's array of machines, many of which survived this upgrade, encapsulates a history not just of the Cold War but of modern computing. Bearing old nameplates from companies like Honeywell and Data General, hardware that uses the hoary technologies of core memory and magnetic tape is still whirring away in there.

"We've even got one of those washing-machine computers somewhere," says Dean.

Washing-machine computers?

"The ones with the big tape reels that look like washing machines."

The upgrade started more than two decades ago, mainly to address Cheyenne Mountain's inability to process the increasing amounts of information fed into it. Despite this system weakness, the mountain has kept us safe since its inception - and the official word is that this latest upgrade makes us that much safer. But today, safety seems slightly beside the point. The Cold War is over. Despite its brass and bustle, Cheyenne Mountain has become an anachronism.

As far back as 1980, the Pentagon's assumption was that all the bunkering-in here was for naught - that Norad couldn't last more than half an hour or so in a targeted nuclear exchange. Although the mountain is the ultimate monument to "command and control" as an idea, in a real nuclear war the action would quickly switch over to mobile hubs. The president has a 747 called the National Airborne Operations Center, as well as the Commander-in-Chief Mobile Alternate Headquarters, a fleet of mysterious truck-based units that roam the nation's interstates. The Air Force maintains the Post Attack Battle Management Aircraft - better known as "Looking Glass," a flying duplicate of the mountain's systems - fueled and ready to go at all times.

Systems with mobile or multiple centers are the hardest to disable because they're less vulnerable to "decapitation." This principle is true for all wars, big or small, nuclear or not. Even a besieged dictator like Saddam Hussein can call the shots from a motor home and a dozen anonymous shelters while on the run.

After Desert Storm, the US military accelerated its move from the mainframe architecture of the Cold War to the PC model of warfare - quick, mobile, and locally directed. All of this contributes to an irony that defines Cheyenne Mountain now: The massive upgrade is completed, but the nodes have become more important than the supercomputing center.

While Cheyenne still watches over North American airspace, the heat has moved to the "theater" conflicts on foreign soil. (Indeed, the day after I visited, the US carried out a military air strike that barely caused a ripple at the mountain.) During the high-speed information flows of wars to come, Cheyenne Mountain will surely end up functioning as just one node among many - even as it symbolizes the seat of command in America's global I-war network.

Truth be told, I'm still excited to be here, partly out of nostalgia. I grew up in the '60s, when Cheyenne Mountain shadowed our lives with a mixture of anxiety and reassurance. Those of us raised on visions of SAC and the Big Board went to bed vaguely aware that Norad was keeping us safe. One night a year, Cheyenne Mountain spoke to us directly. Every Christmas Eve a bulletin came crackling over my transistor radio: Norad was reporting a radar blip heading our way from the North Pole. Death and destruction could come roaring over the Arctic Circle, but toys arrived by the same route. Santa was akin to Ike.

Captain Dean and I hitch a ride from the tourist area into the mountain with a busload of tight-lipped workers. The stone and concrete arches of the tunnel entrance are wreathed with razor wire. Before going on, all vehicles must pause in a special cage to be checked, whether they're delivering computers, frozen food, or journalists.

Dean escorts me to what he calls the village - there's a dentist's office, a barbershop, a chapel, and six battle stations.

From this point on, I exist in the land of the military brief, a no-frills unit of discourse made up of canned facts and figures that don't tell you much. Gallons of stored water: 4.5 million. Miles of tunnel: 2.8. Cubic feet of hollowed-out space: 7 million. Number of rock bolts preventing implosion: 115,000. Number of full-time bolt-tighteners on the job: 2. The stats are spiced with whimsical factoids. I'm told that "the world's smallest fleet," a single rowboat, patrols the little underground lake that holds the mountain's water supply.

Once we're in the cave, Dean and I pass few others. The quietly ubiquitous fluorescent lights give the place a ghostly pall. I'm used to the New York subway - hot in the summer, cold in the winter - and I ask the captain about the climate down here. Conditions, I learn, are never quite hot or cold: The heat from the computers keeps the work area's temperature at 72 degrees.

