- CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, Colorado -- Hidden cameras photograph the undersides
of vehicles entering this top-secret complex one-third of a mile inside
this beautiful, 100-million-year-old mountain 7,100 feet above sea level.
- Twenty-two thousand visitors a year must
go through metal detectors, surrender cameras and beepers and are watched
by uniformed soldiers with guns. Inside the darkened command center, where
a four-star general sometimes comes to ascertain if the United States is
in danger, banks of virtual reality computer monitors plot developments
around the globe.
- Blast doors that can withstand 1.5 million
tons of TNT protect 1,250 people, 240 mainframe computers and nearly three
miles of tunnels and 15 buildings, 11 of them three stories high.
- Any time an unidentified plane flies
into U.S. airspace or whenever a missile is fired anywhere in the world,
crews on duty here 24 hours a day know it.
- But the folks at the Cheyenne Mountain
Air Station, men and women from the U.S. and Canadian military services
who run the operations center for the North American Air Defense Command,
the Air Force Space Command and the U.S. Space Command, are not satisfied.
- The Cold War is over, but they want Star
- As nations such as Iran and Iraq pursue
nuclear weapons, pressure is growing among Republicans in Congress to put
Ronald Reagan's old Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars"
by the press, on a faster track.
- Although $50 billion has been spent over
the last 15 years on the effort to develop a space-based shield against
nuclear missiles, it's still just a concept. There is as yet no way to
protect against incoming ballistic missiles; some scientists think it's
not feasible. Also, it would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty,
which holds that the best way to prevent nuclear war is for nations to
remain defenseless against missiles. Without the treaty, Russia might cancel
- But the possibility of terrorists firing
missiles at U.S. cities has given a new impetus to the Star Wars debate.
- Officials at Cheyenne Mountain, who make
it clear that they only assimilate information about missile launches and
pass it on to superiors to decide a U.S. response, are blunt about their
wishes. They'd like to see SDI go forward and they'd like to be in charge
- President Clinton is spending $4 billion
a year on missile defense research but won't decide until 2000 whether
to push for deployment, if possible, of an anti-ballistic missile defense
system by 2003.
- Most recently, House Speaker Newt Gingrich
has become a big supporter of spending money to try to develop such a system.
He is supported by conservative groups, including Gary Bauer's Family Research
Council, Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy and the Coalition to
- NORAD was established in response to
the Soviet Union's military and space advances in the 1940s and '50s. The
Cheyenne Mountain center, which sits on 1,319 springs each weighing 1,000
pounds to cushion personnel and equipment in event of a bomb blast or an
earthquake, set up shop in 1966 at a cost of $142 million (it would cost
$18 billion today). Its annual budget is $175 million.
- The facilities bear resemblance to James
Bond movies, although officials here complain "our No. 1 enemy is
Hollywood." They constantly, wearily insist they can't track UFOs,
don't have a computer named HAL that could start World War III and can't
launch anything or scan the horizon.
- The nature of the threat to the United
States has changed since the Cold War ended, but U.S. officials are still
nervous about rogue operators getting control of nuclear missiles in Russia
or terrorists launching missiles at the United States.
- On any given day, the Cheyenne Mountain
Air Station monitors 8,000 manmade objects floating around in space. They
alert authorities about illegal drug flights. They keep an eye on nuclear
tests. And they keep their fingers crossed that the politicians will get
serious about SDI.
- The debate about whether taxpayers want
to spend billions of dollars to try to develop protection against incoming
missiles ought to concern every American. Some experts say such a threat
is at least a decade away. Others say it is immediate.
- There are no guarantees. If Americans
choose to spend billions of dollars on research, it could well be a waste
of money -- a giveaway to defense companies.
- But if nothing is done to figure out
how to counter incoming missiles, a rogue missile launched against the
United States could not be stopped.
- In this citadel devoted to watching the
skies, minds have already been made up.
- (Ann McFeatters covers the White House
and politics for Scripps Howard News Serivce. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)