Dean escorts me to what he calls a village - a cluster of buildings that looks like a cross between a trailer park and a fleet at anchor. On the 3-D map of Cheyenne Mountain's interior, the village is represented by a crisscrossed grid of tubes. There's a dentist's office, a barbershop, a chapel, and six battle stations. Five crews of 40 men and women rotate in eight-hour shifts. Some 1,200 people work here regularly. In wartime, 800 could live underground for a month with food, water, air, and power.

The role of this skyless facility is to detect airborne attacks on the US and Canada, and to communicate those dangers to military and civilian leaders. Norad, of course, looks out for incoming nukes and bombers. Spadoc's main mission is monitoring the vast supply of space junk. There are about 8,500 orbiting objects to track, from Mir right down to booster bolts. Even the tiniest piece of orbiting flotsam can destroy a satellite or spacecraft. When the space shuttle is flying, Spadoc makes sure there's a 6-mile-square "safety box" around it.

Both Norad and Spadoc are manned from buildings in the village. To enter the Missile Warning Center, a typical structure, I climb a short set of metal steps. The door seals with a rubber-gasket squish behind me. Once it closes, the cavernous feeling is gone. The dropped ceilings, industrial carpet, desks, and shelves are all generic. Efficient young professionals sit at the terminals, just as they would in the back office of any bank or brokerage. It's Dullsville incarnate. Seeing the boredom on my face, the officer in charge gamely pretends that an attack is under way.

"We have a familiar pattern," he says. "We recognize it as an IRBM." An intermediate-range ballistic missile is better news than an intercontinental (ICBM), but still plenty bad. The phosphoric tendril of its track grows menacingly up and across the gridded map. I'm watching as the faux missile heads from Russia toward the Barents Sea. Where it could land is indicated by the "threat fan," a shape that forecasts its ultimate trajectory.

A few doors away, in the Battle Management Center, I watch a Royal Canadian Air Force officer toss up a video image of the tourists on Cheyenne Mountain's front lawn. It's in black and white, draining away the bright sunlight I know is there. His monitors can display maps, videos, and charts, as well as feeds from the PAVE PAWS - radar facilities in Massachusetts and California. The ultimate nodes of the hardwired network, the PAVE PAWS are housed in huge structures whose walls tilt at 20-degree angles, looking like the futuristic temples of a cult.

The farthest-flung element in the sensorium is a constellation of Defense Support Program satellites. "Each satellite is about the size of a Suburban," Dean says. "The exact number of them is classified." I've read that there are five: four parked in geostationary orbits, and a fifth wobbling lamely around the planet.

Each year, some 700 airborne objects caught in this military nerve net remain unidentified for more than two minutes. Most are small planes without flight plans. A hundred or so might be drug runners; others might be aircraft belonging to Cuban liberation groups flirting with Castro's airspace. Very rarely, a satellite falls to the earth - like Skylab did in 1979. Beside Spadoc's gleaming new computers are chunks of metal that have tumbled back from space. I had always thought of satellites as light and lean, but these fragments resemble pieces of cannon.

Cheyenne Mountain was conceived in the wake of Sputnik, whose October 1957 launch dealt a deep psychological blow to the US government. Suddenly the entire continent seemed vulnerable. Russia had the means to lob a nuke at the White House or New York City, not to mention Conad, the Continental Air Defense command, which was Norad's predecessor. Conad, housed in a few cinder-block buildings at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, had begun research into new underground headquarters only the year before. In May of 1961 an official groundbreaking at Cheyenne Mountain took the form, appropriately, of a small ceremonial explosion to mark the start of the dig. The dynamite was lit just as the crisis in Berlin was heating up.

A lot of pioneering computer science work was done for Conad. The need to track aircraft and, later, missiles and satellites created a demand for computers that could display images and receive information in real time. After World War II, a radar-based detection system was created to search for Soviet bombers bearing nuclear weapons. It used triangulation from many small radar stations to pinpoint them. But the math involved was well beyond the average GI and his slide rule. To develop a computer that could do the job, the government funded SAGE, the largest military program since the Manhattan Project. Along the way, the Pentagon created dozens of now-familiar desktop technologies, including modems, light pens, and graphic screens.

Norad was proud to be at the cutting edge as well as on the front line. But the laws of computer obsolescence are as unyielding as mountain rock: Staying on that edge meant constant change. Here, where endurance and stolidity are sum and substance, the fevered progress of computer technology is a bit out of place.

This last upgrade is only the latest in a parade of past-due improvements. By May 1966, only a month after Norad first brought its operations to the mountain, the generals were already telling higher-ups the computers would need a complete overhaul. In 1971, an upgrade intended to bring the mountain in sync with other military systems tapped David Packard of HP for help. Packard's work ended in 1979, when the mountain's system was declared to have "equivalent operational capability" to what had come before. In other words, the new system finally worked as reliably as the old one did in 1966.

In 1980, a multiplexer chip failed in a Nova 840 computer and sent a false missile warning to the national command center. It was the second such incident in less than a year. In the first one, fake data from a war-sim was mistaken for the real thing, and the Pentagon was notified that a Soviet missile strike was under way. It took about eight minutes to determine that the end of the world was not, in fact, at hand. As the military's pricelessly deadpan postmortem concludes, "This aroused widespread public and congressional interest."

Each year, 700 airborne objects caught in the military nerve net remain unidentified for more than two minutes.

During the Reagan years, the Gipper's get-tougher-with-the-Evil Empire policy included planning for extended nuclear war. Reaganites saw the USSR girding for combat by digging a network of hardened facilities, including Beloretsk-15 and Beloretsk-16, underground cities near the Urals designed to survive a nuclear confrontation. The Russian equivalent of Cheyenne Mountain appeared to be a place called Yamantau Mountain. Even today, these sites worry US planners. Rumors persist of a still-intact system, called Dead Hand, that fires missiles automatically, like Dr. Strangelove's doomsday machine.

By the mid-'80s, in response to both the false alerts and the Soviet activity, six separate upgrades, under six separate commanders, were in place at Cheyenne. All fell behind schedule. By 1989, it was clear that the fragmented approach wasn't going to cut it. The programs were finally consolidated in 1993 under the name Granite Sentry, and Martin Marietta took over, tossing out much of what had been done.

The project presented, on a giant scale, all the problems of upgrading any complex network. The task was to harmoniously merge Norad's and Spadoc's many systems and subsystems: the Battle Management Center System, the Message Processing Subsystem, the Video Distribution Subsystem, the Integrated Correlation and Display System, and the Survivable Communication System Segment Replacement - a kind of network bypass.

The old Model 630 DEC Vax 7000 mission processors were supplemented by Sun hardware running the Solaris OS. Off-the-shelf software, mostly from Digital and Sybase, was used when possible. The real challenge was linking the commercial packages with Cheyenne's custom code, written in Ada, a language only the military can love.

There were bugs, of course. A version of the software for the Integrated Correlation and Display System developed a tic: It multiplied blast megatonnage by 10. Of this error, corrected in 1997, a Department of Defense investigator wrote, "If not found and fixed, this deficiency may have affected decisionmaking at the highest national level." An Air Force document noted dryly that the bug "could have resulted, at the very least, in ambiguity in the data provided to key decisionmakers. At worst, this error may have led to miscalculations in our national military posture with potentially serious consequences." The finished system, we are assured, is Y2K compliant, but on New Year's Eve there will be Russian military observers at Cheyenne Mountain, just in case.

Still, the bugs in the new system were nothing compared with the problem inherent in the DEC Vaxes. An entire world war would have had to run using only 512 Mbytes of RAM. Despite movie visions of dozens of little icons swimming across a big screen to menace the US, the Cheyenne Mountain system could track only a limited number of targets without refreshing - just 50 of them overwhelmed it. Your average office server is more powerful.

The Cold War, we now know, was as much about appearances as reality. The bomber gap of the late '50s, for example, was clever disinformation: The Soviets simply flew the same squadron of bombers over the Kremlin again and again. There was a lot of showbiz to geopolitics, a lot of bluff. But Hollywood has done more for the Cheyenne myth - buffing its reputation as a symbol of American readiness - than any propaganda department could ever do.

The war rooms in Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and WarGames all have high ceilings and long mezzanines with neatly exposed metal stairways. They contain big boards with nearly magical tracking abilities. On the screens in Fail-Safe, from 1964, airplanes blink and disappear as they fall from the sky. Air-to-air missiles zip back and forth. Even today, this is impossible.

So, trundling from brief to brief and station to station, my head buzzing with acronyms, I'm disappointed. Where is the Big Room with the Big Board? I'm not alone in this letdown. According to one story (which may be apocryphal), shortly after being elected, President Reagan asked to see the war room at Cheyenne Mountain. He had imagined something soaring and Kubrickian, and he also came away feeling cheated.

A war room is the ideal set for ponderings on man versus machine, a Cold War specialty. But here at the mountain, the rooms are tiny, almost claustrophobic. Wide-angle lenses have lied. Hollywood has invented and exaggerated. There is no grand war room, no single center, no mad colonel trying to start World War III. Expedia has sexier maps.

It all appears not so very different from a corporate data-processing center. I come to think of the mountain's different roles - patrolling for planes, missiles, and satellites - as resembling the pieces of a suite of applications. Except for the martial acronyms, I could be on a guided tour of Office 2000.

At the start of my journey I was reading everything as cinema or symbol. The two huge doors at the mountain's entrance had reassured me the way the doors to the vault at a bank do. Even more so, because each is 3 feet thick and weighs 25 tons. On the walk back, though, the back-lot images of omnipotence start to fade. I notice for the first time that the walls are crumbling; they seep in places. Nets line the ceiling. Here and there, water drips. Cheyenne is, after all, a huge cave. I pass a piece of machinery about the size of a person. At its base is a small cone of white powder. I wonder: Is it flour, to be stockpiled? Lime, to anoint the dead?

The real challenge was linking the commercial packages with Cheyenne's custom code, written in Ada, a language only the military can love.

"What's that for?" I ask, pointing.

"That," says Captain Dean, "is the world's finest paper shredder."

Remember when our embassy in Iran was taken over and the Ayatollah's followers painstakingly reassembled our secrets from millimeter-wide tatters? The military-industrial complex has perfected the document shredder in response, as usual, to a long-ago war. That device is like Cheyenne Mountain, post-upgrade. We have finally, at great cost and obsessive effort, gotten it to do what it was supposed to do in the '70s.

The years since the end of the Cold War have seen a relaxation of military pretense. One casualty has been the myth of presidential control over nuclear weapons. Despite the public's well-nurtured Cold War assumptions, a retaliatory nuclear attack would probably have been ordered not by the president, who was likely to be gone before Norad, but by the military. "Cascading authority," the analysts call it. Communications would also have quickly cascaded to the level of the phone system. The distributed telephone network can't be knocked out the way a command bunker can. Control of the nukes, then, would not have depended on presidential orders, but on AT&T. Decentralization, ironically, is the key to maintaining control.

Today this observation is no longer a perplexing and unwelcome paradox, but a widely held belief. In the world of computing, it's a truism, and even in the hierarchical world of defense, the paradigm of decentralized power is flourishing. The Air Force's New World Vistas report, created by an advisory panel of futurists and experts, contains a section, "Thinking the Unthinkable," which suggests the future may see a virtual Pentagon. In this vision, the old hardwired, dedicated, command-and-control system gives way to a far-flung network. The next world war could be controlled from any phone jack. With such systems, who will need the mountain?

Cheyenne will always be the repository of Cold War memories. It's already a working time capsule of the history of the computer. But it is more than that. As I drive back down the winding road from the mountaintop, it occurs to me that the icons I had seen on those monitors were the descendants of the prehistoric drawings scratched on the cave walls at Lascaux. The hardware has been upgraded, but the human software, the Big Game - whether gazelles or geopolitics - stays constant through the centuries.

In that sense, Cheyenne Mountain can never be obsolete, never be replaced. The ruins of the Maginot Line, the roads of Rome, the Führerbunker - all are pharaonic reminders of the frailty of imperial dreams. But the mountain, packed with sensors and silicon brains, is something else, too. It's a reminder of uncertainty.

Phil Patton ( is the author of Dreamland, a cultural history of Area 51, now in paperback from Villard.

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